Columns

Planning without people in mind

Al Miller

Sunday, June 10, 2018

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In a newspaper article entitled 'Seven new stop lights erected on Marcus Garvey Drive', Stephen Shaw, communications and customer service manager at the National Works Agency (NWA), was recorded as urging pedestrians to use the facilities provided. The article puts it this way: “He is reminding road users to obey the speed limit along Marcus Garvey Drive, and urges pedestrians not to climb over the median barriers but to use the facilities that have been provided for them to safely cross the busy corridor.” (The Gleaner, July 31, 2017)

I have a question for Shaw: Travelling in an easterly direction from Three Miles towards downtown Kingston, what is the distance between the pedestrian bridge which is near to the Portmore Toll Road/Marcus Garvey interchange and the first available pedestrian opening in the median barrier on Marcus Garvey Drive?

Every day this stretch of road sees several hundreds, if not thousands, of motor vehicles plying the routes between the Portmore Toll road or Three Miles and downtown Kingston. Every day many pedestrians can be seen attempting to cross the carriageway, others hauling themselves over the median barrier, or sometimes walking along parallel to it in the middle of roadway. Every time I see them, I wonder, how did we let this happen? Who designed this system? Didn't it occur to someone, to anyone, that there were many pedestrians who would need to get from one side to the other? Didn't anyone realise that there were workers on the port side who needed access to their workplaces?

I can hear the objections now being formed in the mouth of the NWA communications head, “There is an overhead bridge for pedestrian use.” — or something like this. I don't deny it.

But how far is it from the pedestrian bridge to the next nearest opening in the median barrier, and how many bus stops are in-between these two points?

I will attempt an answer to the first: Using my odometer, I measured it at approximately 1.3 km. I'm really not sure how many bus stops there are, but perhaps Shaw can answer.

The issue is of particular relevance today because, just this past week (Tuesday, June 5), I saw the sight that I have been dreading for months as I have often seen people climbing over the centre median at different times. The traffic slowed to a crawl, even though it wasn't yet 7:00 am. I saw a police vehicle, with its flashing blue lights, a small crowd gathered on the side of the road and, as the car inched closer to where the people had congregated, there lay the motionless and obviously twisted body of a woman. She appeared to be dressed for some type of clerical work. Two men were attempting to lift her from the side of the road. A few metres further down the road was a small SUV with a shattered windscreen and the hood caved in with a human-sized dent.

My condolence to the family of this precious and valuable citizen. I am sorry to say, however, that I don't expect much will come of her passing. Sadly, it seems that a decision was already made that folks who might need to cross the road from the bus stop on the east-bound carriageway to their places of employment on the opposite side of Marcus Garvey Drive were already expendable. How else do you interpret the fact that the lay-bys constructed for the buses to come out of the traffic flow and re-enter without interrupting the flow, are positioned so that the people exiting the bus end up at locations with no facilities for them to safely cross the road?

Do people have to be responsible about how they use the roads? Of course, no one would argue otherwise. But it seems that there is so much more that could be done from the perspective of design if the thinking of decision-makers had a different underlying principle — a principle that is centred on the people more than in an organisational or defined set of objectives.

In our current world, management principles and business philosophy is customer-centric. In the management of our Jamaican society, the best interest of all the people should take priority and be foremost on the minds of leaders and planners. Perhaps we should call that new-era Jamaican governance philosophy a people-centric one.

People-centric thinking absent...again

I see where this type of people-centric thinking has not informed the design of the new roadway in the Barbican area either. So I feel compelled to ask, where are the people's representatives in all of this? Who is speaking out for the regular man in the street?

This newspaper carried an article headlined 'Barbican blues' on Friday, June 1, 2018. It stated: “On completion, the Barbican Road Improvement Project will significantly improve the traffic congestion generally associated with that section of the Corporate Area. But, for some, the upgrade is posing a major challenge.

“According to Dr Christine Hendricks, executive director of Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities, the needs of people with disabilities were not taken in consideration.”

The executive director went on to say that there is a lack of proper access for wheelchairs along the Barbican corridor.

The NWA's response is essentially that they are there, but they probably need a little tweaking.

The communication and customer services manager said the disabled community's concerns were taken into consideration before construction.

“'That is why we have, for example, made provisions for the ramps. Regarding the lips along the sidewalks in the area, we will be re-examining all to ensure that they function as we expect. The issue for the [disabled] community is not an absence of the [ramp] facility, but how the kerb block was constructed. This we will most definitely examine for rectification. As it relates to the median, that is there for safety reasons. Crossing of the road should be done at the signalised points,' he said.”

Apparently ramps have been provided but they do not descend to the level of the roadway, and so do not accomplish the purpose for which they are purportedly built.

More questions for the NWA: Is there a specification that is guiding the construction of these ramps? If so, why weren't they built to specs? If there is no standard, why not? Did anyone think to consult with the ultimate users of the ramps to find out what their needs were?

It's time we get serious about how we deliver services to the Jamaican people. Our planning must properly grapple with the contending and sometimes competing needs of the various interest groups, and we must learn to take care of the most vulnerable amongst us.

Last week we saw Prime Minister Andrew Holness touring the works being carried out at Hagley Park Road. Images of the proposed overpasses at Three Miles have been circulating. Questions: Are there provisions for pedestrians in these new designs? Will there be proper sidewalks? And, have we given consideration to how people walking or on bicycles will get from one point to another?

Ironically, perhaps, we built sidewalks from the cruise ship pier in Ocho Rios to Dunn's River and into the town. There is a lovely boardwalk constructed on the Palisadoes Road. So it appears that we can plan for pedestrians if we choose to. But maybe the issue again is one of objectives. We want to get tourists from the pier to the attractions and shops. Or we want to provide a nice, safe space for joggers along a scenic route. But we are in danger of appearing to only consider recreational walkers and not those who are pedestrians of necessity.

In a fast-developing nation, and with as high an incidence of road fatalities as ours, surely the time has come to re-examine how we plan and execute our major road projects. Are we satisfied that we are designing with the safety of all road users in mind?

Think for a moment about the roads that you use on a daily basis. How many of them are properly equipped with sidewalks and provisions for the disabled? Consider the highways and main roads that link our towns, where are people expected to walk? Perhaps the NWA could tell us what fraction of our roads are so equipped.

What we have been talking about is roads, but this same underlying pattern exists in many other spheres and informs the way we do many things because our people are not at the centre of our thinking.

Do you remember when they opened the newly constructed facility for the Registrar General's Department in Twickenham Park? When they started operations they had to put tents outside to accommodate the people. What had happened? We planned for space for files and computers and offices so that we could deliver a faster service, but no one thought about the people who would need to use the service. I'm told that there is also a tent outside the parish court in Spanish Town for the same reason — the building hasn't got enough space to accommodate those who are meant to use it.

It's this same thinking that allowed the deterioration of Cornwall Regional Hospital over the last 15 years. It is a place for the common people, so it doesn't matter if it gets run down. Perhaps if the doctors had not started complaining nothing would have changed.

Sometimes we say that we don't do some things because we don't have the money, but you first need to have the mindset that puts people first. We have the tendency to retain the thinking of our colonial masters — that is to plan with what suited their particular objective, whilst remaining oblivious to the welfare of the people. Now we have been freed of that system, let's mentally adjust to a people-centric approach.

The poor suffer

Nationally, we have not demonstrated a sufficient sensitivity to the needs of the poor, the ordinary citizens of this nation, even after 56 years of Independence. We pay lip service to them, but when the rubber meets the road, too often the poor end up getting crushed because we don't think about how our plans and actions impact them.

We see this in nearly every sphere. Look at the inequity in the education system which is constructed to their detriment; the disparity in the provision of health services; the relentless injustices they suffer not only from their conditions, but often from the very agents of the State who are supposed to protect and serve them.

The Members of Parliament often forget who they largely represent. And the Church forgets who it is supposed to defend and care for as a priority. The evidence of this is clear in the conditions in which most of their constituents and congregants live.

It seems that some of these issues are intractable, yet it is amazing how easily we consider changing our laws to benefit a few (think LGBTQ, who make up about one per cent of the population), but are less willing to change things for the poor, who make up over 70 per cent of the population; those for whom poverty is not a choice, but the result of a systemic social construct that has held them captive. We have not demonstrated the will to prioritise the needs of ordinary Jamaicans in our thinking.

It is part of the human condition, perhaps, to be self-centred or to only think in terms of how things affect us and those close to us. But planning for a nation requires planning for diverse groups with varying and divergent needs. It can only be done well if we engage in broad-based consultations; if we seek input from affected persons and groups; if we care enough to ask, how can I help you; if we truly become people-centric in our thinking and actions.

Rev Al Miller is pastor of Fellowship Tabernacle. Send comments to the Observer or pastormilleroffice@gmail.com.

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