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Diode

The calls to increase the speed limits have been loud, but they have also been a source of contention. Here are ten reasons why the speed limits can be safely increased.

 

1. Seat belts and airbags

When the current speed limit laws were set back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, seat belts were rare and airbags simply were not even an option. Today, seat belts are not just the law; they are standard equipment in the front and back of every car sold. As a result, it is now a lot more difficult for an occupant to impact the dashboard, or worse yet be thrown through the windshield during a collision. Airbags are now found in the vast majority of vehicles on the road, having become available on even economy models back in the 1990’s. Today they are considered standard equipment and can be found all around the cabin, designed to deploy only if determined beneficial based on impact force and direction. Occupants inside a vehicle have never been safer in a major crash than they are today.

 

2. Crumple zones

Modern cars may be quicker to crumple, but that very fact is what saves occupants in a crash. The so-called hard iron cars of the past were certainly more resilient to damage, but were not safer for their occupants. Automobiles are now designed with crumple zones that give way in an impact, folding and absorbing as much impact force as possible, thereby transferring less of that force into the cabin and the bodies of those seated therein. The end result is that a previously fatal collision can now be survived, or even walked away from. There’s a bonus here for pedestrians, too: While the calls for increased speed limits are certainly not for pedestrian-heavy city streets - indeed some areas can stand to be lowered - it should be some comfort to know that today’s softer bumpers also improve a pedestrian’s chances of survival if struck.

 

3. More powerful engines

Today’s vehicles easily pass the speeds that models were even capable of nearly fifty years ago when the limit of 80 km/h cars, 65 km/h pickups was set. The result of today’s more powerful engines engines coupled with more advanced suspensions is that vehicles now settle in cruising comfortably at speeds well above what was once considered difficult to maintain. This is especially true of pickups that have evolved from goods transport vehicles to powerful lifestyle autos loaded with all the comforts and safety features of sedans and SUVs.

 

4. Improved stopping power

Faster engines demand greater stopping power. Between disc brakes, anti-lock braking systems and decades of refinement, today’s vehicles have vastly improved braking systems than the simple drum brake setups of the past. Tyres have also evolved considerably, with numerous manufacturing improvements and are now fitted to wider rims for better grip on the asphalt. The design and depth of tyre threads have also come a long way, reducing the risk of lifting off a wet surface (hydroplaning) and the resultant loss of control. In other words, today's cars are much better at maintaining traction with the road and stopping quickly when needed.

 

5. Lower, wider vehicles

It is easy to overlook this, but anyone who has struggled to open a door in a parking lot or been forced to take humps or drains at an angle should recognise it. Today’s vehicles are wider and lower than in the past. This means that they have a lower centre of gravity and are much less prone to rollovers than their predecessors. The wider design also allows for those wider wheels previously mentioned. On a related note, today’s more windswept designs are also far more aerodynamic than the squared styling of the past, allowing vehicles to remain stable on the roads at higher speeds.

 

6. Trip times

The world of automation and consumerism has seen a sharp rise in office and retail based jobs, meaning more people working in the urban centres. Added to that, women are now a major part of the workforce and children attend school up until later ages, which are fantastic steps forward for society but also mean increased road usage. Meanwhile, the rising cost of housing has seen people moving further away from their workplaces in search of more affordable homes. Modern life means constantly hitting the road to deliver packages, meet customers, pick up children and so on. A mild increase in the speed limit that saves a few minutes on any given trip can add up to hours each week; hours that can be spent recuperating from a hectic lifestyle instead of adding to driver fatigue and inattentiveness.

 

7. Cruise control

An ever increasing number of vehicles are now equipped with cruise control. This allows a driver to set a particular speed and then simply steer and brake the car without constantly pressing the gas with an eye on the speedometer. This is obviously not an option in heavy traffic but can be invaluable on long drives outside of peak hours. It should be noted that newer systems actually address this: Adaptive cruise control as found in the latest models can adjust the speed automatically if a vehicle ahead slows down. Some top of the line models even come with lane departure warning and lane keep assist features to further reduce driver error, and it only takes one or two vehicle generations for a new feature to appear in even the lowest end models.

 

8. Wider, better designed roads

In the time since our speed limits were originally set, many roads have grown to facilitate multiple lanes in each direction, some lanes themselves have grown wider, and overpasses have replaced traditional traffic signals. A wider road with fewer stops can not only be more safely navigated at higher speeds than a narrow one, but also allow faster moving vehicles to safely pass slower traffic. We all know the rule: Keep left except when overtaking. It’s not just the major highways either; there are multi-lane roads complete with filter lanes and medians that are limited to the same 50 km/h set for city streets. We should also not discount the effect of improved road markings and lighting, and the presence of reflectors and rumble strips - of which there really need to be more.

 

9. Crash barriers

Today’s highways are lined with jersey barriers, cable barriers and guard rails. These features go a long way toward slowing down and stopping errant vehicles and are responsible for saving a perhaps unquantifiable number of lives. Even with the unfortunately - and unacceptably - long periods of time authorities take to repair damaged sections, these barriers represent a clear improvement over the roadways of times gone by.

 

10. Speed limit enforcement

At one time, enforcing the speed limits meant police officers hiding behind lamp poles. For a while, the enforcement become non-existent. Today however, we have laser-based speed guns with cameras, and hopefully those few hand-held units represent only the beginning. It is now much easier for the police service to enforce the speed limits. The basic premise here is that with active enforcement, increasing the maximum allowable speed does not mean freedom to drive above what is considered safe. We have already seen over the last few weeks what a great difference active enforcement brings to the driving culture.

 

Now these are just a few reasons why the limits should be increased. While this blog previously made some suggestions as to what the new limits can be, those can only be regarded as that: Suggestions. Before limits can be raised, engineers need to identify the maximum safe speed for the road segments in question, traffic analysts need to determine typical usage patterns and natural driver speeds, and legislators need to agree to pass the necessary amendments.

What we can do is be very clear that vehicles, roads and cultures have evolved in the decades since our existing speed limits were set, and recognise that laws must change with the times. Finally doing something about excessive speeding has undeniably been a good thing for safety and it is unfortunate to have met backlash as a result of the setting of modern limits being allowed to lag behind the introduction of modern enforcement.

At the very least, perhaps the government should be commended on acknowledging that revisions are in order, and this blogger looks forward to commenting on the appropriate amendments once implemented.

Diode

Speed guns were long overdue, but there is a problem: The limits they enforce were set decades ago, and a great deal has changed since then. With industrialisation has come daily commuting by the masses to the urban centres and vast improvements in the road networks.

Non-stop, multi-lane highways are now a reality. Car ownership is widespread. Vehicles no longer struggle to reach 80 km/h; they pass it with ease. They are laden with safety features such as seat belts, airbags and crumple zones, and previously far-fetched systems such as lane-keep assist and auto braking are now appearing on the latest models. The speed limits set in the days of single lane roads for the few lucky ones can no longer be considered realistic.

Our laws follow the general principle of 50 km/h in built-up areas and 80 km/h outside of built-up areas except for goods vehicles and transport vehicles which are limited to 65 km/h. This is laid out in the Motor Vehicles and Road Traffic Act. Sorry, owners of "T" plate vehicles - you better check your MG.W. to find out if you are restricted to 65. Remember that these limits were set decades ago when pick-ups reaching 80 km/h was a ludicrous thought bound to end in death, and before today's vehicle taxes - see my last blog entry - made them an attractive alternative to family sized sedans and SUVs. The limits as per the current laws are depicted below:

speed-limits-schedule.png

Source: Laws of Trinidad and Tobago: Motor Vehicles and Road Traffic (pdf)

This very phrasing of the speed limit laws based on being inside or outside a built-up area should be cause for concern. These limits were evidently decided upon before the time of the highway network. Few made an issue of this when the limits were rarely enforced, but that time has passed. Today as it stands, the Uriah Butler/Solomon Hochoy Highway is limited to 80 km/h and the Diego Martin Highway is limited to 50 km/h. It is time to review the limits.

 

Setting Speed Limits

 

Speed limits are set based on a number of factors including:

  • Road design and purpose
  • Presence of pedestrians
  • Expected travel time
  • Acceptability by road users

There is a lengthy handbook made available by the US Department of Transportation on this subject, available at this link if you care to read it.

Let us consider the major highways: The Beetham and Churchill Roosevelt Highways running east/west and the Uriah Butler and Solomon Hochoy Highways running north/south. These are major national highways built to high-speed standards and for significant distances are not only wide but non-stop, with traffic signals having been replaced by overpasses. Many use these highways on a daily basis to get from their homes in the east, central and south to their workplaces in Port of Spain and back again.

The design of these highways is such that in the absence of enforcement, most drivers settled in at a pace in excess of 100 km/h, especially on the non-stop portions that lie west and south of the Churchill Roosevelt/Uriah Butler Interchange. The importance of this cannot be understated. It governs the pace at which the motoring population is accustomed to navigating and the expected transit time between the major cities and towns outside of peak traffic. It is easy to cry safety at this point, but keep in mind that these roads have wide lanes with shoulders and no stopping. These highways are not engineered for slow traffic.

Higher driving speeds are not only for convenience: They are also a safety consideration. Driving a vehicle requires constant attentiveness, and monotony can set in over long distances of doing nothing but maintaining a steady speed. On a long drive at low speed, the driver is more tempted to do the things they should not be doing as a driver: take in the passing views; fiddle with the radio; risk a text message; turn to face a passenger as they speak. Perhaps worse, lethargy and drowsiness can become an issue. Did you know that drowsy driving is a major cause of vehicular accidents and can be just as dangerous as drunken driving?

All of this under consideration, major highways around the world carry speed limits in excess of 100 km/h. The below image depicts the speed limits used for major highways around the world. Keep in mind that the number in the red circle depicts km/h while the number in the black rectangle depicts the equivalent speed in mph.

speed-limits-worldwide.png

Image Credit: Amateria1121 on Wikipedia (Creative Commons license)

It is not just the major national arteries either: There are numerous minor highways and main roads that need to be raised above the 50 km/h limit currently set on them. In the west for example, the Diego Martin Highway is limited to only 50 km/h, as is the Cocorite Stretch of the Western Main Road despite its design of three lanes in each direction.

Don't think for a minute that the police are giving people a "bligh" where the limits are unreasonable: Some scouring on Facebook will show that at least one person claims to have been charged for driving at 67 km/h on the Diego Martin Highway. Even the slowest of drivers have trouble adhering to that limit and 50 km/h turns Diego Martin from a quickly navigated valley to a painfully long one. In effect, 50 km/h negates the very purpose of conferring highway status to that road.

This is not to say that all limits should be increased. Roads inside of urban areas, unless designated as main roads, should be reduced to 40 km/h. Some should even be no more than 30 km/h where there is heavy pedestrian traffic. This is quite important: As this link explains, a pedestrian struck at 50 km/h (equivalent of 30 mph) has a close to 50% chance of death, while one struck at 30 km/h (equivalent of 20 mph) has almost none.


Suggested Speed Limit Changes

 

The idea here is that limits should be set according to the safe navigable speed of the road and the expected travel time between destinations; not rigidly at 50 or 80. Here are a few of my suggestions:

Suggested Limit (km/h) Description
30-40 Urban Roads
50-70 Main Roads
80-90 Minor Highways
90-100 Major Highways with traffic signals
100-120 Major Highways without traffic signals

Note that the suggestions show speed ranges. In other words, different parts of a given road can have different speed limits. As an example, the major highways can be 110 km/h, but increased to 120 on straight, three-laned sections and reduced to 100 where traffic signals still exist. A minor highway like the Diego Martin Highway can be 80 km/h while slightly straighter minor highways like the Audrey Jeffers Highway can be 90. Main roads can start at 50 km/h but increase to 60 or 70 where conditions permit such the previously mentioned Western Main Road at Cocorite, as well as several portions of the Eastern Main Road and Southern Main Road. Most of this should be a common sense balance between efficiency and safety.

This also is a good time to indicate that these suggested limits should apply to most vehicles including those "T" class vehicles commonly purchased as family vehicles or for hauling light loads. Very heavy vehicles such as full size buses and trailer trucks however, should probably not be permitted at 100+ km/h simply due to their reduced stopping time and survivability in the other vehicle should there be a collision. Vehicles incapable of safely maintaining highway speeds such as tractors should be outright banned from using those roads unless carried on the tray of a transport truck.

The rationale for this is to ensure that vehicles traveling on highways all maintain a similar pace. It is no secret that while speed increases the severity of a crash, it is seldom in itself the root cause. We must do our best to eliminate driver aggression, tailgating and unnecessary lane changes. These behaviours can easily lead to hitting the car in front, clipping another car in a blind spot or giving a "bad drive" by dangerously overtaking on the wrong side, all of which can have fatal consequences at highway speeds - whether the limit is 80, 100 or 120.

This therefore calls for the consideration of a minimum speed limit.

 

The Case for a Minimum Speed Limit

 

For those who think that 120 km/h sounds too fast, remember that this is only for particular road segments and is simply the maximum allowable limit - not the mandatory speed. There is however a case to be made for minimum allowable speeds on the major highways. As it stands, there is nothing stopping anyone from driving less than half the pace of the rest of the traffic, leading to the very behaviours outlined above. This is a hazard, and the simple solution here is to mandate that everyone maintains a minimum pace of within 20-30 km/h of the posted limit.

More to the point, we should recall the age-old rule: Keep left except when overtaking. There is a terrible and all too common practice where drivers get onto a multi-laned roadway, filter all the way to the rightmost lane and then maintain a pace below the posted limit. This obstructs the designated passing lane. It encourages tailgating, improper overtaking and road rage. It should not be tolerated any more than speeding or tailgating should be - that is to say, not at all.


Enforcement

 

Six speed guns throughout the entire country is far from any kind of solution. A glance at the commonplace road traffic app and website Waze can tell anyone where in the country the speed traps have been set up at any given time. What are actually needed are a mixture of fixed detectors and hand-held units.

The fixed detectors would have to be connected to a camera system and located at known accident hotspots. This of course requires that we have a modern database with which to match vehicles with their owners and some sort of mechanism to deal with cases where the driver at the time of violation may not be the registered owner - very important in households and businesses alike. Handheld systems can be universally present in all highway patrol vehicles.

It is important of course that automated systems generate two independent readings from independent sensors that both agree on a violation having taken place. All systems, automated or hand-held, must also factor in some sort of margin of error. Detecting equipment may not be perfectly calibrated, vehicle speedometers may often not be 100% accurate, and it is unreasonable and unsafe to expect a driver to keep his or her eyes glued to the speedometer instead of the road ahead - even cruise control systems fluctuate slightly as the roads dip and climb.

For this reason, most territories allow a few km/h or percentage points above the limit before a ticket is issued, and this should be no different for us. To do otherwise opens the door for fines to be easily contested in court and is a quick road to breeding public distrust in the initiative. It is important that the public view the initiative as one of road safety (trustworthy) rather than revenue generation for the state (untrustworthy).

The same cameras previously mentioned can also be used to crack down on tailgating. Lines can be painted across the roadway forming a bounding box and tailgating can be determined by the presence of two cars within the box at the same time above a particular speed. With the inclusion of text recognition technology, they can also read passing registration plates on the lookout for vehicles that have been stolen or reported as involved in criminal activity.

In other words, let's deal with the issue of speed limits and enforcement in a fair and holistic manner.

Diode

An Audi A6 2.0T will cost no more than before, but a mid-spec Toyota RAV4 with its 2.2L engine will attract 50% more tax and duty. Read on to understand just how insane the new tax on so-called luxury cars really is.

In Trinidad and Tobago, we pay exorbitant taxes on motor vehicle purchases. We actually pay a lot more for a car than most probably do; sometimes twice as much or more, in fact. This is arguably the very reason why the foreign used market has been able to thrive as it has. When a vehicle lands in this country, it is subjected to Motor Vehicle Tax (MVT) and import duties, both of which scale based on the engine's size measured in cubic capacity (cc) and both of which are applied before sales tax (VAT). Needless to say, that is a lot of tax!

As a form of icing on the taxation cake, as of the April 2016 Budget Review, MVT and duty on vehicles exceeding 1999cc were increased by a whopping fifty percent.

Let's clarify something before going further: A car with a "2.0" engine is rarely actually 2000cc. Since manufacturers like to round up to a nice even figure, a 2.0L engine is usually more like 1998 or 1999cc. The "1.6" engines that are so common on the local market are typically about 1599cc and so on. This is the simple reason for low-end cars dominating the local market: engine sizes exceeding 1999cc attract quite a lot of tax and duty. Keep this in mind if you notice a dealer has significantly hiked the cost of a "2.0L" vehicle citing increased taxes; if it is not actually 2000cc then you may be dealing with a case of profiteering.

 

The Numbers

Here's how it actually works out. I hope this is correct; the new laws are exceedingly difficult to come by so I ended up running calculations off 2014 documents. You can see my prior blog entry for a rant about the lack of local information. Note that duty is a percentage of the landed value.

Engine size in cc MVT per cc Duty
Up to 1599 $5.00 25%
1600-1799 $8.00 35%
1800-1999 $15.00 35%
2000-2499 $37.50 60%
2500-2999 $45.00 60%
3000-3499 $52.50 67.5%
Over 3500 $75.00 67.5%

Just look at the magnitude of that increase at the 2000cc mark. It's more than twice the MVT and almost double the duty. Have you ever been overseas and wondered why the people there drove such nice cars? It's not because they are all rich; they just pay a lot less than we do. As a consumer in a supposedly free market you should now be asking: Is this fair?

 

Not A Luxury Car Tax

The increases made in April 2016 were purported to be a luxury car tax, but upon consideration, it's really just a penalty on the middle class. In a way, it can be looked at almost as a form of punishment for having earned just enough income for the banks to loan the kind of money needed for a family sedan or SUV...in exchange for a great big bite out of the family's monthly earnings.

Lancers and Almeras are not family cars; they are compacts. The Mazda 6, Nissan Altima and Honda Accord are the types of vehicles actually classified as mid-sized family sedans. They're fairly expensive locally, but even with our high taxes are completely attainable by dual income households or well qualified professionals. These vehicles start out with a 2.0L (~1999cc) engine, but fully loaded can end up with about a 2.5L (~2499cc) engine or larger. Several small to medium SUVs such as the Toyota RAV4 are in a similar situation.

Similarly sized sedans aimed at the more luxury-oriented market such as the Audi A4, BMW 320i and Mercedes-Benz C180 come in at 1999cc and under. This is is due to a trend where European manufacturers are increasingly opting for smaller, high-compression, turbocharged engines. Even the prestigious Audi A6 and Q5 come in under the 1999cc threshold. These luxury cars will not be affected by the new rules. Wrap your head around this one: A Porsche Macan currently attracts the same MVT and the same level of duty as a Hyundai Tucson, and neither one is affected by the 50% increase. That's how arbitrary it is to determine luxury by engine size.

Are we about to see a market where a Benz will be cheaper than a similarly sized Nissan? Are we going to see a market where the people who can probably afford to pay more will not be paying any more, but the family that just makes enough for a larger car will have to settle for less? That can't be fair, and it does not affect only a select few: Just look at how many family sedans and SUVs are on our roads. It does not matter whether those cars were purchased new or foreign used; MVT and duty apply to both.

So yes; if you drive a foreign used vehicle and think this doesn't apply to you, then think again! Why do you think you couldn't buy new in the first place? Even with that foreign used option, how much of the cost do you think went into duty and MVT?

 

Enter Alternative Fuels

At the very least, I should probably note that duty and MVT on hybrids (1999cc and under, in any case) and electrics have been waived. Now MVT and VAT were already proposed to be waived in the 2014/2015 budget, so this seems to be just the removal of duty. This is nonetheless a fantastic deal and I hope that the dealerships respond in kind to make these vehicles readily available. I do however find it a little bit silly to cap the hybrid exemption at 1999cc; I thought the previous waiver was across the board, and in any case that size seems quite arbitrary in nature. In any case, it is certainly not the exclusive domain of high-end vehicles. Indeed, if I interpret correctly then this arbitrary cap will ensure gas-only models continue to dominate the mid-size segment as it effectively makes options such as the Toyota Camry Hybrid and Ford Fusion Hybrid (both 2.5L on the gas side) uncompetitively expensive next to their gas-only counterparts.

What about CNG, you ask? The government has been shouting CNG at us for years, but the market is just not there. Very few manufacturers produce CNG models, and only one such model (the heavily marketed Honda City) is even locally available. For any other car, an aftermarket conversion kit must be installed that halves the trunk space and very likely voids the manufacturer's powertrain warranty. Who will be keen on honouring a warranty when the fuel system has been tampered with? Some people will do it, and it might be great on the public bus fleet, but CNG will never be mass market because the industry has gone in another direction - hybrid and electric. Spending millions to refit service stations will not change that simple fact.

 

The Fuel Subsidy

If you are wondering where this topic comes in then try to remember that taxes are paid in exchange for services from the government. They pay for all the big and little things we expect as being part of a society. In other words, we pay taxes to get benefits. It's not a donation.

For many years one could argue that it was only fair to pay such exorbitant taxes on a vehicle purchase, because the cost of fuel was subsidised. The link was not stated in the books, but one could view the subsidy as the unspoken benefit of paying high vehicle taxes. It is in fact quite difficult to identify any other benefit enjoyed by the motoring public, so it has to be fuel.

Now however, the subsidy on fuel is being lifted. Consider the cost of fuel at the pump four years ago and today:

Fuel Type Price per litre (2012) Price per litre (2016)
Diesel $1.50 $2.00
Super $2.70 $3.58
Premium $4.00 $5.75

In other words, as taxes on vehicle ownership have risen, so too has the cost of fuel. Not only does a rise in fuel cost inflate the cost of just about everything else, but the value for money of those vehicle-related tax dollars has disintegrated.

At the same time, we must recognise that we are in dire economic straits. According to the 2015/2016 budget statement, the state spent $19 billion on the subsidy from 2011-2015. That's an average of almost $5 billion annually. Now if we cannot afford that benefit, and the subsidy is to be removed, then I think the removal should be:

  1. gradual to avoid spiraling inflation that John Doe cannot afford, and
  2. done in tandem with a reduction in vehicle taxes out of the simple principle of fair value for money.

The above said, I do think a subsidy should be able to kick in to keep pump prices at a certain level - when oil prices are high and the country has extra income flowing in. I'll probably need to do a whole blog about that concept at some point.

 

Proposals

If the intention is for that of a "luxury tax" then I simply propose that the extent of duty charged on any given vehicle be calculated based on the landed value of that vehicle rather than its engine size. If the principle really is for the wealthy to bear more of the burden, then that's how we should do it. Let the wealthy person with hundreds of thousands dollars in cash put out another hundred thousand if that's what we want to do, but don't make the family car more expensive than the bank is willing to lend John Doe at his fairly stagnant income level.

MVT on the engine size can perhaps stay, but at a reasonable, universal level per cc that is not determined by some policymaker's arbitrary idea of what is too big. I think this is only fair if as I outlined above, a subsidy should still kick in at a certain pump price/oil price per barrel threshold. All hybrids and electrics should of course be exempted from both MVT and duty, no fine print involved, as a genuine incentive for cleaner transport.

Will this make cars cheaper? Yes, it will. Will it put more cars on the road? No, probably not. Even if we take advantage of lower new car prices to phase out the foreign used market (slowly and with plenty of notice, so those businesses can adapt their business models), it should not have a major impact. Low income earners already have access to cheap used cars and that will not change. The calibre of car available to buyers will get better, that's all.

This does not mean that the government stands to lose money either. High taxes will still be collected on true luxury cars and a flat rate of MVT per cc will still be in effect. On top of that, there are numerous other valid taxes that can be levied: an environmental tax based on vehicle emissions levels is one option and a road use tax upon vehicle inspection or license renewal is another.

We can be creative about tax collection without punishing the middle class for affording the things they worked hard to get. Did the Minister of Finance consult anybody before making his decisions? It certainly doesn't seem so.

Diode

Information Crisis

We have a real problem here.

Are we allergic to data in Trinidad and Tobago?

 

Last week's entry dealt with the West Park Savannah. I wanted to get some facts while writing, so I pulled up the Port of Spain City Corporation website. What a dismay. Despite a great deal of articles about Carnival initiatives, the Corporation's responsibilities, departments, and various forms, there nothing to be found about the West Park Savannah. For that matter, I found that this was not simply an overlooked project; no portion of the website focused on ongoing projects at all! Nope; nothing.

At around this time last month, I wrote about drought. Let me put it this way: Finding information on local desalination was a job most suited to the likes of Sherlock Holmes. It was so bad that the only mentions of one such plant existing in Moruga were found in old newspaper articles. It is as if it does not exist, or ever existed, at an official level. As for the Desalcott plant in Point Lisas, well, what can I say? Their website's most recent - and only - "Latest news" entry has no date, but talks about a 2011 milestone.

These are just two examples from recent blogging to show how difficult it is to find information in this country. We are terrible at recording it, we are terrible at keeping it, and we are terrible at publicising it. Now if we are terrible at all of these things, then it makes complete sense why we are so terrible at making decisions. After all, are decisions not supposed to be made based on information?

 

The CSO

These shortfalls led me to ask: What about national census data? The most recent national census data available from our own Central Statistical Office (CSO) website is from the year 2000. That's sixteen years ago! The website says that the 2010 census was delayed to 2011 as a result of the General Elections of that year. Apart from that being a very poor reason for the CSO not to undertake its scheduled work, 2011 was a full five years ago - so where is that data?

Not to overly focus on the CSO here, but they are supposed to be the source for national statistics. Have a look at their "Latest Indicators" page. Note the years of each entry and then look at today's date. Do you see the problem? I'm sure that you can.

Now I'm not saying that the CSO does not gather data, nor am I saying that they don't put it into the useful form that we call information - but where is it? Why, in the information age, are the most recent statistics not readily available on the website of the Central Statistical Office?

It is particularly telling that the statistics on the T&T entry of the CIA World Factbook, a website run by a foreign power, are more recent than our local resource.

 

We can do better than this, Trinidad and Tobago. It's time we start expecting, doing, and demanding better.

Diode

The West Park Savannah

west-park-savannah-location-950x630.jpgOpposite West Mall sits a 23 acre expanse of land stretching from the Diego Martin River to the Diego Martin Highway and reaching as far back as Victoria Gardens. Its location between the outskirts of Westmoorings and the entrance to the Diego Martin Valley makes it a prime recreational space for the over 100,000 residents of the area.

This land was once earmarked for a public school, town centre and housing but these plans were poorly received and there should be no surprise as to why. The area lacks a major green space, it is opposite a large shopping mall and is a high income area with three schools already within walking distance; The International School, Dunross Preparatory and St. Anthony's College.

Rather than this plan from the state, residents wanted a park and if my memory serves me correctly several articles and letters to this end appeared in the regional magazine The Westerly. The Westerly's website is not working at the time of writing but I'm leaving the link there as it is an admirable publication and I hope that its website comes back online soon.

There was of course an added complication as the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) claimed control of the land in question. This was however resolved In early 2013 when the Port of Spain City Corporation won a legal victory for possession of the land. Now ideally I think this should be handed over to the Diego Martin Regional Corporation but hey, whatever works. Following the ruling, the City Corporation erected signs declaring the land as the site of the West Park Savannah but unfortunately apart from dirt being moved around not much seems to have been done. Landscaping is part of the process, but years of it? Come on now.

It would appear from this onlooker's point of view that  the West Park Savannah is suffering the same fate as so many other ideas in this country: Lack of long-term momentum. This is unfortunate because a properly developed park in so strategic a location could be a huge boon to quality of life in the West. Why shouldn't people have access to such a space within easy reach?

botanic-gardens-wikipedia-user-Daisy2.jpgImagine for a moment the entire expanse of land cleaned up, covered in springy grass and surrounded by a jogging track with smaller paths interlaced through the interior, winding between manicured trees and shrubs. In the middle of the land sits a well-lit gazebo for live entertainment such as open mic nights and musical performances. Other parts of the land might facilitate a children's playground, picnic areas, a tennis court or two, a mini botanic garden and who knows what else a little brain storming can come up with.

Real built-up infrastructure should be restricted to one end of the land: An access road, parking lot, vending area and washroom facilities are all must-haves but must be tastefully designed and lined with appropriate greenery. Pedestrian access to the park can be had using the existing two walkovers that lead to West Mall and the area of Victoria Keyes and Powder Magazine respectively. This access can be even further improved by constructing a foot bridge over the river to northern Westmoorings and a sidewalk leading past Victoria Gardens to the Diego Martin Main Road.

Can you see it yet? I sure can.

I'm sure it won't cost the government much to do this either. Sure it will take money, but the state does not need to bear all of the expense. The many businesses of the West can be called upon to pitch in. I'm sure many will happily help sponsor such development in exchange for their branding on a plaque somewhere - especially as it is in their own proverbial back yard.

This is the kind of development that is needed and I for one hope it is not doomed to become a casualty of the times.

 

Image credits

  • Site of West Park Savannah: Google Earth/DigitalGlobe
  • Botanic Gardens: Wikimedia Commons/user "Daisy2"
Diode

Reviewing GATE

The economy may be in trouble, but we must remember the importance of free tertiary education.

 

gate.jpg.49cedb9ecb8d252d7491cd5280ee6a3GATE, the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses programme, has been viewed as both a blessing and a curse. GATE has made higher education possible for those who could not afford to do so but it has also racked up a bill of some $5.5 billion since it was introduced in 2004. Given this cost and the state of the economy it came as no surprise to learn this week that Cabinet had appointed a task force to review GATE.

There are problems associated with GATE that cannot be ignored. To begin with, GATE is a golden opportunity for institutions to take in as many heads as they possibly can, swelling class sizes and lowering intake standards.

It is not unheard of for institutions to provisionally accept students who do not fully meet entrance requirements on condition that they, for example, do remedial work or prove themselves in the first semester. This is not bad in itself as it can open doors for deserving but underqualified students. When overdone however, it means watering down standards.

Similarly, higher intake numbers is not a bad thing in itself but larger class sizes mean less individual attention. It means the approach to instruction moves away from engaged discussion and instead becomes a lecture.

There is more of course; being free means that people now do a degree not because it is what they are cut out for, but because it is available. Academia is not for everyone and there is no shame in not being an academic. Good tradespeople can make an average employee's monthly wage in a few days. The artistically inclined can create invaluable works of art that nobody but themselves can replicate. Nonetheless, our society pressures the young to get a degree.

Our tertiary institutions are filled with students who are not following their passions and that is the big pink elephant dancing around the room in a tutu that nobody wants to acknowledge.

 

So, in other words we should get rid of GATE...right? Wrong. Very, very wrong.

 

books-grad.jpg.3279b692fc55757a3101ede61If we want to develop Trinidad and Tobago to participate in the knowledge-driven era, we need to ensure that everyone, rich or poor or somewhere in between have access to education.

According to news reports, the appointed task force has to not only look at reducing the state's bill for GATE but also set eligibility criteria for programmes and institutions. This criteria already exists. An academic programme has to be recognised by the Accreditation Council of Trinidad and Tobago (ACTT) in order to run, far less be funded.

It is my fear that the much talked about alignment of programme funding with identified labour market needs will become a reality. This may sound like a great idea but one must stop to think about the long term ramifications.

If we were to fund programmes based on specific need then we will see an overload of applications to those programmes with institutions focusing primarily on those needs. We will see unfunded "niche" programmes whither away for lack of development - and lack of applicants who obviously do not want to spend huge sums of money when they can do something else for free.

We need to diversify. If we end up focusing funding on what a few decision makers think is needed, then we will not have the diversified workforce to fill the jobs of a diversified economy!

$5.5 billion sounds like a lot but it actually works out to a few hundred million per year in a country that budgets tens of billions annually most of which goes to waste. GATE money is not an expense; it is an investment in our future economy.

Powers that be, there are problems that I have already outlined that need to be addressed. These problems require social intervention. They require public education on job opportunities and the real requirements for those opportunities. They require working with institutions to meet with and counsel applicants to ensure that students pursue what they genuinely want to do and possess a natural aptitude for.

 

GATE is a fantastic idea and it should not fall victim to the cost-cutting axe. Yes we may be in a recession but that is all the more reason to invest in tomorrow's economy. We need a large and diversified workforce to propel ourselves out of recession and to ride the next round of boom years to prosperity.

Diode

No reason for drought

tap-dry-sepia.jpgIt's the same tune every year: Low water reserves, reduce consumption, ration the supply and so on. It is now only March and WASA has put out press releases that place some parts of the country on two and three day schedules.

Not disruptions two or three days per week; two or three days per week with water and then only between certain hours. If you are not profoundly disturbed by this then I do not know what to tell you.

In case you did not know, Trinidad and Tobago is an island nation surrounded by lots and lots of water. More than that we receive plenty of rainfall, and to top that off we also have desalination and a relatively small population.

It is important that consumers not waste water, but I am focusing on what WASA and the state should have done differently - and should do differently going forward - to not put us in this situation.

 

1. Runoff

Lest we forget in the presently scorching weather, we get a lot of rainfall. In fact, we get so much of it that perennial flooding is a rather big problem. Show me just one year in which people have not found themselves marooned at City Gate or in which the Caroni River did not burst its banks. Part of the problem is inadequate drainage, part of it is garbage in the drains, but the biggest part of it can likely be traced to plastering concrete and then failing to treat with the resultant runoff.

Can someone give me a good reason why we can't properly catch some of that runoff and direct it to reservoirs around the country? I mean it; someone please explain this to me because I am genuinely baffled by this. Have we honestly not yet figured out urban planning?

 

2. Dams

arena-dam.jpgThere are a total of four dams in this country: Trinidad is served by three dams (Arena, Hollis and Navet) and Tobago is served by one dam (Hillsborough). I dare say that if we have to deal with shortages every year then there might be a tiny possibility that we need to expand these or even build more of them.

I'm not going to trivialize the difficulty of such projects but this country is anything but flat land, we have many rivers and we let billions of dollars go to waste every year.  I'm fairly certain that we could undertake this project if we really wanted to.

 

3. Desalination

We have one major desalination plant in this country which is operated by DESALCOTT. Now I don't know to what extent their production capacity can be increased but if this is possible then it may be time to consider it. There was also a desalination plant built in Moruga but apart from a few newspaper articles from years ago, there's little information about it so I can't really comment. Allow me to say that in writing this article I have found the WASA website to look a lot more informative than it actually is.

Now to be fair on future desalination, the Prime Minister recently mentioned the possibility of a desalination plant in western Tobago but we might still need to consider increasing the desalination capacity in Trinidad as well. As far back as 2008, the then Minister of Public Utilities was considering up to five additional desalination plants to boost capacity so I for one would love to know what happened to that plan.

Now whether this makes sense compared to expanding the dams is something for financial heads to decide but finding a ready source of sea water is really not a problem for us in the Caribbean.

 

4. Maintenance

Here's a common sight for Trini eyes: A spring in the road. We will pass the same spring day after day, week after week and it is not until the water is flowing freely that WASA arrives to fix the problem. Good on you WASA! Well done! I am sure I speak for everyone when I thank you for so generously washing down the streets for us.

To be serious about this I can't help but wonder how many hundreds of gallons of water might be conserved if leaks were fixed with the same fervour as say, planning the next WASA Fete.

 

We don't have a good reason to lack a steady, year-round supply of water. Even territories with true years-on-end drought situations in progress such as southern California in the United States haven't had to ration supplies to a few days per week - and they have entire cities built in the desert.

We should be ashamed to reach this point and people have every right to be upset about it. Water is a necessity of life and people in this country need to stop tolerating sub par service from the powers that be.

Don't let yourself be fooled for even a moment that this situation was unavoidable.

Diode

Resuming wrecking is not going to resolve the Port of Spain parking quagmire. In fact, wrecking never stopped in downtown Port of Spain; it only stopped in places like Woodbrook where it is now being resumed. I don't think it's going to help very much.

Now don't get me wrong here. I think it is a good thing that the parking regulations are being enforced, and I think it is even better that the wreckers will be outfitted with cameras. At least there will now be a mechanism in place to review activity if an objection is raised! After all, let us not forget that the wreckers are owned and operated by private companies that receive $300 of the $500 vehicle release fee.

wrecker-giggity.thumb.png.75e293e1c51acd

Wreckers take time to check the area, hook up a car, take it away and return for another. Unless we're going to swarm the city with a traffic jam of wreckers, people can still "take a chance" and probably get away. We have traffic wardens with the authority to write tickets. Put them to walk the beat, every day, in every area. If we don't have enough wardens then get more. Don't we have an unemployment problem? The tickets will pay for their salaries. Let's get them out there and turn the thought, "I'll probably get away" into, "I'll probably get a ticket".

This is incredibly important. Many of the streets in town can accommodate three (3) lanes. Some are painted that way, some are not, but just look at them. The idea should be that one lane is for parking and the other two lanes are to drive on. But, people park on two lanes, leave one for driving, halve the capacity of the roads and then complain about traffic and too many cars.

By the way I humbly suggest that alternating the parking lane just confuses people. Why don't we just say parking is on the left side? Keep left except when overtaking and keep left for parking.

road-3-lanes.jpg.4c6011f3387611c53943b1a

Let's talk about trucks. True story here: It's a hot sweltering afternoon on the Western Main Road, St. James. People are shopping, getting back to work, picking up children from school and so on. Traffic is horrible and exacerbated by the fact that all four corners of one intersection are occupied by delivery trucks.

Delivery trucks. On all four corners. At a known traffic peak. Forget about acting like a developed country where deliveries must be done before or after the day's activities. Parking is not permitted within 9 metres of the corner, far less *on* the corner! Then again, no wrecker is going to move a truck bigger than itself so unless we are giving parking tickets then the drivers have nothing to worry about.

Of course we can't ignore the fact that there really is not enough parking available for commercial activities, but that problem is not insurmountable. Particularly in Woodbrook and St. James there are many businesses that can create on-premises parking by removing their front walls. Why should a business be fenced off anyway? Give some incentives for businesses to create parking for customers and employees. A tax concession perhaps. Businesses love those.

There are numerous abandoned lots. Negotiate with the owners to turn them into parking spaces. A small lot accommodating 15-20 cars could bring in several thousand dollars every month and that's after paying an attendant. People love extra income.

If we do these things, none of which require any great length of time or expense to implement we might just see traffic flowing again. Productivity will go up and blood pressures will go down. So bring back the wrecker, sure, but let's be smart and tackle the problem holistically. This should only be a first step.

 

CNC3 news item on the resumption of wrecking in POS

 

Diode

Though a weekly review, this story begins in the week before last. To be precise, it begins in the hours that followed Carnival 2016 when the body of thirty year old Japanese national Asami Nagakiya was found in the Queen's Park Savannah, still dressed in her masquerading costume. An autopsy would later confirm the cause of death as strangulation. It is unfortunate to say that murder is not new to these shores, nor is the murder of a foreigner unprecedented. This particularly incident would however send ripples through society.

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Asami Nagakiya in Trinidad for Carnival 2015

The ripples were not just caused by the murder. Nor was it because Asami was a foreign national who wholeheartedly embraced our culture by playing the steelpan. The real source of the ignition would be a tragically poor-minded statement by then Port of Spain Mayor Raymond Tim Kee. You see, the morning that news broke of the masquerader's body in the Savannah, Tim Kee would say the following:

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Women have a responsibility to ensure they are not abused during the Carnival season

And:

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So then you have to let the imagination roll a bit...and figure out. Was there any evidence of resistance? Or alcohol control and therefore involuntary actions were engaged in and so on?

This rather common politician's disease is called foot-in-mouth. Actually, this was a slightly worse variant called feet-in-mouth. You see, after stuffing in the first foot, Mr. Tim Kee promptly opened wide and added the other foot with an apology that included the following:

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He agrees that his comments could have been considered out of line, but despite the anger being expressed from many quarters including feminist groups and activists, he has also received calls of support from several women agreeing with him on the lack of modesty displayed by some women and girls on the streets during the Carnival Celebrations

Yes, you read that correctly. A third person perspective apology to outraged people that says there are those who agree with him. Needless to say that did not go over very well.

Let us understand why there is outrage, because it seems that not everyone does. In today's world where people can connect online and fearlessly share their views, certain topics that were previously kept nearly out of the way have become big. All-caps, BIG. These have included bullying and abuse. In other words, victimisation. Coming out of that has been widespread condemnation of victim blaming. We know that Carnival is not the most decent time of the year what with lacking modesty and so forth but that is besides the point. The point is that a woman was murdered. A victim does not ask to be murdered.

When one's words can be construed as justifying victimisation, then one stands to be accused of victim blaming whether or not the statements were intended that way. Moreso, when the statements come from a public official then one must expect the backlash. Just sit down, sip some tea and wait. Because it's coming. Because this is the Internet. Because social media. Once an issue has gained enough traction, exponential connections will ensure that it goes viral. Tim Kee went viral.

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Raymond Tim Kee, former Mayor of Port of Spain

It was not long before a Change.org petition was started for Tim Kee's resignation on the 11th of February. By the morning of the 12th when a protest was staged, it had accumulated over 7,500 signatures. That petition eventually got over 10,000 signatures. In a country this size, getting that many signatures so quickly is saying something.

The issue made international headlines. Apart from local and regional news, it turned up in The Japan Times, The New York Daily News, The Washington Post and recently even BBC News. Popular feminist blog Jezebel also carried the story. I'm sure I have missed more than a few instances of international coverage. In any case, by the evening of the 12th, international media was reporting that a Trinidadian mayor was blaming a tourist for her own murder. The world does not take kindly to public officials that trivialise matters of social concern.

In a media release on the 13th, Tim Kee stated his apology and his intention to tender his resignation at an emergency meeting of the Port of Spain City Corporation Council and this in itself caused even more chaos.  You see, on the 14th Loop News reported that Tim Kee was saying he still had work to complete and was not willing to give up. On the 15th, The Trinidad Guardian reported that Tim Kee did not read his resignation into record at the meeting. By this time there was also a small counter-petition and another group gathered in Port of Spain this time in the mayor's support. Too late: Mr. Tim Kee had already stated he would resign at an emergency meeting of the Council and people inevitably viewed the delay as backtracking on his words.

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The media release in which Mr. Tim Kee stated his intention to resign

He was not out of the water yet. Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley who originally indicated there was no reason to resign had seemingly modified his position to saying the mayor's statement was unacceptable and that the right thing was being done in tendering a resignation. Furthermore, Mr. Franklin Khan, chairman of the ruling PNM party and line minister overseeing local government was adding that resigning would be the honourable thing to do.

Well, so said so done. By the 17th Tim Kee had resigned. Mr. Keron Valentine, previously Deputy Mayor, was appointed the new Mayor of Port of Spain. He may well be the youngest to hold the office at 31 years old. With some luck we will see a more careful approach to public relations, and I for one am hoping for a much needed youthful zest in revitalising Port of Spain. There is a lot of work that needs to be done in Port of Spain and perhaps I will get into that in a future entry.

 

The outcry wasn't - or perhaps isn't - over yet. Point Fortin Mayor Clyde Paul has come under considerable fire for trying to defend Tim Kee and making some rather insensitive statements on the matter that have arguably been received as more incendiary than Mr. Tim Kee's, who to be fair has seemed to be genuinely confused and upset at how this matter has turned out. I'm not sure the same can be said for Mr. Paul. Here's why:

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What action Tim Kee must resign for. I hope when the truth of this young lady's murder unfolds, some people could handle it.

Well, I did say that foot-in-mouth is prevalent among politicians, didn't I? These words are highly questionable at best. Does Mayor Paul know something that the rest of us do not? No wonder the Facebook population began clamouring for his resignation as well. Positions taken by religious leaders Pastor Cuffie and Sat Maharaj have also been condemned but ultimately, they are not holders of high public office and can probably say what they want without being seen as representative of the people.

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The image quoting Clyde Paul, Mayor of Point Fortin that circulated on Facebook

I think we have become too desensitised to our problems. We have become so accustomed to wrongdoing that that instead of outright condemning the crime we say that the victim should have been more careful. People, particularly those in leadership positions, cannot be so desensitized.

This is not the way of a civilised society.

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