Wednesday, February 21, 2018

How many more must drive?

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Mark Fraser

 It was encouraging to hear Trinidad and Tobago Used Car Dealers’ Association president Visham Babwah this week cite “traffic on the roads” as an area of concern to his members. 

Mr Babwah was lamenting delay in receiving from the Trade Ministry the 2014 all-clear to import set numbers of used vehicles. But the Trade Ministry, which has since apologised for the delay in renewing the relevant policy, should also be taking into account “traffic on the roads”. 

Who, in or out of government, is watching the interests of motorists and commuters? Last week at a mass transportation workshop, the latest holder of the Transport Ministry portfolio, Stephen Cadiz, repeated a promise made by several of his predecessors—to ease the traffic woes of commuters, even as he acknowledged that the authorities had gone “every which way” in attempting to solve this problem.

Ever more vehicles on the same, mostly unimproved and under-policed roads, inevitably mean more traffic congestion, with its multiple known ill effects. The used car dealers are self-interestedly opposing any expansion in their own numbers, arguing that the Ministry “should see about the existing dealers before bringing in new ones.” However, whether supplied by new dealers or old, public anxiety understandably rises over the continuing unplanned and uncaring release onto the already overstressed road system of more vehicles.

Thus far, attempts at a solution have focused mostly on infrastructure: major roads have been widened, water taxis and buses purchased, and an interchange built. All this has helped ease traffic congestion to some extent but, given the costs relative to the number of productive hours still lost in commuting, these solutions have not proven cost-effective.

Surely T&T deserves assurance that some authority is keeping count of how many more must drive. Thus far, no politician has been willing to touch that thorny issue of limits on the number of new vehicles, either through taxes or an outright quota. A less draconian option would be to pass regulations whereby every new car purchase must also include the purchase of another vehicle for a stipulated low sum—$10,000 or even $20,000—which would then be scrapped. This would have the dual purpose of keeping vehicle totals more or less steady, while ridding the roads of older cars.

The traffic planners should also draw on solutions from big city planners, who have been tackling this problem for decades longer than us. Mathematical algorithms have been created to anticipate traffic patterns, road engineering tweaked, and spatial principles applied to facilitate optimum flow. 

Such relatively cheap strategies should inform any new plans from the Transport Ministry. Otherwise, traffic gridlock will eventually become part of daily life in T&T.