Solving the Transit Crisis in Maldives
On an episode of Patriot Act, comedian Hasan Minhaj shed some light on the issue of poor public transportation in the United States. This issue is a major problem in the up and coming cities of the world, and it also resonates with me very much. The reason it hit so close to home is, we have to deal with the nuisances the of lack of public transportation back home. In this piece, I want to address the transit crisis in my island nation.
You probably heard of Maldives on some travel advertisement, beckoning to you with milky beaches that clash with vibrant blue waters. This is a beautiful picture from afar, but for the citizens back home, the experience is as much of a dream as it would be for you. Roughly a third of the 400,000 people living in the country are concentrated in the greater Malé area, where islanders come in hopes of better education, better health-care, and a generally better life.
But is it really better in the capital? Families are crammed into tiny little boxes that would barely qualify as acceptable living standards for subjects of psychological experimentation, much less for actual apartments, and are stacked on top of each other. Then, they are thrown into a daily life of constant bombardment with much work and little sleep, accidents and violence, harassment and annoyances. The fast life in this city isn’t as admirable as the Instagram posts it generates. However, I am here to talk about one specific issue: transportation. So let us not diverge, but get down to business.
The Transit Problem in Malé
The start of the 21st century marked a critical point in the inflow of people into the capital. I myself was an immigrant, sent to the capital by my parents in hopes of giving me a better education, and in turn a better life for the family. As the population increased, so did the vehicles. As living standards progressed, bicycles changed into motorcycles, and motorcycles into cars as well. People were experiencing the hassles of having to get around and get along in a tiny area.
In fact, Yoosay, the renowned filmmaker who created socially relevant masterpieces of the time, recognized this issue as well. Nonetheless, the government in power at the time had complete control, and no considerable opponents. The leaders were stagnant, perhaps frozen into sitting on the public coffers. In summary, no one bothered.
According to government statistics, the number of newly registered motorcycled soared by 81%, while the number of cars also jumped, by 58%. Since then, the number of motorcycles being registered every year has remained more or less constant at over 9000 units. A significant portion of these vehicles are purchased and used in the capital city. This is coupled with lack of assigning or monitoring whether owners have parking spaces, leading to parking all through the streets and further aggravating the chronic congestion and the degradation of the environment. The scenario remains unchanged even today. Why?
Where Did the Buses Go?
After the longest time without a public transport system, the first bus routes were established in Malé approximately a decade ago. Sadly, because of losses incurred due to bad management, the system was abolished within a short period of time. Despite the unreliability, those buses definitely made my life easier while crossing an ocean and travelling to and from school. Furthermore, the city has no proper planning measures, not to mention any consideration for the island’s walkability. Consequently, getting around on roads has become tedious, and even dangerous for pedestrians. How do we as residents get out of this literal jam?
Alternative Transportation Solutions
Less Is More
In the current situation, everyone buys a vehicle for themselves and uses it for themselves. If it is a motorcycle, there is usually one seat unoccupied, and if it is a car, there is room for three more. What if we could occupy these spaces? If you could rent out those seats to make a small return on your investment on the vehicle, wouldn’t you? Vehicle sharing and carpooling is a way to be more economic and environmentally friendly. What’s more, it also improves our social lives, and that counts for something in these digital times. A private car for every man and woman isn’t feasible in today’s rapidly urbanizing cities. Hopefully soon, they will become obsolete and give way to shared taxi networks.
Since I live in India, I use auto-rickshaws on a regular basis to get to places. I have come to admire their versatility and maneuverability as compared to their four-wheeled counterparts. I wonder how different the traffic scenario in Malé would be if we reduced the relatively humongous taxi cabs, and replaced them with these motorized rickshaws. It would be much easier to navigate the narrow streets, and it would take up less parking space.
At the same time, the same number of passengers can be accommodated in less space. To top it all, it is less expensive for drivers to invest in a rickshaw, in terms of initial cost as well as operational expenses. If rickshaws with four-stroke engines are used, we could maximize benefits while steering clear of emissions and pollution problems that are evident in other nations which utilize conventional rickshaws.
The Future Is Electric
Speaking of emissions and pollution, this seems to be the correct juncture to discuss electric vehicles. Technology has progressed to the point where nowadays, we have gadgets to convert conventional bicycles to electric hybrids. There are different emerging technologies that cater to individuals and families in their transportation requirements.
Electric vehicles are currently limited by their battery capacity, and subsequently their mileage per charge. However, in a nation made of average 1.5 km2 islands, battery capacity doesn’t pose as much of problem. Ideally, considering a motorcycle with a range of 160 km, even with constant rides, a person in Malé could last a week on a single charge. So it is also important to make citizens aware about the potential upsides of using electric vehicles as opposed to oil guzzling automobiles. But perhaps, this is a better conversation for another day, when we have tackled the immediate problems.
Walking and Biking
Another thing to promote is walking and bicycles. In my little research to write this article, I have observed the transit systems in various developed countries. However, they aren’t really applicable to a small land area. That is, except what the Netherlands has to offer. The walkability and the priority the city gives to bicycles is exemplary and should be adopted into our infrastructure as well. It is only logical that bicycles be the go-to means of transport in small islands. Especially if we are to preserve our poster "island" image, which fuels our economy.
Should Malé Bring Back Buses?
Let us come back to buses. My thought is that buses were not feasible because there were not enough customers willing to use the system. To use the buses, most of us require a lifestyle change; a routine change. To not let buses be another nuisance on the road, we need to make sure they are a proper fit to be driven on the roads we have. All of these aspects are interconnected, and we have to solve all or none.
During my visit to Nepal, I observed a curious mechanism of transport. They used modified vans to accommodate more people, and travelled along predefined routes, usually around main areas or along the main roads. Considering the distances travelled, the prices were quite cheap as well. This microbus system could also be a great alternative to the conventional buses that were used earlier within the capital.
The Power for Change
I have saved the issue of government policy for last, because it is definitely not the least. The authorities have procrastinated long enough without taking actions on the problems that has arisen within our communities. Vehicle imports need to be at least temporarily suspended until solutions are implemented and the overflow is reduced. Implementing quotas on vehicle imports seem to be a viable solution for the long term. This might ruffle the feathers of the big companies that play in this industry. Nevertheless, these are necessary steps if we are to improve the situation of the road, and quality of life in the capital.
Promoting walking, bicycling and public transportation use and implementing technological solutions are ways in which the government can influence citizens. As accessible as technology is in modern Maldives, people are still unaware of the potential the devices they use have in improving their lives, with software engineering and mathematics. Data collection is also vital to recognize the exact nature of problems to figure out optimal solutions for urban planning and monitor how effective their implementation has been. These are all ways the government can step in, and the concerned authorities definitely have a major role to play in changing our environment.
At the end of the day, change in infrastructure is not going to improve anything; we as a people need to change our mindset and our lifestyles. The ideals of ‘every man for himself’ isn’t going to work if we are going to live harmoniously. Each of us needs to sacrifice, to give up perhaps a small part of what we want so that all of us can coexist in synergy. It is the basis of public transportation, as well as a holistic and constructive society. It is the basic principle of life. Give and get. That's it, that's all.