SAPNA NUNDLOLL

Space & Movement Consultant

A month ago, in my quest to test transport connections in Mauritius, I took the bus from the airport to my parents’ in Quatre Bornes.  The fresh lens of this small experience including reactions from my family has led me to question a few age-old ideas, especially on why the middle-class in Mauritius ditches public transportation, but also think on how to respond to people’s preferences. Here’s a couple of thoughts on current infrastructure that could help nudge people back towards buses and public transportation.

Mean it when you give your customer a choice, and they will come. A well-established idea with regards to the airport in particular is that local residents see the place as a destination, and would be willing to make the trip anyway to drop or pick up friends and relatives. The absence of a marked route made me wonder if to expect one would be unreasonable or eccentric. Looking for numbers I found locals make around 25%, including contract workers, according to 2017 statistics [1]. I wonder if this statistic, combined with the perception of the airport as a destination, is considered too low a percentage for adequate service design. If so, I’d like to challenge this as an insufficient argument. ATOL, the airport operators, mention their app extensively, and give all navigational information via their app [2], but surely true commitment should be expressed and visible not just in the digital but the physical space too.

Nudge users (across all social classes) towards public transportation with simple, good information design. Low-tech can actually be better. Opening transport data in machine-readable formats would enable the real-time updates on public transportation, releasing the potential of smartphone apps and attract users. But to start with, simple low-cost, good design interventions (especially in terms of information for the pedestrians and at the bus stops) could be already quite effective. Bus numbers at bus stops can help passengers to strategically re-route on the go. These are elements that would contribute to confidence in the system and encourage the switch.

Car ownership and the use of public transportation don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In Mauritius, our cultural notions of achievement are strongly tied to car ownership, and with it, the sense of duty towards kin: when we don’t ferry the family by car we’re letting our folks down, let alone expose them to danger. This strengthens partly my first point on airport pickups and is the reason I had to keep my arrival a secret from my parents. Yet, surely private car ownership does not have to be incompatible with public transportation [3].

Engage in civic life… by taking the bus. There’s in fact a case to be made for buses that’s not simply environmental. As a woman, I deliberately choose to travel by bus rather in a taxi. In my trip from the airport, my fellow passengers were mostly regular commuters, what you would describe as its “natural proprietors” [4], using Jane Jacob’s terminology, and an even mix of men and women (which most of us, whether consciously or not, will perceive as safe).
This also me made wonder why we are told in so many guises that our streets are not safe [5], when in fact it would seem (from personal experience and the US Department of State [6]) they are reasonably so. It’s well-established knowledge that spaces feel and are safer when they’re not empty. People make spaces vibrant and safe, and the right mix often just means an even ratio of women to men. As this author found out in London, no amount of CCTV coverage makes the Olympic park attractive; it’s simply the presence of others that does. In this regard, taking the bus means you’re participating in creating an active and safe public space, it’s a form of citizen engagement.

I hope I never forget the look on my mother’s face when she opened the door when I got home. She was elated to see me (I had been away for a few months), but even more excited to know that it was possible to make this trip in Mauritius, with a piece of luggage, just as one does in « big cities ». I was empowered and independent, and she was proud of me but also of her country.

Another big surprise and in fact, the biggest motivator for these articles, came from the extended family. Instead of the disapprovals (« aryo, tifi dokter pa pran bis! ») I had learnt to expect, I was greeted by congratulatory pats and big grins. Sure, I had to keep my arrival a secret because my parents would have found the idea, prior to execution, outrageous; but the act once accomplished opened new perspectives. Even if I might have just relinquished my only chance of someone waiting for me at the airport, in breaking a stereotype, my gesture was one of resilience and hope. Perhaps this is what Mauritius needs the most at the moment.

There’s more to be said about buses and public transportation, and this is a personal account, informed by my experience travelling in Mauritius and abroad, and also my professional experience in urban mobility. I’d be keen to hear your stories and thoughts. Please feel free to get in touch.

Corps de Garde on the horizon (looming on the right): not long before we’re in Quatre Bornes. PS Someone please take those billboards down?! (c) Sapna Nundloll.

References:

[1] Statistics Mauritius. International Travel & Tourism. Accessed on 20 December 2018. http://statsmauritius.govmu.org/English/StatsbySubj/Pages/INTERNATIONAL-TRAVEL-and-TOURISM.aspx

[2] Airport Terminal Operations Limited. Accessed on 24 December 2018. https://mauritius-airport.atol.aero/   

[3] Transport for London, 2004, ‘My other car is a bus.’, accessed on 20 December 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XuN8cezfog

[4] Goodyear, S 2013, ‘A New Way of Understanding ‘Eyes on the Street’’, CityLab, 22 July 2013, accessed 18 December 2018, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2013/07/new-way-understanding-eyes-street/6276/.

[5] St Pierre, P 2018, ‘Projet Safe City: 4 000 smart caméras pour nous surveiller’, L’Express Maurice, 5 June, accessed 18 December 2018, https://www.lexpress.mu/article/332700/projet-safe-city-4-000-smart-cameras-pour-nous-surveiller

[6] United States Department of State OSAC Bureau of Diplomatic Security 2017, ‘Mauritius 2017 Crime & Safety Report’, accessed 18 December 2018, https://www.osac.gov/Pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=21803

Extra food for thought

Gulati, N 2018, ‘Seven reasons why you should take your child on public transport’, Apolitical, 29 November, accessed 8 December 2018 https://apolitical.co/solution_article/seven-reasons-why-public-transport-is-good-for-kids/

Getting children on the bus: “Public transit helps build a strong sense of place and home among children,” writes Nidhi Gulati. “Contrary to the windshield perspective, children who take public transit, or who combine it with walking and/or bicycling, have a better sense of where they are and how one place differs from another. Their experience of a place is more sensory than of those buckled into a seat with no flexibility (or need) to exercise self-judgement. The built environment leaves a lasting imprint on the young rider becoming a part of their identity.”

And a final quote, linking to Part 1 of this article:

On ground truth, from Jane Jacobs: “No one can find what will work for our cities by looking at … suburban garden cities, manipulating scale models, or inventing dream cities. You’ve got to get out and walk.” I’d add, “and take the bus”.