We trouble so much over public transportation in the US, and still no one likes to use it. Big buses, fancy advertisements, confusing fare collection systems, elaborate kiosks at bus stops, complicated routes and schedules, security cameras, uncomfortable seats, and a myriad of safety features too numerous to count installed to protect the driver as well as the passengers. And in the US where everyone must have at least one car in order to survive, it’s utilized primarily by those considered “less fortunate”, unless you include Cruisers.
Down in the islands, at least on the islands of the Eastern Caribbean that we’ve visited, public transportation is simple to use, inexpensive, easy to understand, and enjoyable to ride. I think we could learn something from their system.
They use 19-passenger vans, lots of them, all with every available seats ready for use. There is a driver and most of the time a sidekick who occupies a little jump seat inside the sliding door. The Sidekick functions as the Conductor; operating the sliding door, collecting fares, making change, shuffling passengers around when required, helping those who need it in or out of the van, and looking out for potential passengers. I don’t know how they get paid, but they try to keep the van full so maybe it’s a cut of the daily revenue.
The van’s stereo system is normally playing with whatever the driver wants to hear, and no one seems to mind if it’s not to their personal tastes. There are set routes and hub stations on either side of the island, but no real schedules and no designated stops except for some turnouts along the road in more congested areas. The drivers just seem to space themselves apart enough that we’ve rarely had to wait more than 10-15 minutes for a van.
Through the Cruiser Grapevine we’ve found the major routes that pass close to our normal anchorages as well as the important destinations, like the Grocery Store and the Chandlery. Some of the vans may be well-worn, but they’re always clean. You stand along the road where there’s room for the van to pull over, and when one with the right number on it comes along you hail them over. When you want to get out, some have a beeper system installed, but otherwise just knock on the roof and they’ll pull over when they can.
In our experience the other passengers have always been pleasant and courteous. Grenadians aren’t normally gregarious, but they are normally very polite. You greet everyone with a single greeting when entering (Good Morning/Afternoon) to which most respond, and then move in to any available seat. We have been in close quarters many times, but I have yet to be offended by any passenger’s body odor or unwelcomed conversations. People are dressed as well as they can and don’t board with excessive baggage or possessions, because quarters are tight. Once or twice I’ve been asked by the Sidekick to have a small child sit on my lap in their school uniform if seats aren’t available (yes, they sometimes carry more than 19 passengers), and the Sidekick has always made sure the children get safely across the street when they exit.
What’s the fare? For everything except a cross-island ride, it’s $2.50 EC (Eastern Caribbean Dollars) per person one way. These days that’s about $0.90 US; no transfers, no discount cards, no special deals, and I’ve yet to see anyone dash to skip out on paying their fare. There might be a special deal for school kids in uniform, but I’m not sure.
Are there down sides? Sure. We’ve had drivers that go way too fast; most will slow down if you ask them to, but not always. Roads are normally well paved, but they’re narrow and wind up and down the steep hills with vehicles parked on both sides, so drivers have to weave and work with oncoming traffic, however everyone appears to cooperate. If there’s an accident ahead of you forget it because going around is seldom an option, but we’ve rarely seen them. The routes aren’t easily accessible on some parts of the island. Yesterday we walked up a very steep hill to get to the main road, and one boatyard where we hauled out was so far from the main road that we didn’t even try, but for the most part they are accessible.
It’s a simple system, and one that works well from my viewpoint. I’ve yet to see a public parking garage or large parking lot, which leads me to believe that this is the only way many can get to work, and the way many kids get to school, and I don’t think they want to lose it. I don’t see any way it could work better. Maybe it’s not the answer for US Public Transit, but it works here, and we make use of it on a regular basis.