Orin: The daily Great Trek; on T&T’s traffic woes and decentralisation of workplaces

Gems at Lajoya

“[…] There are no economic findings that I’m aware of, on how much the country loses by having a significant proportion of its workforce stuck in traffic every day. But there’s widespread recognition that there’s an economic cost, and that it’s probably a steep one.

“For much of the past decade, car dealers sold at least 13,000 vehicles every year; a figure that hit more than 20,000 in 2016. There are more than one million vehicle registrations in T&T. The population is 1.4 million…”

The following guest column on the ‘joys’ of commuting in Trinidad was submitted to Wired868 by Orin Gordon, a media consultant who publishes at oringordon.com:

Photo: Anybody have Waze?

Every weekday morning, a significant proportion of Trinidad engages in a mad ritual. Like Serengeti wildebeest, many make the Great Trek north and west, by car. 

Savi, coming from the deep south and needing to be at her desk in Port of Spain for 8 o’clock, has to wake up around 4am. If she has school-age children to help get ready before she leaves, she needs a daily minor miracle to be on time. 

Many parents are one stroppy and uncooperative child away from turning a 30-minute commute into a 90-minute slog in crawl traffic. In Savi’s case, considerably longer. Missing your window by only five minutes can have a vastly outsized effect.

I live in Chaguanas, and I’m not usually required to be in the capital at the start of the work day. However, I’ve had to join the Great Trek on a number of occasions. Twice last month I co-guest-hosted the morning show on i95.5 radio. Co-host Ardene Sirjoo and I went on air at 6.30am.

Image: We want another lockdown!

To prep properly for the show, I needed to be at the station at 6am. It’s a 20-minute drive on a clear road, and normally I’d be fine leaving half an hour before. The Great Trek meant that I’d be mad to—5.15am latest.

If I overcompensated and had briefly to keep the company of the security guards, so be it. It was preferable to missing my window.

The highway was already packed at 5.20am, but things flowed freely. That is the daily reality of many. There are no economic findings that I’m aware of on how much the country loses by having a significant proportion of its workforce stuck in traffic every day. But there’s widespread recognition that there’s an economic cost, and that it’s probably a steep one.

For much of the past decade, car dealers sold at least 13,000 vehicles every year; a figure that hit more than 20,000 in 2016. There are more than one million vehicle registrations in T&T. The population is 1.4 million.

Photo: Traffic jam…

Where we currently sit on the global list of vehicles per capita is hard to come by; but population density is not. We’re 46th highest out of 234 countries listed by the World Bank, at a tick under 300 people per square Km. Do the maths.

It’s fine if you’re New Zealand or the US, countries with high cars-per-capita numbers. We’ve got only 5,130 square kilometres to play in. Road carrying capacity is not expanding.

As with Guyana and other Caribbean countries, T&T’s economic planners were shortsighted in either scrapping or not building railroads. With the exception of miniscule ferry traffic between the south and north of Trinidad, we’ve shunted nearly all of our transport onto our roads.

Even if we persuade more people to use public transport, it won’t make much of a difference in easing congestion. The trajectory of car sales means that the peak hours problem is going to get worse.

Image: Your move!
(Copyright Toonpool.com)

We’re a long way away from solutions such as alternating road use by vehicle numbers, or carpooling. No one would put up with my loud, off-key singing anyway.

Enter the pandemic in 2020. It was, according to Cavelle Joseph St Omer—the President of Human Resources Management Association of Trinidad and Tobago (HRMATT)—an accelerator of a key plank on the future of work.

Working from home has long been a part of the conversation between HR departments, management and the rest of the workforce. Where I worked in London in the late 90s, progressive companies were already trying to shift some of the balance from the office to home. Everywhere, lockdowns forced companies that could have those provisions into having them immediately.

HRMATT held a conference in Port of Spain last month on the future of work, and this was one of the main areas of discussion. Education Minister Nyan Gadsby-Dolly said that HR managers knew in all honesty that not everyone could be given the responsibility of working from home, but for many who did, their companies got more out of them.

Image: The lighter side of working from home.

Away from the conference, business leaders I spoke with supported the consensus. Joseph Naime, chairman of Aerogas Processors Limited at Point Lisas Industrial Estate, often had to shuttle between meetings up and down Trinidad. Strict cutoff times leaving one meeting for the next still left him at the mercy of unpredictable delays, and he regularly joined meetings from his car: Bluetooth and hands-free.

He told me that the value of workers getting their lives back from long commute times and the mental health toll is incalculable. He reasons that given opportunities to work from home, workers give more to their companies than they usually do.

“Though the lockdowns are now a thing of the past, the concept of working from home—and even meetings via zoom—are now a permanent fixture in the workplace,” Naime said.

Not everyone can work from home. Policemen and women, retail and restaurant workers can’t. But the pandemic has forced the companies that can support the practice to take the test, and results are encouraging.

Image: The lighter side of commuting.
(Copyright Jake Fuller/ Cayman Compass)

“The initial anxiety that productivity would be affected has now been proven to be unwarranted,” Naime said.

The decentralisation of work is a necessary thing. However, the decentralisation of workplaces is an urgent conversation that T&T needs to have, because the daily Great Trek to Port of Spain is unsustainable. I’ll be following up on that.

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One comment

  1. Remember (maybe about 25 years or so ago) the suggestion of a Rapid Rail (mass transportation system) was floated. And the level of mayhem and disgust the mere thought of it brought? Caused by, I largely suspect the threat anticipated by those who invariably profit (new/used/spare part dealers) from this level of inconvenience and stress caused by this gridlock. 15 years later and a couple high-priced overpasses, hundreds of million in foreign exchange and fuel subsidies exhausted (We haven’t calculated the healthcare cost and lost of productivity etc)
    we are in no better position. It is just another case of the national good being stymied to insure the status quo (getting rich at the expense of the masses) for a few is maintained. Welcome to TNT.

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