Monday, February 19, 2018

Too many cars

Most people may not have observed that during the month of September, Trinidad and Tobago quietly transitioned into a new motor vehicle series (PDA) that will soon take us to the millionth vehicle registered in this tiny country.

Each series (P-PZ, PAA-PAZ, etc) accounts for approximately 230,000 vehicles.

While the first series (P to PZ) took almost 70 years to complete (PZ ended around 1980), the most recent, PCA to PCZ, took less than seven years.

Over the past decade, more than 250,000 newly registered vehicles came onto our clogged roadways. In a seemingly sluggish consumer environment, car sales are up. Last year (2012), just under 15,000 new vehicles were sold, while foreign-used sales amounted to around 12,000. In 2013, both sets of dealers are reporting increased sales partly because of high liquidity in banks and low demand for business and consumer loans.

While robust vehicle sales suggest a healthy economy, the downside to having more than 500,000 motor vehicles on the roads of a country this size are manifold—traffic jams, pollution, lower productivity and costlier fuel subsidies, to identify just a few.

But there are greater concerns that Government needs to address to avert crises caused by too many vehicles on a limited network of roads.

In the last decade, except for the widening sections of two major highways (Churchill-Roosevelt and sections of Uriah Butler), hardly ten miles of new roadway or highway was built. And while work on the new Point Fortin Highway continues apace, there is little hope that other new highways in the planning stages (San Fernando-Princes Town-Mayaro and Waller Field-Manzanilla) will be completed in the next decade.

It is alarming that we seem to be heading for an almost permanent traffic gridlock of horrendous proportions with absolutely no planning as to how we will cope with it, or how we can avert it.

Recently, Trade Minister Vasant Bharath spoke of moves to further regulate the used vehicle business. The minister alluded to expending the services sub-sector of the thriving foreign-used vehicles business, which, he claims, employs some 10,000 people. He said that his ministry had “trimmed” the number of dealers from 400 to 200.

However, the number of foreign-used vehicles allowed into the country each year remains at 13,500, and their age limit is set at six years. While the trade in foreign-used vehicles is a global phenomenon, largely one-way, from developed countries to developing, and it allows low-income earners to afford cars, it also transfers the obsolescence problem in the same direction.

This country, like most others that allow the importation of used vehicles, has no obsolescence programme—not for machinery, for heavy appliances or motor vehicles. Scrap-metal dealers provide only a partial service in this regard, buying or salvaging parts made from steel, iron or aluminium. There are no disposal programmes for other alloys, plastics and synthetic materials that are used increasingly in manufacturing vehicles. Derelict vehicles are simply abandoned in people’s yards, empty plots of land and on roadsides. These derelicts, which will grow larger in numbers as newer vehicles are sold, pose an environmental nightmare that no government has addressed.

But even worse than abandoned, off-road derelicts are those that remain on the nation’s roads. A cursory look at traffic anywhere in the country will show at least ten per cent of vehicles that are mobile derelicts, and another ten per cent that pose a danger to their operators and passengers, and to other road users.

It’s either the police and licensing authorities don’t care or they don’t have the power to remove such vehicles from the road. The ministers of National Security and Transport should note that any serious initiative to remove un-roadworthy vehicles would immediately provide relief from around 150,000 near-wrecks.

There is urgency to establishing obsolescence, disposal and recycling programmes to cope with the huge amounts of vehicular waste, including mountains of tyres. On that note, can anyone justify the importation of foreign-used tyres in a country that boasts of a per capita income of close to US$20,000?