Remaking the road to walk

BitDepth#943 for June 30

Transport engineer Dr Rae Furlonge (far right) delivers his report to Carnival stakeholders at the Grandstand at the Queen’s Park Savannah last Saturday. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.
Transport engineer Dr Rae Furlonge (far right) delivers his report to Carnival stakeholders at the Grandstand at the Queen’s Park Savannah last Saturday. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

The National Carnival Commission was being congratulated on Saturday for getting started early on the festival’s 800 pound gorilla, the parade route for the bands on Carnival Tuesday.

By the measure of serious Carnival practitioners though, things were actually pretty late. The night before, Harts had hosted the first band launch of the 2015 season, a clear signal that the work of the big bands of the road had been underway long before.

The NCC might well argue in turn that the data collection for Saturday’s meeting began since 2013, when that first effort at measuring the flow of bands on Carnival Tuesday faltered when the GPS data didn’t come up to requirements.

What transport engineer Dr Rae Furlonge presented to a gathering of masmen was an effort at pure science, a tabulation of data collected from bands moving on the route and an engineer’s assessment of optimal solutions to easing the congestion it recorded.

This was the parade of the bands analysed as unyielding data and many of Dr Furlonge’s comments spoke to the gulf between what’s expected and what actually happens when masquerader boots hit the ground.

The most stunning number coming out of that analysis occasioned a bit of play acting as the engineer enlisted volunteers from the audience to demonstrate what a minimum speed of one inch per second translates into in real life.

The speeds measured on the road actually run as fast as six inches per second and average out at four, but as the good doctor’s demonstration made clear, Carnival tends to run at the pace of the slowest bands, not the most nimble.

Among the heresies the transport engineer suggested to his audience were the reversal of the route, a simplified route that dropped downtown Carnival and all his suggestions skipped Piccadilly Greens, a notorious bottleneck for all except the smallest bands participating in full costume on the festival’s big day.

And the concerns weren’t limited to such dramatic changes. At least two representatives of the team that built the Socadrome were startled to find that their project didn’t seem to be factored into either the future planning or the analysis of the flow for Carnival 2014.

A suggestion that vendors be removed from the route to ease the congestion was quickly met by the argument that “without vendors, there is no Carnival!”

As Dr Furlonge observed, the analysis was about time and space and an engineer will always look at capacities, not culture in evaluating the best options.

The data collected in Carnival 2014 is a critical first step in understanding Carnival Tuesday in a way we haven’t before.

Far too many decisions have been made based on assumptions, casual observation and a general acknowledgement of the issues, but now there is hard data that measures what happens with bands on the road and it’s important that it be evaluated and analysed by the widest possible cross section of interested parties.

Minister of Culture Dr Lincoln Douglas observed that taxpayers had spent $289 million on Carnival 2014 and that what was needed from the discussions on the route was answers, a conclusion.

NCC Chairman Allison Demas noted in her opening remarks that the consultation was the first step toward the formation of a Route Development Committee charged with the responsibility of formulating and gaining wide consensus on an approach to manage the congestion of Carnival Tuesday.

That committee now has real world information on the flow of the bands, but it must make decisions on larger issues that aren’t as easy to measure.

Key to understanding the scale of the problem is naming the challenge and it’s still being described incorrectly. 

On its surface, the congestion of bands looks like traffic, because there are vehicles are involved moving along prescribed routes. It seems to be a parade, because there are people on the march, but it’s also a show that’s staged at multiple venues.

The congestion of Carnival Tuesday defies ready problem solving because it is, at various times, an event that is all of these things, many of them happening simultaneously.

At heart though, the problem with bands on Carnival Tuesday isn’t a traffic problem, it’s a staging problem and it’s one that’s unique in the world. 

Bands are only a parade when they approach a performance venue, the rest of the time they are a ragged, disorganised mob that dances backward as vigorously as they move forward.

They travel along streets that can barely hold their support trucks, far less such vehicles surrounded by hundreds of people.

The staging venues are dictated by historical and cultural imperatives, so resiting them becomes an emotional issue, not an infrastructural one.

For Carnival Tuesday’s Parade of the Bands event to significantly improve, it must travel along the widest, most accessible streets, perform on before sensibly situated and evenly spaced stages that deliver entertainment value to the audiences that patronise them.

It’s probably worth noting here that there came a time when horse racing simply outgrew the facilities at the Savannah. 

That time came and went for Carnival decades ago and it’s time to face that fact and acknowledge the severity of the decisions that must follow. 

The hard and cruel truth is that it may simply not be possible to host a parade of the bands competition in Port-of-Spain anymore and that’s going to be the biggest route development challenge of all.