Will JUTC go the way of JOS?


Thursday, June 07, 2018

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So the taxi drivers will now get a break. The taxi routes are going to be opened up to more taxi drivers. The good of this is that the public will have more access to get to and from work. For the wealthy who live in affluent areas where Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) buses are seldom seen it will mean that their domestic helpers and babysitters will be able to get to work without being late.

I have never liked the way in which taxi drivers are treated by the State. Yes, there are some 'bad eggs' among the taxi drivers, but the majority of them are very hard workers. Many of the taxi drivers have their family obligations like other adults in the society.

Taxi drivers are constantly harassed by rogues in the police force, some of whom practically live off taxi drivers by demanding extortion money. Will the harassment stop just because the bus routes are opened up?

Apart from police harassment, there are many hazards to their jobs which are seldom taken into consideration. Reporting passengers who refuse to pay their fares is an exercise in futility. Taxi drivers have constant car maintenance problems as door handles, window winders or buttons are constantly manhandled by passengers.

In the days of the Jamaica Omnibus Service (JOS), there were far less buses than there are today with the JUTC. Eventually, the 'robot' system evolved out of the many JOS bus strikes of the 1960s. This was before the passing of the Industrial Relations Act in 1974. Prior to that, there were a series of 'wildcat' strikes in just about every department of government and business place throughout Jamaica.

As time went by the 'robots' stayed on the roads even after the bus strikes had ended. And then more car owners decided that an easy way to increase their income was to operate 'robot' taxis. By 1972, the then minister of public utilities, the late Eric Bell, was speaking on television discussion programmes about the route-taxi system in Trinidad and that we could emulate that in Jamaica. Eventually the 'robots' and the JOS co-existed.

In the 1980s, Pearnel Charles became the minister of public utilities. Private bus contractors were awarded routes and the robots continued until there was a move to ensure that only legal taxi operators were on the roads. The JOS received little or no maintenance and, more importantly, no new buses and eventually went out of existence. The remaining buses were sold to private contractors.

But the system became ramshackle. Buses were crowded, bus crews were undisciplined; they refused to take up schoolchildren, or 'schoolers' as they were called, the conductors were untidy and smelly, and most wore merinos that were certainly not washed often. Unmaintained seats meant passengers' clothes were torn, often without compensation, and I state this from personal experiences. This is what I encountered when my aging Fiat 124 motor vehicle refused to proceed one day in 1985, and I had to take public transport regularly.

A school bus system was tried, but since it was organised by the JUTC those buses were used to transport adults in the school holidays and the school buses evolved into the general bus service. This is why when I opined that we should have a student bus service I also stated that it should not be run by JUTC as they will be tempted to use the buses for adults.

By 1998, when Peter Philips was minister of public utilities and transport, the JUTC brought new big buses into the system. Peter Phillips was asked on the radio programme Breakfast Club why it was necessary to invest in buses when the system, ramshackle as it was then, was in fact transporting people from one point to another.

The answer that Phillips gave was very instructive. He said that if we were to bring our Jamaican people to a much higher level of civilisation we had to understand that if a decent bus service was good enough for people in New York, Toronto, London, etcetera, it was good enough for us also. And, in fact, Phillips was right in terms of using a proper bus service to aid the development of a civilised populace.

But it is also a fact that the JUTC alone cannot run the bus service, if only because we still cannot afford, as a nation, to have as many buses as we need. Also the monopoly, as with the old JOS, did attract abuses and indiscipline in terms of a lack of efficiency and long waiting hours for buses, which was the problem with the JOS between 1948 and the early 1980s.

The catch-22 dilemma is that if people take only alternative public transportation (minibuses and taxis), JUTC suffers a shortfall in revenue, as has been constantly the case over the years. But who will deny that it is the sharing of transportation by both government-owned buses and private bus and taxi drivers that has kept the economy going?

People are able to get to work or school and back without waiting extra-long hours to be transported either way, unless they insist on travelling by bus rather than by other means.

Since there is a plan to open up the routes to taxi operators, as laudable as this is, it is in some way reminiscent of the 1980s. Does this mean, as Mikael Phillips has stated, that this will impact heavily on the JUTC's finances? It would appear so. But is this deliberate?

Is it the plan to so run down the JUTC that it becomes feasible to close it down and then sell the buses to contractors? And if that happens, would these contractors be supporters of the party in power, as happened in at least one instance when the JOS buses were sold? Political parties tend to repeat their actions when they return to power, even if it is done several decades after. Is this to be an instance of that?

Michael Burke is a research consultant, historian and current affairs analyst. Send comments to the Observer or

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