Public Transport Made Easy in Kingston, Jamaica

You’ve just entered the city at the Norman Manley International Airport, been met by your airport transfer charter and taken to your lodging. Now what. . . . You’ve just come up from ‘country’, wherever that is, to the big bad Kingston. . . . Or, you’ve lived in Kingston all your life but never taken, rarely use or haven’t used public transport recently. . . . Or even used it all your life and just want to read my take on it. A lot of my earlier blog posts feature public transport since I started this blog as a mere walk-foot gal wanting to see Jamaica. Recently, it dawned on me how daunting it must be to use public transport on your own for the first time in Kingston, worse if you stand out due to colour, language etc. For travel to be budget-friendly, one has to master getting around via the cheapest means possible. With that, let’s learn:

The Basics

I don’t have much with which to compare Kingston’s public transport but my word, isn’t our transportation unique?! For starters, there are 4 main options: JUTC buses, coaster buses, minibuses and route taxis. Robot taxis and depending on where you are in Jamaica, bike taxis also make an appearance. Since you have 4 legal options, let’s start there:

1) JUTC “Yellow” Buses

busd20140331ng

JUTC stands for Jamaica Urban Transport Company and is a government-run bus company that operates in and around the corporate area of the Kingston, Saint Andrew and Saint Catherine parishes. You may wonder why these buses run in only 3 of our 14 parishes. The road quality and terrain in many of our other parishes are not suitable for these large coaches and due to their smaller population density, it would be uneconomical to operate. Certainly I think they could expand to a few more parishes and routes but for now, it is what it is.

  • What to Expect: If at a depot such as Parade in Downtown, the Half Way Tree Transport Centre, Spanish Town bus park, Papine, Cross Roads etc., find out from passersby which bus is going your route and join the line if one is there already. Often it will just be a bundle. Try not to push & shove when the bus gets there as a few nasty commuters may do. If you’re at a bus stop, put out your arm and hand & flag the bus down to signal the driver that you wish to board. When you wish to come off, press the overhead buzzers to be let off at the next bus stop.
  • Bus Schedule/ Routes: Can be obtained on their website here
  • Fare: $100.00 for adults with cash or bus card, $40.00 for the elderly or disabled with card and $30.00 for children with card. If you fall into one of those concessionary groups but don’t have a JUTC smarter card, you will have to pay the adult fare of $100 until you can obtain one at a bus centre such as the HWT transport centre. Express buses e.g. 50Ex, 75Ax may cost a bit more because they are going for longer distances and have a more predictable schedule. You pay more for the predictability.
  • Who/When to Pay: the bus driver immediately as you board the bus, then collect & keep your ticket for the duration of the bus ride. They only accept local currency and no note greater than the JM$500 bill (i.e. no $1,000 or worse, $5,000 bills please).
  • Number of Passengers they ought to carry: 50 seated and a few more standing.
  • How many they actually carry: 100+ on some routes during peak hour
  • When Unsure Of Your Stop: Tell the driver as you enter where you’d like to get off and he or she will usually alert you when you have reached your destination. We’re friendly like that.
  • Pros: air conditioning, minimal harassment, simply press a buzzer when you want to be let off at the next bus stop rather than shout, safer driving than your other options
  • Cons: being let off at places other than the bus stop isn’t allowed & only up to the driver’s discretion which is annoying when stops are far apart on some routes, schedule is often unpredictable leaving you with very long waits, numerous stops to let off/pick up passengers make travel seem very slow, inadequate buses on some routes

2) Coaster Buses

busa20140331ng

Coasters are smaller privately owned public buses that often blare loud music & drive recklessly. I’ve found the rural ones to drive better because when you’re going up a steep hillside there’s no (less) room for recklessness. They’re found all over the island unlike JUTC buses and are the largest PPVs in rural areas. They rarely drive off from a depot until they’re full beyond the capacity they were licensed to transport. While it is rare (practically non-existent) that a JUTC bus is stopped by the police, coasters get stopped occasionally.. an annoying interference but necessary precaution in law enforcement.

  • What to Expect: If there’s a crowd waiting on one, rush to get inside. The good seats are limited. If you’re at a bus stop, the bus looks visibly full & the conductor says seats are available or someone is getting off soon and you’ll get their seat, 99.9% of the time it’s a lie. Unless you don’t mind standing, don’t get in. If one is empty & the driver or conductor says “come man. We soon leave,” popular myth no. 2. You will have a long wait until they’re full so either take something else or resolve yourself to sitting & waiting. Wave the bus down to get it to stop (as usual) at a bus stop but to alight, you’ll have to shout above the noise in the bus to say “BUS STOP DRIVER!” Good thing is that they stop anywhere, not just at the bus stops like they really should.
  • Schedules/ Routes: Too variable and lengthy. They go to just about every major town or village.
  • Fare: Varies depending on the length of the route. The most expensive I’ve taken was $450 from Half-Way-Tree to Port Antonio, but just estimate based on how far you’re going and carry extra money. Better safe than sorry.
  • Who/when to Pay: The conductor (rarely it’s a woman and if so, conductress). They usually wear grey shirts with black trousers and stand at the entrance of the bus or just outside it as it loads at a stop. They collect the fares about mid-route and will ask for it when they’re ready. Only local currency accepted and you can use any value note provided the change you’ll get back isn’t unreasonably large. E.g. for a party of 7 en route to Port Antonio, a $5,000 is acceptable
  • Number of Passengers they ought to carry: usually about 27
  • How many they actually carry: 35-38
  • When Unsure Of Your Stop: Ask the conductor. They’re really helpful with that sort of thing and will tell the driver when to stop for you.
  • Pros: operate islandwide
  • Cons: loud music, reckless driving (miraculously they mostly avoid accidents but piss off other motorists and the police), shouting for bus stops, overloading and getting squashed into uncomfortable seated positions especially if you’re tall, a bit of harassment from the conductors to get you into their bus instead of the next guy’s, men can’t sit at the front of this bus near the driver (unspoken rule).

3) Minibuses

YellowBuscopy

The smaller counterpart to the coaster, these are similar in that they can be found islandwide, are privately owned, often drive recklessly & blare loud music. These are notorious for cramped sitting quarters especially when you have all your luggage in your lap. I took one en route to Blue Mountain Peak.

  • What to Expect: See coasters
  • Schedules/ Routes: See coasters
  • Fare: See coasters
  • Who/when to Pay: See coasters
  • Number of Passengers they ought to carry: maximum of 15
  • How many they actually carry: 15-20
  • When Unsure Of Your Stop: See coasters
  • Pros: operate islandwide
  • Cons: Same as for coasters except they’re more likely to meet in accidents than coasters as a general rule.

4) Route Taxis

Taxis

These are five and seven seater cars, commonly station wagons and Toyota Proboxes. They should bear a red licence plate, a Transport Authority (TA) blue & white windshield sticker, a driver ID card hanging around his rearview mirror and less commonly, a yellow taxi sign on top and Hackney carriage sticker on the front passenger door telling the route and charges. The drivers are mostly male but there’s a welcome refreshing change with a small but increasing population of female cab drivers.

  • What to Expect: These load very quickly and will sometimes drive without meeting their full quota of passengers, hoping to fill up along the route. They’ll let you off virtually anywhere you want, bus stop or otherwise, much to the chagrin of other motorists and the police. Their driving sucks but you’ll more than likely be accident free.
  • Schedules/ Routes: Quite a lot exist but unlicensed routes give robot taxis a niche. They run to Liguanea, Papine, Richmond Park, Three Miles and New Kingston to name a few.
  • Fare: JM$100 per passenger with only visibly young children occasionally getting a “bly” to pay half-price. In some areas and for turn-offs from the main, it’ll cost $150.
  • Who/when to Pay: The driver. He’ll ask when ready to collect or you can pay just as you’re at or near your stop.
  • Number of Passengers they ought to carry: the 5-seater cars are licensed to carry 3 passengers, while the 7-seaters are licenced to carry 6.
  • How many they actually carry: 5-seaters fit 4-6 passengers while 7-seaters carry up to 9. 7-seater cabs are the bane of my existence.
  • When Unsure Of Your Stop: ask your driver or the loadermen. I’ll explain who those are shortly.
  • Pros: Omnipresent except during peak hour, drive quickly, fastest public transport means available. You’ll see a ratio of n 10 route taxis: 1 JUTC bus. Literally.
  • Cons: Personality variation (some are polite; others are downright despicable), lewd music, crammed quarters, reckless driving.

The Not-So-Legal Ones

You may have noticed by now that the 4 legal transport options bear a red plate. That red plate is the mark of all public passenger vehicles (PPV’s). However, there are some guys who try to beat the system and cheat their way out of taxes by using their private white plate cars to run taxis. That’s not fair to the guys who try to earn an honest living and pay their taxes. The illegal ones are called robot taxis, are sometimes not traceable (they’ll use fake plates) and encourage criminal activity. Therefore, where the option exists to use legal red plate taxis, TAKE THEM! There are some routes however where red plate taxis don’t exist. The Transport Authority doesn’t recognize these routes as legitimate but the guys who run robot in these areas provide a much-needed service to residents. Despite my zero-tolerance for robots, I’ve taken them before to places like Cane River Falls and more recently, Gordon Town Falls where no red-plate taxis exist.

Also, deep in the Blue Mountains where the rural villages get sparser and sparser, bike taxis (motorcycles) are the modus operandi. If you’re not willing to take one, you better have a sturdy 4×4 or be willing to foot it. Just ask around in these rural areas. They’ll know to whom to point you. Maybe one day I’ll take one for fun. One of my favourite local bloggers is making me wish I did. 😅

Where to Get Your PPV

Half-Way-Tree
  1. The Half-Way-Tree (HWT) Transport Centre, for all your JUTC bus needs in HWT. All but 2 HWT routes start and end here and the centre serves as a central meeting spot. It is referred to as simply the bus park.Calabar-student-stabbed-in-Half-Way-Tree.jpg
  2. The HWT Main Taxi Stand. Here you can get route taxis to Three Miles, neighbouring residential communities like Richmond Park, to Liguanea, August Town, UWI Mona Campus and Papine. Route 73 JUTC buses to Liguanea, Papine and UWI also load here.4dndzIw5MH
  3. Red Hills/ PriceRite Taxi Stand, not that the Total gas station operators are very pleased but just across from the bus park at this station you can get these route taxis.gasstationc20150123ng.jpg
  4. Constant Spring & HWT Rural Bus Stop, from which you can get coaster buses en route to St. Mary and Portland which drive the Junction route. I used here for my Castleton Botanical Gardens/Wag Water River & Somerset Falls trips. It’s just outside the bus park & across from a Burger King.half-way-tree-center1
  5. New Kingston/ Mountain View Taxi Standranges from just outside York Pharmacy, across from that beside the large NCB/clocktower or a little further up across from HWT Mall, Clocktower Plaza and Brooklyn supermarket. 27bfb37
Downtown, Kingston
  1. Parade, the major travel hub in Kingston aside from the HWT Transport Centre. From here you can get buses to HWT, Red Hills, Washington Boulevard, Portmore, Port Royal and out east to Harbour View and Bull Bay like I took to get to Cane River Falls, Rockfort Mineral Bath & its canons/ruins and Carib Beach. While not its official boarding spot, you will get all your St. Thomas coasters here as well such as to Yallahs and Morant Bay, the latter I took to get to Lyssons Beach the first time I went. Such a difference from when I went later using private transport. While you’re here check out one of our heritage sites, the Sir William Grant Park found in its centre.paradej20110309ng
  2. Rural Bus Terminus, Kingston’s gateway to at least 7 other parishes e.g. Westmoreland, St. Elizabeth, Manchester. I’ve never been here personally nor taken one of these buses but a country bus experience doesn’t get more authentic than this. NOTE: the surrounding environs of this bus park is not without its occasional flare-up of gun violence. Avoid it if you can.busa20110331ng
Papine
  1. Heading to the Hills (Mavis Bank, Gordon Town, Irish Town). Minivans and robot taxis are the main modus operandi with the rare coaster bus. They load anywhere in this vicinity, not having a designated spot e.g. beside Papine square (pictured below), at the gas station or in front of Parkview supermarket. JUTC route 61 runs to Gordon Town from here too (route starts in Downtown Kingston) but you will have an hour’s wait, I guarantee you.download (1)
  2. To HWT or Downtown. On the opposite side of Papine square are the JUTC buses, coasters and taxis headed to Downtown or HWT. Just check with the people standing around at these stops. They’ll be able to tell you if you’re waiting at the right spot or not. This photo is rather old since it depicts the older white JUTC buses instead of the more modern yellow ones, but the place looks the same.Papine Bus Stop

If you aren’t commuting from one of these major towns, you should stand at a bus stop and ask the first bus or taxi driver if he’s going where you’d like.

Some Words of Caution

  • You may face harassment from loadermen, this group of unattached men who have created a profession out of jostling passengers quickly into taxis at taxi stands. The taximen then pay them for not having to solicit passengers themselves. If this profession sounds stupid, unnecessary and borderline extortionist to you, that’s because it is but hey. It is what it is. There are decent ones who will genuinely try to help you find a taxi that meets your destination, are kempt and polite but good luck finding them. Just ignore them really. You’ll be fine if not a little annoyed.
  • Keep your electronics, jewelry and money CLOSE. We have pickpockets in Kingston like everywhere else and they walk around with ratchet knives and ice picks. They’re rather slick too; you may not even notice it happening because as we say in Jamaica, our thieves are sometimes so skilled that they can tief milk outta coffee. Need not be afraid though. Just use your normal street smarts and no harm will befall you.
  • Don’t rely on public transport at nights or walking around in poorly lit areas.
  • And of course, if you’re not feeling up to navigating all that, we have loads of private options like car rental companies, private charters like the Knutsford Express and private taxis. Just be prepared to fork out a lot more cash. If you have a small budget, you’re better off braving up since you’re armed with all the info you need. 😉
  • Carry local currency and in smaller change ($5, $10, $20, $50, $100, $500 only).

Now you know how to travel like a Kingstonian! Feel free to share your experiences, ask questions or add any suggestions or recommendations for unfamiliar users of Kingston’s public transport in the hopes of making this a valuable resource.

Walk good. ✌

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None of the photographs pictured above are the property of Adventures from Elle. Most were taken from the Jamaica Gleaner or Loop Jamaica through Google Images. If you recognize any of the aforementioned photographs as yours and would like to see them removed or properly cited, leave a comment or get in touch via my About page. Also, all prices are listed in Jamaican dollars (JM$).

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