East Bank public road

by Kester Morris
Stabroek News
July 10, 1999

Evolution of a traffic jam

Picture this. A city that is the capital of a large developing country is serviced by two main arteries to the east. These arteries are unquestionably important. One forms a path to the country's only international airport and then links up with another all important highway to a mining town. The other successfully links the west and east banks of one of its counties by bridging one of the country's three major rivers.

One of these arteries is a highway, the other a floating bridge that is said to be the longest of its kind in the world. Across this bridge, an average of 3,300 vehicles pass daily emptying out onto the aforementioned highway.

Basic multiplication tells one that a minimum of 16,500 vehicles cross the bridge within an average working week. This is after making allowances for the fact that such traffic perceptibly declines over the weekend.

Before making their way to the bridge and upon exiting it, these 3,300-odd vehicles must daily compete with a comparable number of vehicles for space on a highway that, in most places is only wide enough for two vehicles headed in opposite directions to drive side by side.

Both lines of traffic are on a schedule. In each lane, there are parents anxious to drop their children off at school before driving themselves to work. Both sides are also filled with vehicles driven by mini-bus drivers determined to squeeze the most out of the first rush hour of the day. In both lanes, too, there are trucks carrying goods not intended to spend long hours in the sun. Every one in traffic has a date to keep or a job to get to that is more important than that of the other driver behind or beside him.

The result? Controlled chaos. Controlled because of the presence of traffic officers along the route and particularly at the bridge prevent the situation from totally degenerating into mass accidents.

Nonetheless it is still chaos. Vehicles coming from the nation's airport will encounter long lines miles before the bridge that they must join in order to stand a chance of passing the bottleneck.

Meanwhile, tempers are stretched to breaking point, there are occasional fender benders and everyone who is caught in it loses something out of their day.

Anyone unlucky enough to have left home after 0700 hrs and be caught in this situation will see trips from the bridge to the capital city that usually take 13 minutes, stretch to an hour and a half.

Some truly unlucky persons will experience this traffic nightmare twice; once in the early morning hours when headed towards the city and again in the afternoon when they are headed towards home; the afternoon rush hour traffic is just as horrendous.

The picture described is that of a typical traffic jam on the East Bank Highway, and it is one with which many commuters are intimately familiar, having experienced it all too frequently.

The bridge identified earlier is the Demerara Harbour Bridge, a lifeline to residents on the West Demerara River. But many drivers along the East Bank public road are complaining that the bridge is responsible for the influx of traffic on the Highway that creates gridlock almost on a daily basis. This complaint came from mini-bus drivers.

According to them there are two peak times when these traffic jams occur.

The first peak period is between 0700 hrs to 0930 hrs. Incidentally the bridge also has its peak periods with the first falling between 0700 to 0830 hrs when most of the traffic is headed east or onto the highway. The second peak period for the use of the bridge, when traffic is headed west, is said to be between 1630 to 1830 hrs. This falls well within the second rush hour on the highway, which, according to regular travellers, is between 1600 and 1730 hrs.

When these figures are taken into consideration, it is also interesting to note that the present amount of traffic criss-crossing the bridge currently stands at some ten percent over its level six months ago. This is according to Project Manager of the Demerara Harbour Bridge, Rickford Lowe, who also furnished the other information regarding the traffic on the bridge.

Studies are yet to be carried out by the relevant authorities to determine the reason for the increase, but the project manager did have some theories as to why the traffic had surged, citing the increase in the number of travelling vehicles and an increase in the number of commutes being made by mini-buses.

Although the reason behind the increase is not immediately clear, Lowe did remark that one identifiable aspect of the increase has been a surge in the number of goods vehicle (trucks carrying produce) over the bridge.

Apart from this, there is another side to the traffic situation on the East Bank Demerara--the free movement of vehicles is also hampered when the bridge is closed to vehicular traffic. Since it is physically impossible for the bridge to hold all traffic headed across the river at one time, the excess vehicles spill over onto the road.

Many drivers caught up in this gauntlet no doubt wish that they had followed their own advice and stayed home.

Bumper to bumper: Early morning traffic lines the East Bank Highway outside Eccles. On some mornings the line of traffic is said to extend from the Demerara Harbour Bridge to as far back as Providence. (Aubrey Crawford photo)

East bank drivers say: Leave home early or don't leave at all

If the regular drivers along the East Bank Public Road are to be believed, there are only two ways to avoid the early morning crush of traffic that almost daily slows city bound traffic to a crawl on the East Bank highway. Commuters desirous of beating the traffic blues should either leave their home well before 0700 hrs to reach their destination, or never leave home at all.

As hilarious as this may sound, it is a serious statement of fact for many mini-bus drivers who regularly ply routes 42 (Timehri-Georgetown [23 miles]), 43 (Linden-Georgetown [65 miles]), 32 (Parika-Georgetown [28 miles]) and 31 (West Demerara-Georgetown [nine miles]). The distance between the Demerara Harbour Bridge and Georgetown is three and a half miles.

Mini-bus drivers, arguably the most frequent travellers on the road, say that these traffic jams are between 0700 to 1000 hrs.

During these hours the Demerara Harbour Bridge is open to vehicular traffic which empties out onto the two-lane highway that forms the East Bank road.

One Route 32 driver, who wanted to be known only as "Short Man" said that he usually makes the 28-mile trip from Parika to Georgetown in one and a half hours, with some 15 minutes of that trip being spent travelling from the Demerara Harbour Bridge to Georgetown. However, he said that when he encounters a traffic jam, which at times extends from the bridge as far back as Providence, the time is stretched to three hours or more.

He laments that, in addition to the five trips he usually makes a day, he could be making an additional two or three were it not for the traffic jams.

One route 42 bus driver, who travels as far as Grove, described the hours-long delay as "torture". In earthy language he related how it felt to "be on the clock" (the bus does not belong to him) and having to sit through traffic knowing that every hour wasted represented money lost.

This driver and one other were the only ones who attributed the traffic jams to anything other than the bridge. Both plied route 42, and both stated that fellow drivers and seemingly inexperienced policemen contribute to the problem.

According to one, some drivers, reckless in their haste will perform all manner of manoeuvres to cut time, making it difficult for others. These drivers are said to drive on the shoulder of the road to get ahead of the traffic. However, another driver with no idea of what is ahead may unwittingly follow this driver who leads him right into another pocket of traffic. If the second driver is followed by another and another, the situation results in several vehicles angling onto the road while not being on it.

According to the route 42 driver, by the time this is sorted out by the traffic police more time is wasted.

Time is one commodity that Frank Persaud, a private driver who lives at La Grange, said he could not afford to waste.

Persaud, who has to report for work at 0700 hrs, told Stabroek News that he has already seen one of his colleagues fired for being constantly late and that is something that he cannot risk.

His reasons are simple--he has two children and a wife. Every weekday morning (he works a five-day week) the four get out of bed before dawn or as he puts it, "before bird wife wake."

Persaud told Stabroek News that his wife cooks the morning meal at night and that she warms it up in the morning. While she is doing this, Persaud says, he bathes his children and the three get ready for the day ahead. Ironing is also done at night.

Persaud says that most days his children arrive at their primary school very early--a small price to pay for their father's continued job security.

While Persaud gets to work by driving into the city, for many mini- bus drivers their job is driving to the city. They complain that the frequent traffic jams hamper their work.

According to another driver, time lost is just one effect of the traffic jams. The driver, who plies route 42, said that during a traffic jam, fuel is wasted since they have to keep their engines running.

Having experienced these problems for several years, most of the drivers Stabroek News spoke to seemed to possess a fair idea as to the problem which is causing the traffic jams and how it could be fixed.

They are of the view that the road is too small and needs to be widened. One said that traffic signals are needed at the bridge since the police are human and seem to practice favouritism; allowing "fancy" cars to pass ahead of mini-buses.

Funding identified for four-lane artery

The chaotic situation on the East Bank road could be relieved in as little as three months time.

This is according to Minster of Transport and Hydraulics, Anthony Xavier, who, in a recent conversation, stated that government was in the process of restarting a long dormant project to rehabilitate the road.

The project he referred to was the construction of a four-lane highway, which, in 1995, had been contracted to the Trinidadian firm NH International\Emile Elias.

The four-lane highway between Peters Hall (where the Demerara Harbour Bridge is located) and Georgetown, was supposed to form part of NH International's larger contract to rehabilitate the Georgetown to Timehri Road.

The project, estimated to cost $5,000,000 was scheduled to be completed in 18 months, with the intention being for northbound traffic from Peters Hall to Georgetown to occupy two lanes, while southbound traffic occupies the other two lanes.

However, two and a half years later, the company had "demobilised" and left Guyana with the four-lane highway still not constructed.

According to Chairman of the joint venture, Emile Elias, the reason for the non completion of the four-lane highway had been because funds budgeted for the project had not been enough.

Elias was quoted in the Stabroek News issue of October 16, 1997, as saying that the portion of the contract calling for the four-lane highway was suspended since the beginning of the project, which then ended in the vicinity of the Demerara Harbour Bridge.

Xavier, under whose ministry the project fell, acknowledged four years ago that it had been halted because of a lack of funds.

He, however, said that efforts to raise the required funds had not stopped and that in the meantime government had concentrated on widening the road in phases with two lanes being rehabilitated first. Initial improvements have been made in the road with a number of bridges having been widened under the auspices of the Ministry of Public Works and Communication.

According to Xavier, government expected to realise the funds to widen the road in about three months' time after which construction would begin. Like the original project four years ago, this too will be internationally funded.

Even in 1997, there had existed plans to construct alternative bypasses along the bridges on the highway, a position that according to Xavier is still on the cards.

The plans for the alleviation of the traffic problem, include the upgrading of an existing by-road that weaves through neighbouring Republic Park and Nandy Park and emerges at Eccles thereby providing an alternative route for northbound drivers.

At present this route is being utilised by some drivers who are pressed for time or are reluctant to brave the crush of traffic on the main road. But from all accounts the condition of the road leaves much to be desired and according to one driver, the route travels over a very unsound bridge in Nandy Park.

In any regard, Xavier noted that the construction of the proposed four-lane highway would reduce dependence on any such upgrading project.

Traffic from the Demerara Harbour Bridge about to merge with city- bound traffic. (Aubrey Crawford photo)

Several other areas prone to congestion -1500 buses competing for Stabroek Market space

The East Bank public road is not unique among Guyanese roads for being prone to congestion. At a traffic seminar held by the Guyana Police Force (GPF) last year, nine other areas around Georgetown and its environs that were prone to congestion were identified.

These include :
1) Water Street, between Croal Street and Robb Street
2) Croal Street, between Avenue of the Republic and Water Street
3) Avenue of the Republic and Light Street
4) North road, between Light Street and Camp Street
6) Cornhill Street, between Croal Street and Hadfield Street
7) Hadfield Street from Cornhill to High Street
8) Lombard Street, from Hadfield Street to Saffon Street unto Ruimveldt Public Road
9) Parika Market and Stelling area on Thursdays and Sundays

Regarding traffic congestion in the city, the Police seminar concluded that this was a result of, among other things, inadequate parking facilities.

It was pointed out that there are in excess of 1,500 buses competing for parking places in the Stabroek market area, a space that can only accommodate 100.

This inevitably leads to double parking, triple parking and the all too Guyanese phenomenon of buses stopping in the middle of the road to pick up passengers.

Vendors were also tipped as another cause of the city's congestion given that they occupy both the sidewalks and the streets, occasionally forcing many a commuter onto the already narrow streets. On the East Bank, it was concluded that the traffic jams were a result of "the amount of traffic, including on horse drawn carts and slow moving vehicles on the lone road during peak hours."

Too many cars, not enough roads -police estimate number of vehicles at over 110,000

Social scientists have come to the conclusion that Guyana may be under populated in terms of people but, as Spotlight on Issues has found out, this is certainly not true of its vehicle population. As a country with a human population estimated at 739,000, Guyana is said to have in excess of 110,000 vehicles with an average of 6-7 thousand vehicles of all classes being introduced on our roads every year.

Those statistics naturally beget the question "Just how many miles of road does Guyana have?" The answer, according to the Police Traffic Department, is about 1,470 miles of main roads countrywide. These include major roads like the Timehri to Rosignol Road (90 miles long), Charity to Supenaam (38 miles), Soesdyke-Linden Highway (43 miles), West Coast Demerara\West Bank Demerara\East Bank Essequibo (75.2 miles), Corentyne from New Amsterdam to Crabwood Creek (50.8 miles).

Also according to the Police Traffic Department, there have been no additional traffic roads constructed in Guyana during the past 20 years "save and except what used to be the east Demerara railway and the road to Mahdia". The result - an increase in vehicular population without an increase in the mileage of roadways.

The situation justifies a warning coming out of a recent police seminar which noted that the influx of vehicles onto the already inadequate roads can be linked to both accidents and traffic congestion in Guyana.

Even more worrying is that most of the existing roads are said to be too narrow to accommodate a free flow of heavy traffic primarily during the peak hours with a case in point being the East Bank road. The police seminar put it in perspective by noting that in 1969 there were an estimated 13,000 vehicles on the roads. Five years later the figure had risen to 60,000 while, today that figure stands at over 100,000.

Among the tentative proposals to fix this two-fold problem are placing a limit on the number of vehicles being brought into the country until areas for highways are identified and constructed. It is one of the hopes advanced to balance the scale of vehicles versus roads where the vehicles hopelessly outnumber the number of roads.

The role of the police officer

Given that there are no traffic signals in position at the Demerara Harbour Bridge, the role of the police officer in monitoring the traffic at the intersection becomes even more important.

Police Traffic Chief, Assistant Commissioner Paul Slowe, when contacted for an assessment of the police officers deployed along the East Bank road, declined to comment, stating that for security reasons this information could not be released.

However, within a three-day (Tuesday to Friday) period interrupted by a national holiday, varying amounts of police officers were observed lining the road from Peters Hall to Houston between 0700 to 0930 hrs. On Tuesday, six officers were stationed at points along the route, a number that rose to seven on Thursday and fell to four on Friday.

On the aforementioned days, officers were observed in position at the Demerara Harbour Bridge (which has police station outpost as its neighbour).

Others were in place near the National Milling Company on the Eccles public road, while yet another was observed patrolling the area in the vicinity of the Agricola Public Road.

On Thursday, one was observed regulating traffic in front of the Houston Community High School, while further down the road another police officer was performing his duties at the junction leading to the back road.

The drivers Stabroek News spoke to mostly seemed to agree that the police officers perform adequately.

The lone dissenter was Ovid Bourke, a middle-aged driver who lives in Soesdyke and makes the commute to Georgetown daily.

According to Bourke, some of the traffic officers are "li'l boys" who appear to randomly stop the flow of traffic to allow another lane to pass.

Bourke, who said he had 20 years driving experience, said that the right-of-way traffic (meaning city bound traffic) should be allowed to proceed unhindered until there is either a break in traffic or a significant build up on the bridge.

More parking space for bridge planned

The authorities at the Demerara Harbour Bridge are doing their part in attempting to limit the frequency of the traffic jams that snarl the East Bank Demerara public road.

In a recent conversation, Rickford Lowe, Project Manager of the Demerara Harbour Bridge told Spotlight on Issues that plans are in the works to widen the parking space available for traffic on the bridge.

Lowe acknowledged that some of the frequent traffic jams are caused when the Bridge is closed to vehicular traffic and stalled traffic accumulates on the Harbour Bridge.

Given the limited space available, traffic inevitably overflows and leads to a traffic snarl at the Peters Hall junction.

The plan to alleviate this problem centres around levelling some vacant land south of the toll station on the East Bank side of the Bridge.

The space will be converted into a hard standing surface that will accommodate trucks which, along with mini-buses are the main occupants of the almost daily traffic jams.

The hope is that the Bridge will then be able to hold more traffic with less spill off which will contribute to fewer traffic jams or at the very least, traffic jams with less traffic in them.

Such a project could be realised in four or five months time with the funding expected to be drawn from both government allocations as well as Bridge revenues, according to Lowe.

The proposed "parking lot" will be a holdover measure of sorts given Lowe's express statement that the proposed four-lane highway will be the panacea for the traffic problems that dog the East Bank Road.

Lowe also pointed out to Spotlight that the job of traffic management in the area of the Bridge falls to the Providence Police station while Bridge workers are only obliged to patrol the claybrick portion of the East Bank side and a slightly longer portion on the West Bank Demerara side.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples