Bim by bus

How Barbados’s public transport system makes it one of the easiest Caribbean islands to get around, for locals and tourists alike

Photograph courtesy the Barbados Pocket Guide / www.barbadospocketguide.com

The taxi driver posted outside the arrivals exit of Grantley Adams International Airport couldn’t conceal his surprise. “The bus stop?” he repeated, incredulous, before pointing a finger at the far end of the parking lot. “Past there, on the road. Sure you don’t want a taxi?”

I was sure. Taking the bus, it seemed, was the cool new way to get around Barbados — and on a weeklong trip to the island, I wasn’t about to miss out.

Conventionally, a visit to Barbados’s lattice of luxury resorts and sought-after day-trip destinations has required a reliance on taxis and personal drivers catering to holiday-goers. But in recent years public transport on the island of 290,000 residents has enjoyed increased popularity — among both the general population and also the island’s half-million annual visitors. Those visiting riders have been greeted by a slew of strategies to ensure that their experience on the bus system is inviting and painless: a simple $2 flat-rate fare, a robust trove of online maps and bus schedules, an active social media presence, and a straightforward system of bus-stop signs that help orient befuddled visitors. Barbados has discovered something that few other Caribbean islands have realised: tourists want to be able to take the bus.

“Persons still have in their minds that visitors to the island are all wealthy people, and they’ll all be able to travel by taxi,” says Lynda Holder, spokeswoman for the Barbados Transport Board, the agency that runs the country’s government buses. “We all know that is not correct. For those other elements who, like the rest of us, save their money for the entire year to be able to travel, we then promote how they can move around the island using our network.”

These efforts appear to be working. On the Internet, travel bloggers and vacation review websites rave about the Barbados bus system; Cruise Critic called it “very cheap and very easy,” while Virtual Tourist declared it “highly recommended.” The travel section of the UK’s Daily Telegraph called the bus network “wonderful . . . [it] will get you around the island promptly and enjoyably, giving you a far better feel (and view) of the island than any taxi.”

On a balmy evening during my trip, I watched as a trio of European women in their twenties spilled out of a bus along the coastal highway well past nine o’clock at night, tipsy and giggling and seemingly unencumbered by safety concerns. Perhaps an ill-advised choice on some neighbouring islands, but in the touristy parts of south-west Barbados, it’s a unremarkable sight that plays out nightly.

In fact, taking the bus seems safe, comfortable, and visitor-friendly at all hours of the day. In the morning, seats are filled with suit-clad professionals and the cacophony of uniformed schoolchildren; buses headed towards the Cave Hill university campus feature students in jeans and trendy sneakers, bobbing their heads to the white iPhone buds jammed in their ears.

And drivers and fellow riders are eager to help newbies. When I missed my stop early one morning (despite the fact that I was following the route on my phone’s GPS!), the driver agreed to turn back and drop me there as soon as he unloaded a gaggle of schoolchildren. My embarrassment turned to delight when I realised that the extra stretch of trip to the primary school offered an exquisite view of bucolic hills.

Making public transport an attractive option for residents and tourists is a challenging feat in a region where the bus remains a second-class means of getting around. For those West Indians who can afford it, commuting to work and to school by car remains the preferred form of travel, both for its practical advantages — shelter from the rain and heat, assurance against crime — as well as for its importance as a status symbol, a sign of professional success and upward mobility.

But access to public transport in Barbados is in increasing demand — and much of this demand, Holder says, comes from the middle class. In 2005, there were 18.2 million trips taken on government-run buses, according to the Barbados Transport Board. By 2010, that number had surged to more than twenty-four million annual trips.

In addition to the fleet of about 280 blue air-conditioned government buses, privately operated “public service vehicles” (usually recognised by their sunflower yellow colour and the reggae music blasting from their stereo systems) travel along major thoroughfares, while zippy white “ZR” vans (their name hails from the first two letters on their license plate) branch out along smaller neighbourhood roads. A trip costs BDS$2, no matter which kind of bus you choose or how far you travel.

It’s not a perfect system: though the Barbados Transport Board annually tweaks its routes based on demand, there’s plenty of overlap between the three systems, and some observers have called for public officials to curtail the government buses to minimise taxpayer subsidies.

Even so, the bus system remains an indispensable part of the Barbados economy. Onika Morris-Alleyne, a Trinidadian transport planner familiar with transit systems throughout the Caribbean, says one of the keys to the success of the Barbados bus system is shockingly simple: bus stops around the country feature signs that clearly read “TO CITY” or “OUT OF CITY,” a method that allows travellers to know immediately if they’re headed in the right direction.

“A lot of the ability to use public transport comes from user confidence: confidence that they can figure out how to get where they’re going and get there with minimal fuss in a timely manner,” Morris-Alleyne says. “Public information which is readily available and simply readable does a lot to encourage confidence in the system. Less chance to end up lost and alone!”

  • Patrice G. Ward

    The first time I visited Bim (1972), my mom and I stayed in my grandmother’s home in St. George. We had never driven on “the wrong side of the road” before and had not rented a car; so, our first sojourn into town was on the bus — a quaint, wooden contraption, loaded with friendly folk who greeted us with a hearty, “Good morning!”; helped us up into the vehicle — and even relinquished their seats for we “tourists”!

    Remember, we were from New York City, where no one greets anyone for fear of getting robbed, beaten or killed! Such unfettered kindness and thoughtfulness were completely foreign to us. It was an experience I’ve never forgotten…

    Now, many years later, when we plan our trips “home”, Hubby (who was born in St. George and raised in Christ Church) and I budget so we can rent a car at the airport. But when that’s not possible and family can’t lend us cars during our stays, the bus is by no means outside the realm of possibility. Great system, lots of fun!