Cycling is risky business in Trinidad & Tobago, as pleas for road accommodations go unanswered

Feature image via Canva Pro.

A hit-and-run cycling incident that took place four months ago at the Queen’s Park Savannah — Trinidad’s foremost recreational grounds and largest green space within the capital, Port of Spain — has taken on new life, reopening old wounds for the families of previous victims.

On the morning of July 9, photojournalist Anthony Harris was cycling around the Savannah when he was hit by a vehicle. Though Harris’ injuries were serious — he was rushed to hospital where he underwent brain surgery — the driver fled the scene. The following day, Harris died.

Harris is, sadly, not the only cyclist who has. On November 10, 2018, a driver who lost control of his vehicle ploughed into a group of 14 riders along the Beetham Highway, the country's main east-west thoroughfare, killing two and injuring many others despite the fact that the group had a police escort.

While comprehensive statistics on cycling fatalities in Trinidad and Tobago are limited, several notable cases have captured headlines in recent years. In 2018 alone, at least eight cyclists were killed. According to data published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2020, deaths from traffic accidents in Trinidad and Tobago reached 130 or 1.51 percent of total deaths — concerning in a population of just about 1.4 million people. However, the country's Minister of Works and Transport Rohan Sinanan said that between 2018 and 2021, there was a “significant” decline in fatal road accidents.

This is not doing much to reassure road users. In speaking with Global Voices, former national cyclist Michael Phillips admitted that cycling on the nation's roadways feels like a risk, explaining why he is hesitant about having his children, who are interested in cycling, go riding with him:

I may be very experienced and skilled, but that does not help [in cases where] someone [may] just point-blank hit you from behind. [There are] also issues of ignorance of the law. Sometimes a driver may pass by and shout, ‘Ride on the sidewalk; go somewhere else and ride!’ It will help us if drivers just drove in accordance with the law, understanding that we are legally entitled to use the roads.

Trinidad and Tobago's Motor Vehicles and Road Traffic Act classifies bicycles as “vehicles,” thereby granting cyclists the right to use all roads, like any other vehicular category. There has even been an educational campaign pushing for motorists to “share the road.”

Phillips has been in his share of cycling accidents. Relaying a story in which he was hit by a truck while cycling in the Chaguaramas national park in northwest Trinidad, he remembers being knocked off his bike while the vehicle drove off. Could there be another factor at play in these types of road accidents? Whichever factors are contributing to cycling deaths may also be playing a role in the deaths of pedestrians, who comprised the largest portion (39 percent) of road traffic fatalities in 2021, according to the NGO Arrive Alive.

In an interview with Global Voices, Ryan Darmanie, an expert in urban planning, said the July incident in which Harris was killed stood out to him, especially because of where it happened: “I run around the Queen’s Park Savannah quite regularly, and feel extremely uncomfortable and unsafe due to the adjacent high-speed traffic.”

Suggesting that a recent decision to increase the speed limit from 50 to 65 km/hour around the Queen's Park Savannah caused the safety situation to deteriorate even further, Darmanie criticised the Ministry of Works and Transport for simply increasing the speed limits to match speeds displayed on the road, instead of redesigning the roadways to encourage slower speeds.

On the heels of the Beetham Highway cycling deaths in 2018, Minister of Works and Transport Rohan Sinanan said that the government was working to improve road safety via its Draft Policy on Road Cycling, which he presented to Cabinet on November 15. The legislation is meant to ensure that cycle provisions are integrated into both existing road infrastructure and designs for new developments. Committing to repair the roads in Chaguaramas, which are heavily used by cyclists, the minister also noted that the country's Highway Code and Motor Vehicle Road Traffic Act had been updated to impose fines and demerit points on anyone who committed cycling-related violations.

While the ministry did complete a road rehabilitation project in Chaguaramas between 2019 and 2020 that included a 6.4 km cycling lane, there have been mixed reactions. The measure was positively received by some, while others deemed the protective barriers along the route too flimsy to be of any use in an accident.

By 2019, Sinanan noted that while the government is committed to putting proper infrastructure in place, it is the responsibility of citizens to be more responsible on the nation's roads.

This belief that “a disciplinarian approach is all that it takes” is, according to Darmanie, counterproductive

We believe that laws, fines and appealing to personal responsibility can solve every imaginable problem. […] Maybe that works in authoritarian systems of governance, but we see time and time again that it fails in democracies. […] There are design factors that inherently encourage drivers to speed, by subconsciously suggesting that it is safe to do so, regardless of what a speed limit indicates. Addressing the issue requires creating an environment that is uncomfortable to speed in.

Speaking at a sod-turning ceremony not long after Harris’ death in July, Sinanan said that while there are efforts being made to improve safety for cyclists around the Queen's Park Savannah, space is a limiting factor.

The reality is that proper infrastructure for road users is lacking, thanks to a combination of inadequate maintenance, “space constraints” and poor urban planning. While extensive retrofitting may not be an option, there are other possible approaches. Darmanie advised that “traffic-calming” measures — inclusive of raised crosswalks, speed tables, textured paving and narrower travel lanes — can be implemented on dangerous roadways. It is also possible to simultaneously widen sidewalks and create protected bike lanes, as is the case in highly populous cities like New York. There could also be pedestrian and bike-only days on certain roads to encourage people to get outside in a safer environment, and the government could consider the removal or reduction of import duties and value-added tax (VAT) on bicycles and safety equipment, as well as introduce budgetary incentives for the installation of bicycle parking racks and shower facilities at both public and private sector offices.

Ultimately, though, Darmanie felt that local roadways should be redesigned to encourage slower speeds, saying, “Any agency creating traffic management policy in urban areas that doesn't focus on the risk of death to pedestrians and cyclists according to a vehicle's travelling speed, is acting extremely irresponsibly with the lives of citizens.” The factor that most closely correlates with road fatalities is total vehicle miles travelled. In other words, the more driving that occurs, the more fatalities there are. A safe and functional mass transit system could help reduce these figures in the long-term.

There is also another hurdle to get over: ethos. Transportation planner Onika Morris-Alleyne told Global Voices that “both pedestrians and cyclists are endangered by car-centric mindsets and car-centric approaches to the areas of infrastructure, operations and enforcement.” Darmanie agreed, explaining, “We absolutely fail to see the interconnectedness between decision-making at different ministries and agencies. […] The Ministry of Health recently launched the TT Moves campaign to increase physical activity. Of course, the best way to increase physical activity is to build it into our everyday modes of transportation. Yet, virtually all of our urban planning centres around how to cater to driving, and our transportation decisions do the same.”

“It is not that we don't have urban planning going on in T&T,” he continued, “it's that the results we are getting are a direct consequence of the particular approach to planning that we have pursued since Independence.” The country has not effectively anticipated or responded to change, failing to see how more bikes on the road can also benefit drivers (less traffic congestion), retailers (more foot traffic), and the environment (fewer greenhouse gas emissions).

Morris-Alleyne, meanwhile, said that in the absence of “a comprehensive and studied approach” to a national transportation policy, “we will continue to go in circles.”
There is no silver bullet — but there are success stories Trinidad and Tobago can learn from to develop “context-sensitive policies and approaches.” Making the point that “all transportation environments are a unique combination of geography, infrastructure and culture,” Morris-Alleyne posited:

The main solution is people-first transportation system design, which is connected to many many other issues in the areas of land use, public health and education. […] Infrastructure design is probably the most critical and tangible aspect. Are we designing our infrastructure to move and protect cars or move and protect people?

For the many families who have lost loved ones to road accidents, the answer is clear.

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