A Long Overdue Debate

By PACO NUNEZ Tribune News Editor BLEEDING and confused, 23 people lay down in shock in the street. The bus they caught to work or school has just flipped over while taking a corner, sending passengers flying and nearly crushing a woman. It is 7.30am on November 23, 2003 and with responding paramedics still struggling through morning traffic, residents of Step Street bring out cloths and towels to give the victims something to lie on and soak the blood dripping from faces and limbs. Early reports suggested many had broken bones and at least one person suffered severe head trauma. In the end, only four passengers were seriously hurt, but many more were left with lasting physical and mental scars. Eyewitnesses, doctors and traffic officials all admitted the outcome could have been much more grim. At the time, it was described as the worst bus accident in the history of the Bahamas, but there are many other worthy candidates for the title. What about the accident that hit and killed six-year-old Faith Mackey on Carmichael Road in 2006? Or the bus that ran over Karis Thompson, 4, on East Street just last month? In these and many other infamous accidents (see sidebar), recklessness on the part of the bus drivers was denied. One driver, for example, claimed he blacked out just before a crash. Whatever the truth in each particular case, there is no denying that daredevil driving at breakneck speed is the trademark of the public transportation industry in the Bahamas. Bahamians complain about jitneys more than any other road problem, and view drivers as trigger-happy cowboys careening about the town to beat rivals to a fare, overtaking at the drop of a hat and obstructing traffic for any chance to make a buck - all without a thought for other road users. Worse, many apparently take part in this rat race while under the influence of alcohol - including drivers who run regular school pick-up routes. But driving standards aren't the only problem. Even when the ride is smooth, the inside of a jitney can be a dangerous place to find yourself. In December 2001, police investigated claims that a bus driver took a group of already drunk passengers, who seemed to be friends of his, to a liquor store to stock up on booze. They reportedly proceeded to intimidate other passengers, hitting one in the head with a bottle after taking an interest in his gold bracelet. In August 2002, a jitney driver was accused of threatening a mother and young son with a cutlass after claiming they failed to pay the $2 fare. He also reportedly nearly ran them over. In February 2005, three people were robbed and assaulted on a jitney and thrown from the bus while it was moving at high speed. One of them, a 34-year-old English woman said: "Where I come from, we don't know about such experiences." In April of that year, a 15-year-old girl told police she was sexually assaulted by a driver and had to jump from a moving bus to escape. Just a few days later, more panic-stricken passengers leapt from a jitney as a gunman opened fire inside the bus after demanding cash from the driver. As passengers ran for their lives, he grabbed $18 and fled. I could go on. For the journalists at The Tribune who have covered these stories over the years, there is no doubt that public transport - which is supposed to be an aid to citizens - has become a public nuisance. Sometimes even a public enemy. Most people agree that the individual competition for profit between bus drivers is at the heart of the problem, and there have been occasional attempts to address this - most notably the Unified Bus System proposal put forward during the PLP's last term in office. The theory was that if you remove the winner-take-all incentive and put drivers under one organisation and on a steady salary, there will be no motivation to race. But in the end this came to nothing, principally because the threat of rejection at the polls by hundreds of bus drivers, franchise holders and their families has made politicians reluctant to upset the status quo. In considering how to do our part to help solve this problem, our first thought was that if we could mobilise all the people who feel aggrieved or annoyed by jitneys, the political class would quickly see that they have more to lose on election day by not taking action. But right away, we saw holes in our plan. For one thing, it's all well and good to call for a unified system, but how is this to be achieved? No one wants another government entity - corruption and inefficiency would end up being the order of the day. Yet around the world, most public transportation systems are government-run, simply so they can continue to offer services at rates working class people can afford, which almost always means operating at a substantial loss. Think Bahamasair, which loses several million a year, due in large part to the fact it runs regular flights to virtually all populated islands in the county as a public service, despite most being virtually empty. No private company would take that deal. Even if a private enterprise could operate profitably, there is still the question of how the transition is to be made without the usual suspects buying it up. How about a buy-in policy that gives first preference to bus drivers and franchise holders? Sure, but wouldn't it just end up being dominated by the fat cats among them, who've risen to the top of the pile by hook or by crook, some owning 15 or 20 buses? Many of these individuals have become hugely successful by leasing out their bus plates for a certain minimum cash return per day, meanwhile remaining free to earn through other means. This practice is actually illegal - for good reason, it seems. "It's a struggle, man, trying to make a dollar driving for someone," said one bus driver during a 2004 protest. "The owner of the plate tells me how much he wants that day, and when I make his share, I must then turn around and make my own salary. That's why when people complain about how the jitney driver rushing, we do it in order to make a dollar. It's a rough business to be in." And, how do we stop the government of the day, which would doubtless oversee the formation of such a company, from using it as an opportunity to reward their own supporters among the jitney fraternity - or themselves for that matter, as rumour has it that several highranking politicians are actually undercover franchise owners. Is a unified company even the best answer, considering the problems it could pose in itself? If jitney drivers, a notoriously competitive and fractious group, can come together to threaten strike action several times in 2003 and 2004 - in one instance over a police crackdown on "petty" infractions like driving with the bus door open and creating third lanes while driving - imagine how much more likely they will be to actually bring Nassau to a standstill once their interests are aligned. Another point: Road users would welcome a system of designated stops to replace our "get off where you feel like" bus culture, which leads to the infuriating stop-start-stop-start ritual for which Nassau jitneys are infamous. But consider that this system is actually used by many hardworking Bahamians to get to their front door safely in the evenings. Can we in good conscience force them to walk 15, 20 or more minutes from a sanctioned bus stop to their home, particularly in these dangerous times? As we talked about the problem, these and other questions kept popping up, and we realised we didn't have many of the answers. So we decided that instead of trying to dictate how the system should be reformed, it would be better to engage in a discussion with bus drivers and passengers, franchise holders, other road users, traffic officials, politicians and pedestrians - and any other Bahamian who has something to say on the topic. We plan to pursue this course through interviews, targeted surveys, focus groups and online polls. We will also consider whether the various strategies pursued by other societies that have wrestled with this issue can offer any insights. Through this "open-source" approach, it is hoped, the best possible way forward will become clear. We can then join together as a community to agitate for its adoption. * Please send any comments, suggestions or stories of jitney experiences to pnunez@tribunemedia.net


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