Grand Cayman’s mini buses: Lessons for failing US transit – Pacific Research Institute

Grand Cayman’s
mini buses:
Lessons for failing US transit

Jeremy Lott | May 17, 2024

Washington state’s law on children in cars is quite something for parents to accommodate, as one illustrated state handout demonstrates.

Your children must be in the back seat, in car seats facing backwards, for the first two years of their lives. From the ages of two to three, they have to ride in those same car seats in the same places, facing forward. After they turn four, they must ride with a booster seat until they reach the height of 4’9’’, which could be at least an irritation for little people, a bar set below 4’10’’ by state law. Even once they have cleared that bar, the law still says children must sit in back until they are 13 “when practical.”

So the mini-bus system on the most populous of the Cayman Islands took some getting used to for my then-two-year-old son Auggie, when my family visited in January for a seven-years-delayed honeymoon. On one of his first trips, he was riding upfront, facing forward with no seatbelt on, in the row just behind the bus driver, as the mini-bus zipped around one of the island’s narrow roads.

“Too fast, Mama. Slow down. It’s scaaaawy,” Auggie told my wife. She replied that she wasn’t the one driving, while the driver struggled to suppress a laugh. Yet the boy quickly took to it. By week’s end, I had to remove him from his spot and stick him next to me when he sat on the wheel well rather than on the bench. One of the local passengers filled the empty space, which prompted the indignant but brave little pipsqueak to poke the large man. “You in my spot,” he complained, to more laughter

Read this Free Cities Center booklet on transportation, “Putting Customers First.”

Read Free Cities Center Director Steven Greenhut’s recent column about BART.

Like my children, the Cayman Islands and especially Grand Cayman are growing like crazy these days. In 2022, for instance, the small island chain posted 10.5% population growth, according to the government’s official census numbers, and new construction is evident everywhere. Traffic has worsened and the mini-bus public transportation system is struggling to keep up with demand.

Consultancy Deloitte has written a spectacularly wrong-headed report for the government suggesting a complete overhaul, which was reported by the Island’s biggest newspaper, Cayman Compass: “Cayman’s private bus service should be scrapped and replaced with a modern government-run public bus network, a newly published transport report suggests. … [T]he move will help to reduce cars on the road by 20%.” This expansion would come at an estimated cost of $25 million to $30 million. Given recent trends in inflation, the price tag could be much higher.

The overwhelming problem with this advice is that the public transportation model Grand Cayman is being advised to follow is failing elsewhere – in a big way. All over the United States, publicly owned and operated metro bus systems have very long, roomy buses. These are being replaced with even more expensive, less effective electric powered buses thanks to federal subsidies, yet not nearly enough people are riding them.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, American bus ridership plummeted and has not recovered. Total transit trips in America were at 817 million in January 2020 versus 575 million in January 2024, according to data from the St. Louis Fed, a 29.6% decrease. That’s total transit, not buses, but buses are the most prevalent mode of transit and carry the lion’s share of passengers.

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There’s been a lot of hopeful writing about these numbers but America’s public transportation boosters. Why, after historic pandemic lows, transit in some cities has climbed back to roughly 70 percent of its old ridership. Progress!

There are only two problems with that boosterism. First, the change underlying decreased ridership looks to be structural. People are not going back into offices in historic numbers and thus not taking buses and other forms of transit back into their offices. Second, the current numbers are inflated by more generous subsidies than usual. In my own Washington state, for instance, thanks to a group of bills called Move Ahead Washington with a price tag of $17 billion, all riders 18 years old and younger ride free.

Consequently, fare-box recovery numbers – the percentage of costs recouped by bus fares – are lousy in most places. “Systemwide ridership in 2022 was still 32% lower than 2019 levels and fare revenue was 54% lower than 2019,” explained one report by greater Seattle’s Sound Transit.

There’s also what one can only describe a cultural divide in American public transportation. The website and satirical book “Stuff White People Like” was popular in the early aughts. It both chronicled and skewered the preferences of upper-middle-class white Americans. One of those preferences was for “Public Transportation That Is Not a Bus.” It’s telling that even before COVID descended, public transit saw significant decline from rideshare competition.

Large federal subsidies will end in the next few years and then there will be a reckoning. That will be more severe than it otherwise would have been, as subsidies have delayed a rightsizing of city fleets. The coming correction threatens to leave many folks who relied upon public transportation with even fewer options. Municipalities can soften the blow, but many cities are currently strapped for funds.

Long term, American busing will only prosper if Americans actually want to take buses. And here the Grand Cayman experience might be worth emulating, at least in part. The smaller vehicles both push passengers closer together and make sure fewer seats go unoccupied, and there is a sense of community that others would do well to cultivate.

On Grand Cayman, riders pay when they get off, rather than enter, the bus. You would think this would lead to an epidemic of non-payment, but in perhaps a dozen trips and return trips, we never saw a single passenger stiff a driver. Caymanians also told the driver where they were going when they got on, and it wasn’t uncommon for the driver to alter the route slightly to get them there. That was either right neighborly of them or an act of customer service that would be unheard of on most U.S. bus routes today.

Jeremy Lott is a writer based in Washington state.

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