Pedestrian Observations from Barbados: Followup to Caribbean Car Ownership

The biggest criticism I’ve gotten in comments to Matt Yglesias’s link to my previous post was about my comparison of Puerto Rico’s car ownership with that of neighboring middle-income Caribbean nations. Multiple people claimed that Puerto Rico is much larger than the other countries and therefore needs cars, whereas in the rest of the countries people can walk everywhere. The correlation between size and car ownership is not statistically supported – whereas that with urban density is – but I’m going to instead narrate the pedestrian experience in Barbados to explain why positing such correlation doesn’t make sense. One commenter, Peter from the Block, writes:

Unless you are on a small island like Barbados or Antigua or Barbuda, in which case everything is close [enough to walk]!

My experience with Barbados comes from a week-long conference in Holetown last year. The conference was at the beginning of May, when the Sun came within two degrees of the zenith. The main road we’d use to get back and forth from the institute where we slept and the conference was held to the area where we could shop for food has little shade and even less tree coverage. The sidewalks are narrow, and there’s no real street wall: on the contrary, commercial buildings are fronted by parking lots. With the Sun directly overhead, the high asphalt coverage made for intense heat.

There was not much traffic by suburban American standards, but enough that it was still impossible to walk in the roadway, making the narrow sidewalks a problem whenever more than about 3 people walked together. In addition, the mall we used for food shopping is surrounded on all sides by parking, with a gas station on the side. My recollection of the people I saw in the area, including in the mall, is that they were mostly black, therefore majority-local (for while presumably there were some African-American tourists, most tourists would be white), but tourists comprised a disproportionate fraction.

For trips to other parts of the island, we got around with a tour bus rather than on foot. I tried at one point and failed to learn to use the local bus system and visit the main city, Bridgetown; walking would take far too long. The tour bus took us to a patch of rainforest and back, with a stopover at a beach; none of the points we passed in between looked especially dense, and few looked walkable.

Bear in mind, the above does not apply to Bridgetown. Purely from Google Maps tourism, it looks like a pedestrian-centric traditional city to me, of the kind that Charlie Gardner and Nathan Lewis would rave about. Presumably, car ownership is low because people in the cities can walk to their daily errands. But this is precisely the point I was making about the role of national policy in transportation mode choice: while Barbados’s size and national density are features of geography, the shape of its cities and its urban density are features of government policy.

Another thing one should note is that although walking to local errands was annoying, it was possible. This, again, is a feature of land use and transportation policy – probably inertia rather than a conscious choice, but still a different path from that taken by the US. Local travel is not that sensitive to national size and density.

Barbados is not Monaco. Its national population density, 660/km^2, is high by any global standard, but it’s not a high urban density. There are plenty of suburbs in New Jersey with several times that density where one could not walk to a supermarket. Under an American (or Malaysian) transportation policy, Barbados would’ve not only been pedestrian-hostile, but also sprawled like San Juan or Honolulu.


  1. Danny

    I think the proliferation of taxis is also evidence in your direction. Taxis thrive in areas where it is too hard to walk but also too hard to park. And in these small countries where it is supposedly so small that you can walk anywhere, taxi drivers are one of the most common professions.

    • Alon Levy

      You experience about this comes from Tegucigalpa, right?

      In Barbados, not only are there a lot of taxis, but also there are multiple private companies providing public transportation – minibuses, minivans, and the likes. They even color-code the vehicles based on whether they’re private (yellow) or public (blue).

      • Danny

        Tegucigalpa is like that as well…but they are a low income country. I was talking more along the lines of Grand Turk, St. Thomas, Roatan, St. Maartin, which I have visited long enough to witness the throngs of taxies and minibuses.

  2. David Alexander

    Admittedly, I’m left wondering about the price of gasoline in these countries. Puerto Rico has the luck of using the US dollar to purchase petroleum and its derived products, but IIRC, the other countries are forced to use their somewhat devalued currencies to purchase gas and arguably automobiles which can be subject to high import taxes as well.

    FWIW, I also suspect that in Puerto Rico’s case, having the FHWA underwrite your highway plan ensures that you’ll have better roads than any other country in the Caribbean which would have to spend scarce capital funds on building roads that their citizens may barely be able to afford.

    • Alon Levy

      Trinidad subsidizes gasoline, so it couldn’t be it.

      The price of cars could be an issue, but importing cars into any island nation would be expensive.

    • Alon Levy

      True, but I’m trying to look at the role of US transportation policy vs. non-American transportation policies. Holetown, too, is very walkable by US standards; it’s just not walkable by the standards of the cities one thinks of when one says “you can walk anywhere.”

  3. Charlie Gardner

    It’s difficult to discern cause and effect here – for instance, the vehicle ownership statistics that were linked in the original post show Malta, with extremely high and concentrated population density, only 316 sq. km. in area, and no grade-separated highways at all to have even higher car ownership than Puerto Rico (and the same as Italy, despite having lower per capita income). Cyprus has considerably higher car ownership than Greece, although Greek incomes are higher. New Zealand in turn has more than Australia, although there too Australia has a large income advantage.

    • Alon Levy

      To be honest, I don’t know about Malta and Cyprus. It could be that they have such pro-car policies as mandated free parking. But with Australia vs. New Zealand, you kind of can chalk it to different urban policies, especially if you contrast Auckland and the big Australian cities (Wellington is more transit-oriented). The feeling I get from reading Auckland Transport Blog is that Auckland’s urban policy is continually neglected by the government, which is more often than not under the control of the rural National Party, and this leads to pro-car policy. In Australia, where the major cities are nearly the entire population of their respective states, there’s less rural domination. Another issue is that Australian cities built rail early, so that they have large rapid transit networks in place. This is similar to New York, which in the critical period of early motorization had a pro-car policy under Robert Moses, but had so much subway infrastructure that it maintained significant transit ridership and with it car-free households.

      • Charlie Gardner

        I don’t really have an explanation for Malta or Cyprus either — I just thought it was odd that smaller islands tended to have higher car ownership than their mainland counterparts in spite of the economic barriers (not least being the higher cost of gas — Malta and Cyprus both have higher prices relative to incomes than most mainland countries). Your explanation for New Zealand does sound quite likely, but I still found the figures surprising given New Zealand’s geography, population concentration and lack of freeway building.

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