Fiji’s transport system is at a critical juncture. Now is the time to make Fiji a regional example of sustainable mobility for its citizens.
Fiji will be the focus of global attention as president of the 23rd Conference of Parties (COP23) on Climate Change to be held in early November at Bonn, Germany. Cutting greenhouse gas emissions will dominate global headlines.
It will be an ideal moment for Fiji to unveil a new transport vision to demonstrate that a low carbon growth model is achievable through sustainable transport initiatives.
Such a vision would make a valuable contribution to emissions reduction, given the city's acute traffic issues.
Public transport should be at the core of that vision.
Fiji is a bustling, multicultural country of about one million people and rising.
That's small compared with Asia's countries, but it's by far the largest country in the Pacific.
People are becoming more prosperous, and so are buying more private cars. Vehicle registration increased by 24% between 2013 and 2016, compared with 9% from 2010 to 2013.
This is causing severe congestion during peak travel times, inconveniencing commuters, posing safety hazards, and causing economic losses.
It also pushes up greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transport sector. Without proactive management, the situation could worsen considerably.
The best way for Fiji to manage congestion is to find ways to sustain the popularity of public transport, particularly buses.
Building new roads would only encourage more people to buy cars, worsening congestion.
Efficient public bus systems, on the other hand, can be ideal for cities in developing countries such as Fiji. Bus transport is already very popular in Fiji, with recent studies estimating they account for between 50% and 70% of all trips.
If people continue buying private cars at the current rate, buses may become a second or third-choice option — perhaps jeopardizing the future of public transport in the country.
Worsening congestion would make bus trips longer, increase the cost, and make services less frequent and reliable.
Fewer passengers mean lower revenues, possibly forcing operators out of business.
Clearly, an intervention is needed.
A good first step would be to recognize that the bus industry, privately run, provides an essential service that sustains economic growth by giving people a cheap way to travel for business.
There are more than 1,600 buses operated by more than 50 bus companies in Fiji.
They understand the business and operate their services profitably, with only minimal government support through small subsidies and reduced import duties. Bus operators need to be profitable to survive.
The public sector can take actions that give them a better chance of showing profits, while sustaining fair and healthy competition so they provide the highest level of service.
Some actions that could be quickly implemented include traffic engineering and management solutions such as priority measures (bus lanes) for buses and high occupancy vehicles to increase the appeal and carrying capacity of public transport.
Better intersections are another good option.
They would facilitate traffic flow and make road use more efficient, for example by redesigning and installing signals at traffic junctions and by upgrading roundabouts.
Public transport infrastructure like bus stops and the city's central terminal should be upgraded, and buses given priority in congested areas through dedicated bus lanes and other lanes allowing buses to jump queues at intersections.
Polluting fleets should be replaced with cleaner, more efficient buses, and their fuel sources changed.
This would require raising the regulatory requirements for new bus entry to the Euro IV emission standard or higher. Another option is to offer short-term incentives for operators to import hybrid or electric buses.
Strengthening the regulations and institutional capacity of public supervisory bodies would support higher public transport standards and enforce them with equipment and trained staff.
Parking restrictions would help reduce the number of private cars on cities' streets, as would the construction of better pedestrian crossings and footpaths to encourage walking and cycling.
Cutting congestion will help curb pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from transport.
By unveiling a bold new transport plan during COP23, Fiji would promote sustainable transport and demonstrate commitment to meeting its Nationally Determined Contributions under the COP process in energy and transport.
Fiji deserves a sustainable transport system that makes the country more livable for residents while preserving its beauty.
Viable solutions are at hand, and now is the ideal time to implement them.
This blog was first published as an op-ed by the Fiji Times.