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Cheap Chinese bikes cause chaos in Haiti

2015-05-27 10:49

CHAOS IN HAITI: Motorcycle taxis ride in traffic-clogged streets carrying passengers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Chinese-built bikes flourished after Haiti’s devastating earthquake of 2010. Image: AP / Dieu Nalio Chery

DAVID McFADDEN

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Joseph-Marc Carel knows the danger of ferrying passengers on his small motorbike, sometimes two at a time, as tides of the buzzing vehicles cut through the chaotic Haitian capital.

He has an artificial leg to prove it.

Carel would like to find a job safer than driving a two-wheeled taxi in Port-au-Prince but he knows he's unlikely to find one that pays anything close to the equivalent of R600 a week he can earn with his battered motorbike.

ECONOMIC LIFELINE

"It doesn't look good," he said, gesturing at the shattered reflectors and dented red fuel tank as he revved the sputtering engine, "but it's mine."

Cheap motorbikes such as the one that transformed Carel into an entrepreneur - and cost him his right leg in a 2011 crash - are seen by some as an economic lifeline and by others as a scourge of the streets.

The Chinese-made vehicles began to flourish after Haiti's devastating earthquake in 2010 when foreign aid workers brought them in as part of their disaster relief efforts. Port-au-Prince is now flooded with the small-engine Jialing, Lifan or Jeely models, which can be bought new for about R9600 or leased from middlemen.

Motorcycles provide one of the most efficient ways to navigate the unpredictable and rutted streets of the teeming capital but with regulation largely non-existent the combination of inexperienced drivers, general lawlessness and packed roads has resulted in a big jump in crashes.

Bermann Augustin, an orthopaedic surgery resident at the Hospital of the State University of Haiti, found in a recent study that motorcycles were involved in nearly 80% of all road crashes that sent patients to Port-au-Prince's main general hospital from April 2014 and February 2015.

'IT'S GETTING WORSE'

Emergency-room administrators say they rarely saw victims of bike crashes before the earthquake.

Augustin said: "This has become a big public health problem in Haiti and it's getting worse."

From her hospital bed in Port-au-Prince, food vendor Helene Morissette bitterly described the crash that fractured one of her ankles. She was attempting to scurry across a road when a motorcycle taxi collided with her.

She claimed that while she was screaming as the rider zipped away: "A lot of these moto riders are crazy."

The Haitian National Police says its officers are trying to crack down on operators of unregistered motorcycles but with as many as 500 000 motorcycles on the streets in greater Port-au-Prince traffic division Inspector Jean Yves Pierre acknowledged that authorities were struggling.

CHEAP BIKES APPEALLING

The appeal of a motorbike is easy to understand in Haiti. Cars and SUVs often cost twice the price of a new vehicle in the United States and, in any case, are out of reach for most people. According to the World Bank, 59% of Haitians live on less than the equivalent R30 a day and 24% make do with less than half of that.

Even so, the Port-au-Prince area is a traffic nightmare, with SUVs, rumbling trucks and colorfully painted bus-pickups known as "tap taps" competing for space. A trip from the airport to the hillside community of Petionville just a kilometers away can take two hours by car.

On a motorcycle, the fearless can dart through long lines of vehicles and make it in a fraction of the time.

Motorbikes were available in Haiti before the earthquake but they mostly were seen in rural towns, commonly used to carry all types of cargo, including live chickens and pigs, or towing items like rebar, bamboo poles and even wooden coffins.

The motorcycles have been critical during Haiti's ongoing cholera outbreak, often serving as the only way to get aid to people in remote corners. They now make up nearly 45% of Haiti's underdeveloped public transport, according to official estimates.


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