The sun has not yet risen over Beach Bay and the streets are already clogged with traffic. The frustrated blast of horns can be heard over the idling of engines as drivers nervously nose from a web of side streets into the long line of vehicles snaking back toward Bodden Town. The unhappy convoy moves in fits and starts.
For occasional stretches, it is possible to near the 30mph speed limit, then the traffic slows as swarms of new cars from neighbourhoods in Newlands join the main stream. Around Prospect, it stops almost completely. From here it is a slow crawl to George Town. In most cases, there is just one person to a vehicle. The faces look sullen, annoyed, resigned. The occasional happy soul is rocking out to the car radio. Others distractedly scan smartphones or talk hurriedly on the hands-free link, trying to get the day under way.
This is rush hour on a regular morning in Grand Cayman, where a three-mile journey can take 40 minutes.
While traffic is a frustrating fact of life in many of the world’s busiest cities, congestion on this scale is new for the island.
“I never dreamed that Cayman would become such a stressful place,” said Dorothy Davis. “It is worse than the UK, worse than Florida. It never used to be like this.”
In some ways, Cayman is a victim of its own success. Both economic and population growth have taken car ownership to an all-time high. There were more than 6,500 vehicles added to Cayman’s roads in the last year alone.
Line them up nose-to-tail and that is enough to cover 20 miles of a single-lane road.
As dramatic as those figures are, they come as no surprise to motorists who have been snarled in some of the worst traffic the island has ever seen.
For Sara Carlowe McKay, who lives in Beach Bay, the only solution is to start early. The mum-of-two gets the kids up at 5:30am and in the car for 6:15am for the seven-mile trip to George Town.
She serves breakfast in the car and on a good day, she makes Cayman Prep before 7am.
“I have to sit in the car and wait for school to open, but it is better than being stressed out in traffic,” she said.
If she misses that window of opportunity before the main rush hour traffic ramps up, the journey can take over an hour. It’s the same on the way home. An after-school piano lesson for one of the children can mean the family doesn’t make it home till after 7:30pm.
In subtle ways, traffic, and the desire to avoid it, are changing the way people live.
“I’ve stopped taking my son to 4pm swim lessons because the time it takes to get home doesn’t make sense,” says Keri Jansen, who lives in Prospect and works from home.
“It is supposed to be a 10-minute drive and it turns into 60 minutes.”
She is concerned about the amount of new construction, with new developments seemingly going up every day in Red Bay, Prospect, Newlands and Savannah.
“Where are all these people going to go?” she asks.
Proper reliable public transport, safer roads for cyclists, walkers and runners, and moving some government offices to the outer districts or allowing people to work from home are among her recommended solutions.
Walking is dangerous
Even for those close to George Town, traffic is a headache.
Tris Ramsay lives on Fairbanks Road, just less than two miles from her office in the capital, but says if she doesn’t leave work before 5pm it can take 45 minutes to get home.
She would like to walk or bike, but the absence of sidewalks on parts of the journey and some of the driving standards are off-putting.
“Horns are honking and people are breaking rules. You can sense the level of frustration.”
Originally from Canada, Ramsay has seen a significant increase in traffic in the four years she has been on island.
“We actually talked about leaving because of it,” she said.
“You have to plan everything according to the traffic. Even going out at lunchtime is crazy.”
For Berna Cummins, who lives on South Sound, there is no point leaving the house between 4pm and 7pm on a weekday.
Cummins is retired, so she can mostly choose to avoid the worst jams. But she believes traffic is affecting Cayman’s way of life.
“It is affecting everyone. There is less family time and it makes everyone irritable and frustrated,” she said.
No quick fix
Most accept there is no quick fix to the problem.
If the economy continues to grow, there could be around 5,000 additional work permits issued in the next year, boosting the population and, presumably, car ownership even further.
Government has advanced plans to extend the East-West Arterial Highway and is working with the National Roads Authority to improve traffic flow at key bottlenecks around the island.
But officials acknowledge that new roads cannot be the long-term solution, and commuters seem to agree.
Cummins would like to see restrictions on Japanese cars, which have flooded the second-hand vehicle market. Others think a better bus service could provide part of the solution.
“If we had a proper public transport system, I am sure a lot of people would use it instead of feeling pressed to buy a car,” said Kayla Manderson, who lives in Savannah and leaves home before 6:30am every day to avoid the frustration of rush-hour traffic.
With a proper bus service, she believes authorities could start to think about restricting car usage.
“I think it’s Bermuda that has one car per family. That might be a bit much, but even two cars per house would be a start,” she said.
“In some families, mum has a car, dad has a car, and the helper has a car to take the kids to school.”