Forget the Stinkin’ Toe Tree and Walk-Foot People: Kingston Is The City of the Automobile

Our capital city (and my home) of Kingston is upside down at the moment. There is a mania of “road widening,” which has resulted in the destruction of several large (and by large, I mean very old) trees and a concomitant increase in the amount of concrete. I have written several times about the deforestation of the city – apparently mindless, wanton and quite often unnecessary.

Conservator of Forests Marilyn Headley has put her foot down, after a huge Jamaican mahogany tree was felled on Constant Spring Road – almost outside the Forestry Department’s office, ironically. Ms. Headley has pledged to replant. According to the Jamaica Observer‘s Kimone Thompson, a very thorough environmental reporter:

“a Jamaican Mahogany, three Honduras Mahogany, and a sprawling, decades-old Guango tree. Another Jamaican mahogany at the corner of the property and a West Indian Locust, commonly called stinking toe, that hangs over onto Grove Road, might be next.”  

Crews work on installing utility poles on Constant Spring Road just outside the Forestry Department which has so far lost six mature trees. (Photo: Naphtali Junior/Jamaica Observer)

Gee, thanks – again – to China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), the Chinese state-owned company which has ZERO respect for the environment. Several large trees along Mandela Highway have already gone, without a murmur, at CHEC’s hands. A few years ago, the mangroves along the Palisadoes Road were bulldozed, seabirds’ nests and all. Largely unsuccessful attempts have been made to replant them.

A National Works Agency official said, feebly: “It’s difficult to transplant a 100-year-old tree…” Well, will have to wait until the 22nd century before we enjoy the benefits of another one as magnificent as the recently deceased tree. Shame on you, NWA.

But, it’s all in the name of progress… Right?

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Andrew Holness went on a PR tour today of several areas of the city where these wondrous developments were taking place. Don’t get me wrong; I hate traffic jams, too. I would like to see our infrastructure improved. But – don’t politicians love the word “balance”? Let us have more of it, please, Mr. Holness.

As the article below also notes, it’s all in the name of the mighty automobile. This is not a “sustainable city.” Quite the reverse.

My concern reflects those expressed by a contributor to the online magazine Public Opinion. Please read below, and see what you think. Exacerbated by the above-mentioned roadworks, it seems that not only trees but also humans who are walking are indeed endangered species in the City of Kingston, our unsustainable city. After all, we now have a “Barbican Highway.” We’re so proud of it.

Pedestrians, however, like trees are mere inconveniences – even a danger.

I particularly like this line: 

We pander to those citizens whose practices are most environmentally destructive and ignore or actively discourage those whose carbon footprint is smallest.

The wondrous Barbican area of Kingston, transformed into a concrete highway with almost total disregard for pedestrians. The brown area is privately owned and is also to be developed, so don’t dare to hope it might be a little green space. (Photo: Office of the Prime Minister)

Walk-foot People Matter (Part 1)

Charles V. Carnegie

One might say that nowadays most Jamaicans take the following propositions as axiomatic truths:

Not all motorists are “people of quality” (you know that oft-quoted line from the late Rex Nettleford about “a buttu in a Benz is still a buttu”).

Notwithstanding this first proposition: All people of quality travel by automobile.

Those who don’t are, by definition, not people of quality.

For public officials, law enforcement officers, the media, and most motorists it seems, walk-foot people simply don’t matter. To them, the only grown-up, fully worthwhile citizen is one who is motorized.  At least so one must conclude from the ways pedestrian citizens are treated.

These remarks are based on ethnographic observations gleaned over the past few years doing research toward a series of essays about contemporary Kingston.  Moving about the city and other areas of Jamaica via public transportation and on foot has afforded me a pedestrian-eye view of things that most middle and upper-class Jamaicans these days rarely experience. My observations directly implicate both government policy and the routine but disabling indifference of the media and of ordinary citizens. In Part 1 of Walk-foot People Matter, I call attention to the negligence of the State and its personnel; next, in Part 2, I will focus more on the cavalier disregard and systematic discrimination we as fellow citizens mete out to each other.  I argue that these actions by the State and by our fellow citizens constitute forms of structural violence that need to be recognized and addressed.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness on tour this morning, while a man in hard hat and “high viz” vest expounds on the wonders of concrete. (Photo: Office of the Prime Minister)

Sidewalks and Crossings

Pedestrians face constant indignities and are routinely put at risk by actions of the State and by their fellow citizens. Most sidewalks, where they do exist, are hazardous. Surfaces are eroded, uneven, and discontinuous. Twisted, sawed-off steel rods, scarcely visible even in daylight, occasionally protrude just above ground level; cavernous holes remain uncovered where manhole covers have been removed; utility poles, cables, and construction debris frequently impede safe passage.

Many of Kingston’s busiest arteries have been expanded from two to four or five lanes and sidewalks have correspondingly been shrunken so that it is often difficult for pedestrians to walk two-abreast or to pass each other in opposite directions without one having to step into the street. These cramped conditions are made worse by utility poles, support cables, hydrants and other obstructions.

Motorists park their vehicles on sidewalks with impunity. Recently, I saw a line of a dozen parked cars fully blocking the sidewalk on Old Hope Road outside Sts Peter & Paul church, directly across from the Matilda’s Corner Police Station.

Most sidewalks in Jamaica deteriorate rapidly because they are not constructed to meet proper engineering standards. If sidewalks are built with three to four inches of concrete that is properly vibrated and cured, at a strength of 25 MPa, and cast in six-foot lengths with joints to accommodate shrinkage and expansion, they will last practically forever, insists John Allgrove, a civil engineer of over 50 years’ experience working in the public and private sectors. Sidewalks in some of the older housing developments like Mona Heights and Hope Pastures, those in sections of downtown near the waterfront, and many in New Kingston meet these specifications and have lasted for 50 years.

By contrast, many sidewalks built by the KSAC, local authorities and private contractors use crushed stone covered by a thin, half-inch layer of sand and cement mortar. This slender layer of sand and cement is like putting a coating of butter on bread, Allgrove notes.

Stephen Williams, a school warden, shows students of Spanish Town Primary School in St Catherine the correct way to cross the street using a pedestrian crossing. (Photo: Gleaner)

Street crossing accommodations for pedestrians — zebra crossings, phased traffic lights and walk signals — are woefully inadequate. Marked pedestrian crossings are most consistently found near schools, and crossing guards are sometimes employed to assist children to cross safely at the start and end of the school day. The irony, however, is that having taken care to protect and train children in the proper use of crosswalks near their schools, we then leave them to the slaughter elsewhere as well as in their adult lives.

The widespread absence of pedestrian-friendly facilities, then, undermines the road safety training children receive in school. The expanded roadways we have been building in Kingston and across the island in recent years move vehicular traffic at faster and faster speeds, but have not been designed to accommodate the needs of pedestrians to walk and to cross these streets in safety. Pedestrian deaths account, on average, for almost 30% of all road traffic fatalities. Based on statistics supplied by the Police Traffic and Highway Division, of the 260 people who died in traffic accidents in 2012, a total of 85 were pedestrians; and in 2015, 91 of 382 traffic fatalities were pedestrians.

We have daily traffic reports on the radio, regular auto sections in the newspapers, irate letters to the editor about potholes, but seldom do we have sidewalk reports. While the media habitually pay attention to motor vehicle traffic, roads in need of repair, and malfunctioning signals, they pay little or no attention to the hazards pedestrians routinely encounter. We pander to those citizens whose practices are most environmentally destructive and ignore or actively discourage those whose carbon footprint is smallest.

Having narrowed sidewalks in many parts of Kingston and other urban centers to create additional lanes for motorists, the authorities have lavishly installed metal barriers in certain areas of high-density traffic such as Half Way Tree, Three Miles, and sections of Spanish Town, presumably to prevent pedestrians from straying into the pathway of moving vehicles.

A pedestrian takes her life in her hands trying to cross Marcus Garvey Drive in Kingston. Our streets are not designed for people; they are designed for cars. (Photo: Jermaine Barnaby/Gleaner)

These barriers add to the indignities pedestrians are plagued with. They send a clear signal that the State regards walk-foot citizens as no more than animals or imbeciles: corralling pedestrians like cows. Although the number of pedestrians has increased with population growth, governments have cut back on the provision and maintenance of basic facilities to accommodate them.

The State now attempts to deflect recognition of its own neglect by signaling that it is the inattentive pedestrians who are at fault, incapable of looking out for their own self-preservation.

In some glaring instances, access to sidewalks allowing safe passage for pedestrians has been entirely taken away. Such is the case in downtown Kingston where sidewalks adjacent to several public buildings on Barry and Tower Streets, for example, have been blocked off.

Ironically, these buildings house the Supreme Court and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, institutions whose job it is to preserve the rights of citizens. In taking steps, apparently, to ensure the safety of their own staff, they turn a blind eye to the safety of their fellow citizens.

Surely, it is worth asking whether some of these discriminatory practices — the hazardous condition of sidewalks, the absence of marked crossings and signals, the permanent blocking off of sidewalks that force pedestrians to be exposed to oncoming traffic, the failure to enforce violations against their rights, and more — whether such conditions may be actionable under certain provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.

Central and local governments, along with their planning and building authorities, should be made to consider and cater for pedestrians and pedestrian traffic as they do auto traffic.  Pedestrian citizens should be treated not as an afterthought, but as fully worthwhile. Regrettably, however, through systematic neglect by the State and the indifference of fellow citizens, pedestrians and cyclists are being made into endangered species just as dray cart drivers and their working mules and donkeys became in the 1950s and ’60s, many of them killed off by lethal, fast-moving automobiles.

A weapon of mass destruction: The automobile. (Photo: Gleaner)

[2]1. “Walk-Foot People Matter” was first published in Social and Economic Studies  65[4]:123-129 (2016)

12 thoughts on “Forget the Stinkin’ Toe Tree and Walk-Foot People: Kingston Is The City of the Automobile

  1. When the feet of NWA, CHEC and JPS are pressing down our her and Forestry Department’s necks with their demands on your land and building, I don’t see that Conservator of Forests Marilyn Headley ‘has put her foot down’. Maybe, ‘struggling to breathe’ is a better metaphor.

    One wonders what vision of Kingston or Jamaica really resides in the minds of politicians. It’s certainly not one that sees equal access to free movement as part of a vision that includes foot traffic as well as vehicular traffic. Some of the issues are the natural result of ill-considered development, eg the placement of Jose Marti HS by a major highway roundabout, and siting of Hydel Academy alongside a major highway, both offering few reasonable safe means of accessing the sites on foot on a regular basis. The standard practice of taxis and buses stopping on the side of Mandela Highway and children and parent trying to cross what as 4 lane and soon will be more, reminds me of crabs walking across roads to their breeding grounds and getting killed by vehicles in the process, because the crabs were there before the roads but no one sought to deal with their prior need to make the crossing.

    Sidewalks in Jamaica are amongst the most trecherous surfaces one can face and it’s a miracle more people do not suffer or report injuries from treading them daily.

    But, as I’ve said, the average Jamaican is COMPLIANT and COMPLICIT and DEFERRENTIAL and suffers, accordingly.


    1. Firstly, I don’t think Ms. Headley (whom I have huge respect for) knew that this was going to happen. She has put her foot down if you read the Observer article, that no more trees, including the Stinkin’ Toe (a pretty rare tree these days), will be felled on her watch. As for the pedestrians, as Mr. Carnegie said in his article – it is almost as if it is THEIR fault. They get in the way of the Almighty Automobile!! A disabled person must be at an extreme disadvantage – in fact, venturing along the so-called sidewalks must be a nightmare. You are right…Jamaicans put up with all this.


      1. That you think Ms. Headley did not know goes to the very point I am making: she and Forestry Department are not decision makers but decision takers in the process, as are most of us when faced with road projects, but more generally government actions. The previous administration talked much about ‘joined-up government’ but did little to show that pithy phrase had real meaning. The current administration is not much better, though it uses the language and semblance of inclusion, yet actions unilaterally and with much disregard to the clear and oft-times stated needs of various segments of society. (Read today’s Observer for the plea again for consderations of disabled citizens.)

        Where Jamaica is showing itself badly deficient in ‘democracy’ is that the people’s representatives are often silent at best and complicit at worst in such affairs. If you can cite one instance of the local MPs raising one word of opposition to the management or outcomes of road proejcts or showing support for the many and long-standing concerns and complaints of their constituents I will express myself shocked.


      2. Agreed! “Language and semblance” is something I tired of long ago. I saw some comment (on CVM TV I believe) about MP Delroy Chuck being quite relieved that the Barbican project is now complete and I think he was getting some heat from constituents about it… But actually expressing concerns on their behalf?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ha Ha Ha, not a word about bicycle lanes I note. I’d also probably be foolish to expect to see dedicated bus lanes.
    Is there a Policy Document or National Review of transport and communication in the cities to reduce the use of vehicles?


    1. As a former cyclist myself I wanted to talk about bike lanes, but that concept is completely out of the question with the current state of our roads. There are some streets that do have dedicated bus lanes. I will have a look for a Policy Document​, but reducing the use of vehicles seems far from our policymakers’ minds. Enabling the automobile is what it’s all about!


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