Four commuters, four different modes of transport, two routes, one race. Car vs. bike, kayak vs. bus.
To conclude our month-long series investigating causes of, and potential solutions to, the island’s traffic troubles, we wanted to challenge the assumption that the car is still the best way to travel in Cayman.
So we put it to the test in a rush-hour race.
Starting from Bodden Town, we pitted two wheels against four, with cyclist, business editor Michael Klein, testing his pedal power against news editor Norma Connolly, in her car.
From Marina Drive, Issues editor James Whittaker hopped on board his kayak, while journalist Kayla Young set out on foot, looking for a bus.
The final destination for all four participants was Camana Bay.
The results may surprise some, with the bike coming in first – more than twice as fast as the car.
But speed isn’t everything. What about comfort, cost and peace of mind? Our reporters each tracked their journeys and wrote about their trips, detailing the pros and cons of their chosen means of transport.
There are obvious drawbacks to each and our race was not intended as a scientific experiment. But it is clear that during rush hour at least, the car is no longer the fastest way to travel.
Had we included jet-skis, electric scooters or skateboards, it may not have even made the top three.
The evidence from our series, and to an extent from our race, is that Cayman must begin to think beyond the motor car.
First and foremost, the island is crying out for more reliable, more efficient public transport, with routes that go where people need to go.
There is also significant scope to provide new and better infrastructure to make other modes of travel safer and more user-friendly. Public ferries or water taxis could be another part of the solution.
When there are better, cheaper options, people will be willing to leave their cars behind. And when that happens, everyone will be a winner.
Cyclist Michael Klein finds two wheels are better than four
In rush hour traffic, the bike beats the car hands-down. It is not even a contest.
As a cyclist and motorist who narrowly avoids the morning traffic jams coming from the eastern districts by getting up before the crack of dawn, at 5am, this did not come as a surprise.
If we are honest, to be twice as fast as a car over 20 kilometres (13 miles) says more about the dire traffic situation between 6am and 8:30am than the virtues of the bicycle.
Riding a bike is faster, yes; it is healthier, yes; it is way more fun, but this does not mean I will throw away my car keys just yet.
I would cycle to work probably twice a week, provided a couple of things happen.
First of all, there are not enough bike lanes.
Even where they exist, they are frequently untended and full of debris, stones and glass, which defeats the purpose and forces cyclists back onto the road.
Fortunately, there are the first signs of a growing cycling culture on island. Several businesses have started bike rentals and devised sign-posted trails or guided tours.
There are even cruise ships, who bring their own bicycles for passengers to use. And many locals love to ride their bikes for sport or for leisure.
The problem is there are many more people who would use their bikes but don’t, because, as much fun as it is to undertake cars at 10, 20 or 30 miles per hour, they believe, correctly, that it can be dangerous.
A network of properly maintained bike lanes would go a long way to giving people more comfort that they or their children can be safe cycling in traffic. Kids riding a bike to school are the norm in Europe.
There is no reason the infrastructure and safety consciousness needed could not be developed in Cayman.
Employers can help, too, by accommodating different modes of transport.
As much as I am personally unperturbed by my sweaty middle-aged-man-in-lycra look, I also have to respect the views of my colleagues and peers about personal hygiene and proper work attire.
This means, where possible and within reason, offices could provide changing rooms and shower facilities. Given the climate, it does not require a bike ride to generate the need for them, anyway.
Reporters covering stories in the field frequently return to the office looking like they just finished a stage in the Tour de France.
The weather in Cayman is a frequent objection to bike use. Of course it is hot, but many residents are used to riding a bike in much harsher conditions, such as in freezing cold wind and rain, facing unsolvable riddles of how many layers to wear and the inevitable perspiration almost turning to ice as soon as it forms.
At least the rain is always warm in Cayman!
Supporting a cycling-friendly infrastructure and culture does not mean forcing people on the bike against their will. It is simply about giving everyone more choice, to alleviate both the traffic burden and pollution.
Driver Norma Connolly finds frustration on the roads
It’s 7:21am on a Friday morning and I’m about to set off on one of Cayman’s most excruciatingly frustrating journeys – the morning commute from an eastern district into George Town.
I set my Strava to log my 12.5-mile journey from Bodden Town to Camana Bay.
Starting near the White House, just before Bodden Town, the traffic is surprisingly clear. Ahead of me, I spot my cycling ‘competitor’, Michael Klein – he’d taken off just before me and I wave confidently as I pass him and leave him in my rear-view mirror. See ya!
Passing Northward, the traffic still isn’t heavy and I’m travelling at the speed limit. So far, so smooth. I wonder what all the fuss is about. Where is this traffic that I’ve been hearing about for so long?
At 7:30am, I’m starting to slow a little bit as I get to Savannah. I’m doing 25 miles an hour and traffic is still moving at a reasonable rate.
And then I get to the Rubis garage past the Pedro St. James entrance, and the traffic just stops. It’s bumper to bumper.
It takes me about 10 minutes to crawl past the petrol station. It seems early in the commute to encounter road rage, but sure enough, the bus driver behind me shouts at me to move as the vehicle in front of me inches forward a car length. It seems I’m not moving fast enough, even at a snail’s pace.
And that’s the point at which Klein shoots past me on his bike. If there had been dust, I’d have been left in it.
By 7:42am, I’m at Spotts. After a brief minute or two when I got up to an impressive 25 miles an hour, I’m back to second gear.
I marvel at the fact that at least there are two lanes along this stretch of road. If there were just one, I’d still be in Savannah, I reckon.
Further along, at 8:06am, about half-way through my journey, just after making my slow way round Prospect Road roundabout before Grand Harbour, my phone rings. It’s Klein. “Where are you?” he asks, before telling me he arrived at Camana Bay five minutes earlier and is about to have coffee.
He warns me that there is traffic all the way to the Compass office on Shedden Road. Great. More traffic to look forward to.
Next up is the Linford Pierson Highway. It’s no better than the last several miles, though I manage to get into third gear. I consider this a minor achievement. After nearly an hour in traffic, it’s the small victories that count.
Klein’s right, the traffic remains slow as far as our office, but from there to Camana Bay is smooth sailing and I pull into a car park there at 8:43am.
It’s taken me 1 hour and 22 minutes to travel 12.5 miles. According to my Strava, my average speed was 8.7 miles an hour.
My normal 7-mile commute, from West Bay, takes me 15-20 minutes. I decide I’m not moving to Bodden Town anytime soon.
Bus passenger Kayla Young gets a little help from CaymanKind
I should start my segment with a confession. I had never taken the bus in Cayman before this commuter race.
This is despite having almost exclusively relied on public transportation, biking or walking before my life here.
When I moved to the island three years ago, it quickly become apparent that biking would be a death-defying ordeal and walking would likely end in heat exhaustion.
Plus, taking the bus confounded me – there was no schedule, few established stops and the only route map I could find didn’t indicate street names, just general directions.
So when my editor assigned me to take the bus for our rush hour race, I went into the task with little knowledge. But I had a strategy: look for someone standing by the side of the road who appeared to be waiting for a ride and stand next to them.
That did the trick. At the corner of Shamrock Road and Marina Drive, a man confirmed that, yes, he was waiting for the bus and, yes, he was heading to town. It was 7:28am when I located the ‘stop’. I popped on a pair of headphones and started scrolling through podcasts I had downloaded the night before.
At 7:50am, a bus finally approached. We popped to attention and each raised a hand to hail the driver. He didn’t stop. All the seats were full.
It wasn’t long before another bus approached. Also full, it continued on.
Before I could moan to myself, a third bus appeared and this time we were in luck.
By 7:53am, 25 minutes after reaching the stop, I was settled in my seat and on my way to the finish line at Camana Bay. From WhatsApp updates, I knew Michael, on his bike, was closing in and Norma, in her car, was stuck in traffic somewhere nearby.
We hadn’t heard from James and his kayak. Best-case scenario, I think, I’ll come in third.
At 8:08am, we took a detour along the notoriously slow Crewe Road. It was 8:30am by the time we reached Shedden Road. This is when I made what could have been a game-ending mistake.
I got off the bus at the corner of Shedden and North Sound roads to find a connecting bus headed toward Camana Bay. I foolishly assumed that the westbound buses would run along North Sound Road. This is not the case.
Before I realised that I should have stayed on the first bus, some CaymanKind swept in to save the day.
After just two minutes of standing confused on the corner, I heard a shout, “Do you need help?”
It was none other than Police Constable Fabian O’Connor, better known as the ‘dancing policeman’. I had often heard stories of his acts of kindness and, suddenly, here he was, the man himself, just when I needed assistance.
I knew I could trust PC O’Connor (and hitchhiking was fair game). So at 8:36am, I accepted his ride and by 8:42am, we were at Camana Bay.
I had beat Norma but, alas, Michael was too quick on his bike. Thanks to PC O’Connor, I had done better than I originally expected and claimed second place.
Not too bad for a first-time bus rider.
James Whittaker is gonna need a bigger boat
If you like to start your morning with a gruelling endurance test and arrive at the office sweaty, salty, shattered and searching for a chiropractor, sea kayaking could be the best way to commute.
For all but the most ardent advocates of paddle power, it is likely to be extremely impractical.
I began my journey, from Marina Drive at 7:15am, splashing into the water as mosquitoes nipped at my arms in the grey morning light.
After a brief moment of serenity, gently navigating the calm of the quiet residential canal, I quickly found myself bobbing like a cork in the North Sound.
With the tide racing in and waves pushing me towards shore, a straight shot across the sound proved impossible. I was left hugging the coastline, paddling furiously to keep the nose forward.
At times, the current seemed to be with me; at others it was a hard slog just to stay still.
As I reached the airport, my cellphone pinged in its waterproof case with a smug message from our bicycling business editor to say that he had already arrived.
From the video attachment, he seemed to be drinking cappuccino and listening to smooth jazz at the Waterfront Café.
That was motivation enough for a brief burst of energy. The unmistakable scent of trash wafting off the mucky peaks of Mount Trashmore let me know I was getting closer.
In the middle distance, I could begin to make out the channel markers that guard the entrance to the Camana Bay canal system. Trying to ignore the pinging of more messages from my fellow participants, I pushed on.
Slow and steady wins the race may be a solid strategy against complacent hares, but in this case, not so much.
The final stretch, through the canals, was more like what I had imagined when I suggested this experiment: smooth paddling in clear blue waters as egrets rustled in the fringing mangroves.
I rounded the corner and under the bridge into Camana Bay, expecting what? Applause, a medal, a parade? Instead, I found my colleagues finishing up breakfast and paying the bill. They hadn’t even saved me a sausage.
My commute time came in at just over two hours. Cyclist, driver, even the bus had beaten the lowly paddler.
Speed isn’t everything, however. On some scores, the kayak could perhaps be deemed the winner. I had gotten a healthy dose of fresh air (if you discount the stretch passing the landfill), had a hefty workout and avoided the mind-numbing frustration of sitting in traffic for over an hour.
While the kayak may not be the most practical vessel for this particular job, the struggles I went through are nothing a 15 horsepower engine couldn’t solve.
If I had access to a jet-ski, a Boston Whaler, a sailboat, or a public ferry, I would surely have been the quickest to the finish line.
A direct route across the sound is, distance wise, the shortest version of the commute from the eastern districts to Camana Bay, yet I didn’t encounter a single vessel out on the water.
For a niche group of commuters who live and work on the ocean, aquatic transport is surely the way to go. A park-and-ride ferry system could theoretically open that option up to thousands more.
In days gone by, the Cayman catboat was the most popular mode of transport. Progress and development have changed all that, of course. But perhaps some of today’s problems could be solved with a dose of yesterday’s wisdom.