Technology and innovation could help reform the way we move

The absence of bumper-to-bumper traffic was one of the features of life during the pandemic that many Cayman Islands residents enjoyed. With business and school life starting to return to something like normal, the roads are beginning to clog up with cars once again. The latest instalment of our Cayman 2.0 series examines ideas for how to reform public transport.

Lately, the work days go by quickly for Jacqueline Forbes. Her new job as a driver for the food-delivery app Bento keeps her busy and she enjoys the fast-paced nature of the work.

Food-delivery orders arrive in real-time to her cellphone, where she is able to track requests and manage all aspects of her job.

There, she accepts orders, processes credit-card payments and calculates her earnings.

In many ways, the digital facets of her delivery job offer a welcome contrast to her previous work in public transportation – and a glimpse at the ways traffic and commerce have already evolved during the COVID-19 crisis.

Through cashless transactions and GPS mapping, Bento and other delivery apps, like Let’s Eat, have integrated technologies lacking in Cayman’s privately operated bus system.

Everything about Forbes’ delivery job is centralised through a common platform, the Bento app. It’s cashless, digitally connected and supported by the guarantee of a minimum hourly wage – in addition to tips and commission.

Jacqueline Forbes switched from being a bus driver to working for a tech-driven food-delivery app. – Photo: Alvaro Serey

It offers a level of stability and ease that her purely commission-based work as a bus driver never could.

Right now, she says bus drivers who continue working their routes are earning just enough to cover the cost of gas. Dependence on such low earnings wasn’t an option for Forbes. She knew that to survive in a COVID-19 world, she had to adapt.

“There are opportunities available for Caymanians. You’ve got to broaden your horizon and see the bigger picture,” she said.

Like many workers affected by the crisis, she knows life will never go back to the way it was – and she doesn’t necessarily want to return to that life. So far, the crisis has altered her professional life for the better and she’s grateful for the change.

Rethinking transportation

Up the road from Bento’s waterfront office, Marc Langevin, general manager for The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, shares a similar, digitally-centric vision for how Cayman could manage its traffic woes in the not-so-distant future.

His staff have been on the opposite end of Cayman’s transportation problems. Many of them remain reliant on a bus system that has been severely diminished by the COVID-19 crisis, as experienced transportation workers like Forbes find ways to repurpose their skills.

Relying on Cayman’s bus system, however, was never easy for resort workers, many of whom live far from their jobs where rent prices are more affordable.

That has forced many to purchase cars and required the Ritz-Carlton to expand its parking area to accommodate a full staff of around 900 employees.

It’s not how Langevin would prefer to utilise the limited space available along Seven Mile Beach.

Instead, he’d like to see a transportation system that reduces reliance on personal cars. That system, he explains, would need to be convenient and accessible enough that both his staff and clients could come to rely on it.

Marc Langevin, general manager of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman – Photo: Alvaro Serey

Such a system is achievable, Langevin says, but only if Cayman can harness the skills and resources already available on island.

“How do we repackage and repurpose?” he asks.

“Since we have the opportunity of time and if we have to relaunch the island, let’s aim for the right target.”

Langevin recently participated in the Strategic Economic Advisory Council, alongside a group of other tourism and business stakeholders, with the goal of re-envisioning the way Cayman operates in light of the pandemic.

The first category of the council’s tourism and hospitality suggestions revolve around transportation. The report recognises that roads and transportation play a vital role in connecting visitors to enjoyable experiences and destinations on island.

At a minimum, the transportation system Langevin describes creates a reliable and affordable resource for workers. In its ideal form, however, Cayman achieves a system that locals and tourists actually want to use.

“If transportation were more accessible, I think people would be more apt to visit other parts of the island,” Langevin said. Right now, however, a trip to Rum Point or Barkers will likely cost travellers a pricey taxi ride.

In the future, he hopes clients will instead be able to pull up an app, where they can track their bus or taxi driver’s position and pay by card. In a fully integrated transport model, Langevin says their trip might start by bus and end in a water taxi, taking full advantage of the island’s land and marine resources.

“It has to be a combination of technology, easy to use, with easy payments and communication,” he said.

As a starting point, the economic advisory council has suggested establishing Cayman Transit Company, a public-private scheme supported by government subsidies.

Such a partnership would provide drivers with a base income, facilitate routes in underserved districts and reduce the need for tourism employees to purchase cars, among other potential perks.

The aim would be to award service contracts for bus transport with minimum standards for frequency, quality and coverage. Existing vehicles and ferries would also be repurposed to create an integrated, intra-island model. Larger buses would service high-traffic, ‘express’ routes while smaller buses would provide transfers to areas with lower demand.

Implementing a plan

The Strategic Economic Advisory Council isn’t the only entity weighing in on reforming Cayman’s transport model. The National Conservation Council has also highlighted the urgency of implementing change in its June report,  ‘Seizing the Moment to Transition to a Greener Economy’. That report encourages, among other suggestions, accelerating the National Roads Authority’s Complete Streets initiative, including protection of green corridors and creation of segregated bicycle lanes.

Minister Joey Hew recently told the Cayman Compass that progress towards those goals is ongoing in George Town, where long-discussed revitalisation measures are under way. “We started some repaving and some redesigning of the roads [and] those continue; [we’re] looking at areas that we can pedestrianise or have shared streets that we’re sharing with pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles,” Hew said.

Additionally, the Department of Planning’s ‘Plan Cayman’ explores options to reduce the islands’ dependence on cars and create roadways appropriate for all types of traffic, including vehicles and pedestrians. The considerations of ‘Plan Cayman’ are extensive, covering corridor plans, public transportation, roads maintenance, parking standards and water taxis, among other topics.

Prospect MLA Austin Harris has also submitted recommendations to Cabinet to consider from his Vehicle Imports and Transportation Committee.

In reality, few of the ideas to restructure Cayman’s transportation are new. Before, however, Langevin says the island was too successful to seriously pursue structural changes. The crisis, he says, could provide the opportunity Cayman needs to push its roads system towards greatness.

“There are a lot of things that you feel [are] going wrong, but as long as you’re successful, you keep on doing it because you don’t have the time to stop and think and reinvent,” he said.

“Right now, we were forced to stop, and we need to reinvent ourselves.”

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  1. Certainly, all of the ideas expressed in the above article are good ones. Hopefully they will not only become words in a report filed away on someone’s bookcase.

    One simple word of caution. The government needs to plan for and implement a reasonable plan to maintain Cayman’s transport system. Each day I drive down Esterley Tibbetts Highway and remark at the terrible condition of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in plants that all seem to be abandoned. From end to end, it is a disgrace. Even in front of Britannia, where huge trees were replanted just last year, everything is a mess.

    Please remember infrastructure needs preventive maintenance!