The Productivity Council has designated 2017 the National Year of Productivity in a drive to make Bajans more productive, but there is no broad consensus about how to achieve that goal. The entrepreneurs tend to blame a bloated and bureaucratic civil service; the politicians tend to blame lack of private sector innovation and investment; established companies tend to blame high taxes and inflexible unions; the unions tend to blame private sector greed and lack of investment in employee training & development… everybody blames somebody else.
There are, however, some people who are doing significant things to raise productivity in Barbados. BeepBus is a service that allows you to find a bus route and Transport Board schedule in Barbados with on their website or mobile app. It’s a free tool that gives you step-by-step instructions to get to your destination using the Transport Board, minibuses, or ZRs (route taxis). How does this have an impact on productivity? What can you do to help?
The theme for National Year of Productivity is GET UP! (Getting Everyone To Understand Productivity). I wish them luck. I’d like to help. Productivity is a bit like pornography: it’s difficult to define with absolute precision, but you tend to recognize it without difficulty when you see it, so we need to build a mutual understanding of what constitutes productivity.
My own personal productivity is most often fueled by excessive doses of caffeine and maniacal scribbles on coffeeshop napkins, but the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has a more staid and replicable formula. The OECD defines a country’s labour productivity as GDP per hour worked; they see productivity growth as a central driver of long-term economic growth and living standards.
The OECD does not publish productivity statistics for small Caribbean economies, so this is where the maniacal scribbles on coffee stained napkins comes in. In 2016, the Employed Labour Force was 132,100 persons. In that year the GDP was US$4.47 billion according to the IMF. If we assume an average work week of 40 hours, 3.5 weeks of vacation, and 11 statutory holidays, Barbados productivity is 18.3. For the USA the comparable calculation yields a number more than three times as high, 61.4. What does this wide gap mean? It simply reflects the wide gap in wealth between the two economies and is of very limited utility in devising policy; it does not mean that Americans work three times as hard or three times as well as Bajans.
The unsophisticated view of labour productivity is that it measures how well employees know their jobs and how much effort they are putting in doing them. However, the GDP generated by a given amount of an employee’s work depends on a large range of other factors that are beyond the employee’s control: capital investments, technical, organisational and efficiency change, economies of scale, and other inputs. These complexities mean that we should take productivity figures with a grain of salt and seek to examine the numbers and assumptions that underlie them.
In 2015 Ireland’s labour productivity surged by an astonishing 22.6%, not because everybody decided to lay off the Guinness, but because the GDP surged by 26.3% after foreign companies that had switched their tax base to Ireland in pursuit of lower taxes were included in the value of its corporate sector. Irish employees were not suddenly working harder or more efficiently; their living standards did not improve significantly; this was simply an artefact of accounting.
If an economy throws a number of low paid employees out of work, this can have the effect of “improving” the labour productivity statistics because the reduction in numerator that is caused by the loss of their wages from the GDP is proportionally less that the number of labour hours that they worked which disappear from the denominator. This is, of course, because their pay is low so they must work a lot of hours to make only a modest contribution to the GDP.
Although productivity measures are not usefully comparable between disparate economies and that they are vulnerable to structural glitches in the way we calculate their underlying statistical base, they still can lead to useful insights about the ways an economy functions.
Take the case of France and Britain. The anecdotal wisdom is that French workers to go on strike at the least provocation, take six week long vacations from work, enjoy many more public holidays than the British, and generally have a rather laid back attitude to work. However French productivity surpasses that of the British and some economists attribute it to the superiority of the French transportation network.
So let’s get back to Barbados. How does the state of transportation in Barbados show up in measures of productivity? When the ABC highway was built a generation ago it radically improved the efficiency of distributing goods and services around the island, particularly by creating effective routes to the airport and harbour. Now, however, the traffic density on the highway causes traffic jams which last for many hours each day.
These traffic jams show up as damage to productivity only insofar as the vehicles caught up in them are commercial vehicles. On the other hand if the traffic causes a reduction in the work hours put in by salaried employees it shows up as a productivity improvement. The amount of fuel consumed while waiting in traffic is part of the GDP, so that wastage also shows up paradoxically as an improvement in productivity. It is intuitively obvious that traffic jams and other transportation woes harm the economy, but measures of productivity do not unambiguously capture this damage. Of course, even though it does not show up in productivity statistics, the real damage to each individual Bajan’s productivity is felt as frustration at the enormous waste of our time that these transportation woes impose on us.
But traffic jams are not the only transportation problem. The public transportation system also steals enormous amounts of what could be productive time from Bajans who don’t own their own vehicle. The most recent Barbados Transport Board Annual Report published on their website is for 2009, but even then there were an impressive 23,940,536 trips on 211 buses. Bear in mind that there are approximately 500 licenced minibuses and ZRs that are also an important part of the public transportation system, and these probably provide at least as many trips each year because although they are smaller vehicles, they are concentrated on the busiest routes and outnumber the Transport Board by more than two to one.
The common denominator in this hybrid system of public and private sector public transportation providers is the experience of standing up in the hot sun or pouring rain waiting at the bus stop. Wait times vary considerably with traffic congestion, route popularity, weather conditions, and ridership demand. When I’ve chatted with people waiting at the bus stop they provide a litany of complaints about bus service: rude drivers, reckless driving, overcrowded vehicles…, but their most consistent vexation is about the time they waste waiting for the bus, sometimes for hours. They insisted that they spend half an hour on average waiting for the bus each time they make a trip.
The Transport Board buses are supposed to run according to a publicised schedule. When I pointed this out to my compatriots waiting at the stop their response was inevitably the characteristic Bajan steupse that expressed their amazement at my naiveté. Indeed my cursory and unscientific sampling of bus arrival times did not correlate well with the published schedule. The reason that the Transport Board has difficulty maintaining its published schedule is no secret; although they owned well over 300 buses in 2009, the board now has a fleet of only 275 buses, the youngest of which is over ten years old. Maintenance issues force a significant fraction of this fleet off the road at any given time; only 68% of the fleet were available for duty on average in 2009, and the evidence suggests that this availability has since declined. The organisation owes tens of millions of dollars to their maintenance subcontractors while being saddled with a cumulative deficit of half a billion dollars. These problems have led to a 25% decline in the number of passengers carried by the Transport Board over the past several years, the public demand being serviced by the ZR and Minibus operators.
The minibuses and ZRs do not generally operate according to a fixed schedule; instead they follow ridership demand by waiting at terminals until they are nearly full or by using their experience to forecast when there will be a profitable number of riders waiting at stops along their route.
Bajans lose over 20 million hours of potentially productive time each year waiting for the bus
Even if overall public demand for bus service has not grown significantly from 2009 up to the present, if we accept the anecdotal guesstimate of an average wait time of 30 minutes, we can estimate that Bajans lose over 20 million hours of potentially productive time each year waiting for the bus. What is more this lost productivity does not even show up in the official statistics.
The Transport Board is attempting to improve service with their Transport Authority Service Integration (TASI) project. This was introduced in late 2015 as an experimental programme to combine the scheduled services of the Transport Board with private minibus operators on some routes. TASI allows the Board to maintain advertised service levels with their aging fleet in conjunction with their private minibus partners, but it does not solve the waiting problems.
For example, on one of the experimental TASI routes, to Sturges St. Thomas, the Ministry of Transport and Works (MTW) pulled 11 minibuses and ZRs off the route to be replaced with only 3 minibuses to augment the Transport Board services. This means that the overall level of service on the route has been cut significantly.
There is a better way to improve bus service in Barbados and BeepBus knows how to do it. They are raising money to add GPS tracking to minibuses and add real time information to the BeepBus app. Think about what this means… no more waiting at the bus stop. You check your phone and saunter out to your stop fresh and rested exactly 60 seconds before the bus arrives to pick you up. No more sweating in the sun; no more getting soaked by the rain wondering how long you have to stand there suffering. For an entirely trivial capital investment we can eliminate 20 million hours of wasted time each year in Barbados.
The Transport Board is also experimenting with GPS tracking of their buses, but they do not apparently intend to share this valuable information with the travelling public. It is paid for with public money as part of providing a public service; it should all be open to the public.
If the Minister of Transport and Works were to mandate that all buses, minibuses, and ZRs were to be equipped with GPS tracking and that all that data were open, available for any clever programmer to use in building useful apps, the Minister would help Barbados achieve huge public benefits with a very tiny capital investment.
Insurance companies will be able to use the data to better manage their risks and bring down the cost of insurance for good bus drivers and bus companies. The Ministry of Transport and works will be able to use the data to monitor the driving behaviour of the public service vehicles they license to reduce bad driver behaviours like speeding and dragging through incentives and penalties. The Ministry will also be able to fine tune the number of licences they issue to fit passenger demand much more accurately. Bus companies will be able to mine the data to operate more efficiently and profitably. Those who use public transportation will get better, safer service that is flexible enough to adjust quickly to changes in demand. And Bajans will no longer waste 20 million hours each year.
What about it Mr. Minister, let’s get Barbados moving.
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