Could ride-hailing services be the solution to the Caribbean’s awful public transport infrastructure?​ : Part 1

In this series, I’ll try to lay out the context of the Caribbean with respect to the opportunity in developing better public transport for all. Using tools and techniques that help shape and frame our understanding of the difficulties and opportunities that surround us in developing the Caribbean. And there are many! But governments alone, as you will see, cannot do it all by themselves. It will take much help from individuals and entrepreneurs with a startup mentality to really kick things off.

Current Public transport is … Less than optimal

As a longtime resident of the Caribbean, I can unequivocally say that the state of its current transport infrastructure is nothing shy of awful. This is not supposed to be a judgement, nor a reflection on how a government is running each country in the Islands, but a simple observation of reality, based on my own experiences and those of others I’ve discussed this issue with. It’s not meant to be a blanket critique as different islands are at different stages of development of public transport.

Circumstances beyond the control of local governments make it extremely difficult — and by that, I mean prohibitively expensive — to put in place an IPTS (Integrated Public Transport System) like you see in major metropolitan cities. Let’s look at some of the reasons why by using the time-honoured tools and ideas of a Business School.

Politics

In political terms, most of the Caribbean nations are struggling with problems that go beyond the needs of an IPTS, systemic long-term unemployment, slow to non-existent growth, drugs and crime, poor schooling. Again, this is not a judgment, just a look at some of the factors that make a decision and the possibility of developing an IPTS a reality. The OECD and World Bank have many statistics to help you understand these difficulties, and organisations like CARICOM and OECS are doing their part in resolving much of this. But it is slow progress and very hard work.

Many Caribbean nations feel isolation from World politics, and many attempts to strengthen ties with the outside World don’t gain real traction. Just look at the World’s response, post hurricanes Irma and Maria. Not much action nor money that’s required to rebuild.

Economic

Through an Economics filter, difficulties in assigning and using budgets for the development of an ITPS are largely ignored, the island nations tend to look at solving some of the more basic issues I highlighted above. Grants from the EU (FEDER etc.), are notoriously difficult to attain and often come with many strings attached. Many countries would require an organisation dedicated to postulation and management of these types of grants, something that they have neither the resources or the expertise, unfortunately.

So what budgets there are, are targeted to the basics — low GDP and growth numbers make it very difficult to target your spending on “non-essentials” without borrowing massively. Not forgetting that interest rates are often higher for these nations. Chris Rock eloquently explained the issue :

Wealth is not about having a lot of money; it's about having a lot of options.

Social

In social terms, despite high unemployment, people still need to move around both locally (food and provision shopping) and further afield (job seeking, friends and family, shopping for larger items that tend to be located “in town”). But many find themselves living in isolated locations like the small, low-populated villages and towns found all over the Caribbean.

Many of these areas are difficult to access, with either poor and unmaintained road infrastructures or are just too far up in the mountains that naturally make getting to and from these places difficult and expensive for locals.

Current solutions, often revolve around shared mini busses, are neither optimal for the users in timing, comfort and punctuality. With the power firmly on the supplier’s side, as we can see if we study the context using Micheal Porter’s 5 Forces model, they have little incentive to provide a cheap, fast and overall good experience. Instead, they are optimised for their own benefit, with little regard for the passengers they are serving, which is completely understandable given the circumstances, but detrimental for development of the nation.

A business that cannot access and employ talent, because workers cannot get there onetime or prefer not to take the job because the journey is not worth it (time and expense), is a business that cannot develop. Similarly, a family that cannot access work reasonably cheaply and easily is a family destined to be held back.

Technologic

Despite a late start and the prohibitive costs a while back, the Caribbean boasts some of the highest percentages to population ratios of Mobile phone numbers in the entire world; some states have nearly double the number of phones to the number of residents! As noted in this wearesocial report.

Sure, FTTH is still a developing concern — and largely unimportant when it comes to ride-hailing services as you’re likely to be on the move and not at home when you call the service — but most islands offer reasonable DSL and/or mobile data connections to the vast majority of their respective populations.

Environmental

I’m writing this in the peak of Hurricane Season, September, with a Tropical Storm or Hurricane approaching my Island in the next couple of days. How could I not mention hurricanes when discussing the Environment? Not being the only potential for disruption of services — earthquakes and on some Islands, Volcanoes — natural disasters are a very real risk for any business operating in the region.

As risks, they are not insurmountable and are something that Caribbeans have been dealing with for centuries. Supple infrastructure and flexibility are required in these times of disruption.

Another area for reflexion and potential development is Solar Energy. We have almost too much sun to be fair. I find it remarkable that we are known for our Sun, but have only just started the journey to solar energy being widely available. Even an Island like Martinique decided to build and bring online a diesel-fired power station only recently, rather than working towards an adapted solar farm 1. Solar is, to be fair, far too expensive at the moment thanks to the current US President, but this is changing.

Legal

One aspect of greater integration and forward thinking is on the Legal front. I’m specifically talking about the CCJ, Caribbean Court of Justice. A common regional legal framework that has the authority to decide issues across the region it is active. But like all projects of this scale, it is a long slow process, as evidenced by the fact that the first discussions about a regional jurisprudence started in 1970, with 2018 showing that currently not all the nations who expressed interest are signed up — Antigua and Barbuda will be the latest, on Nov 6, 2018.

In a few days, I’ll publish Part 2, where I’ll discuss in more detail some of the factors that describe the current situation and what we can start to think about to modernise public transport in the Caribbean.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

  1. I know there are reasons and a choice was not practically possible, but I would have liked to see even more development in solar than has been the case since construction started.

Update 17/9/18 : Various grammatical and spelling errors corrected

Update 13/9/18 : Changed headline