Colombo is gripped by a crisis in planning. No one cares a hoot

Mother of all battles

Sunday Times’ Business Times 

Answer this question: Where is the mother of all battles? In Iraq? No. Kashmir? No. Aleppo? No. South Sudan?

Or is it closer home where pitched battles in Parliament may qualify? No. Then is it the cost of living?? Still No … then where?

Simple. It’s the daily battle of wits in the capital Colombo for every pedestrian, motorist or public transport user to get to their workplace and back home.

In the past six months traffic has virtually ground to a halt in the city with every road, highway, by-road and private road being taken over by the enormity of a traffic problem that not even excessive traffic fines and jail terms will resolve overnight.

Laws are blatantly broken, motorcyclists and tuk-tuks openly challenge the police by overtaking on the left side of the road; in some cases encouraged by police to enable a speedier flow of traffic.

My Kussi Amma Sera would look up in exasperation while preparing to visit her village and say, “Aney mahattayo mey traffic eka dan loku achcharuwak, nede?”

In fact the ‘mother of all battles’ is the mildest form of description of the traffic chaos and congestion happening right through the day except, perhaps for the hours between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.

There is no in-between school hours or office workers when traffic eases. It’s all-round chaos from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. particularly on roads between Town Hall and Nugegoda; Colombo-Jaela; Town Hall-Jayewardenepura (massive traffic jams these days due to construction work of a new flyover); Duplication, Ratmalana-Kollupitiya on the Galle Road and even the Marine Drive.

All arteries to the capital are chock-a-block with traffic on a daily basis causing a massive loss to the economy. It increases the country’s fuel import costs as more fuel is used when vehicles move as slow as 7 km an hour; kills productivity of office workers using public transport – bus and trains, and increases road accidents. Even the diligent observer-of-rules drivers are forced to break the law, at some point, to get to their destination on time or be left behind. Survival of the fittest is the rule today.

Increasing traffic fines as a deterrent to accidents is not the solution to the core issue – tackling congestion – and is a typical cart-before-the-horse solution.

While traffic management is the responsibility of the Police, the protectors of the law are also burdened with traffic planning which ideally should be left to city and town planners.

Planning includes tackling the vexing issue of rising vehicle imports (in spite of high taxes) as more people opt for their own vehicles because public transport has failed or they simply want to own a two, three or 4-wheeler.

Consider these statistics to prove how Sri Lanka has ‘missed the bus’ in city traffic planning. The population in 2008 estimated at 20.246 million went up marginally to an estimated 20.966 million in 2015 according to official data, an increase of around 800,000. The vehicle population in the same period was 3.390 million in 2008 rising to 6.302 million in 2015, nearly doubling. So while the population rose by 800,000, the number of vehicles increased by 2 million. Thus, if in 2008 there were 5.97 persons per vehicle, it dropped to 3.32 persons per vehicle in 2015. At this rate, in 2-3 years, the number of vehicles and the population would be equal or the population could be less than the number of vehicles.

Here is how other countries have fared, taking examples from the US and Singapore. In the US, the population in 2014 (latest available) was 318.9 million against 260 million vehicles (1.22 persons per vehicle) while in Singapore in 2015, the population was 5.6 million against 957,246 vehicles (around 5 persons per vehicle).

When Singapore’s late founder Lee Kuan Yew began to build the nation, proper transportation was foremost on his mind. At the time, some 60-80 per cent travelled in their own vehicles, while 20 per cent used public transport. Being the visionary that he was, Lee proposed transforming that into reverse gear just like what Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was back then; 60- 80 per cent using public transport and 20 per cent using their own vehicles.

Fast forward to the mid-2000s where Singapore has achieved this goal while Sri Lanka has gone back to what Singapore was; more people using their own vehicles than public transport. There have been various attempts to change these trends and bring back public transport to its old glory, without success.

Solutions to the country’s traffic chaos have been short- term and addressed issues as they arose. For example, heavy traffic on particular roads resulted in creating one-way roads during peak hours, which then clogs another road and creates bottlenecks. The solution is worse than the problem.

Many years ago, parents were worried about their children returning home safely from school owing to bombs going off in various parts, when the war was at its peak. The same applied to office workers.

Today it’s not worry about safety but managing stress (health care costs also rise) that comes with travel on city roads or walking on ‘pavements’ which are not there or with large holes dug up by municipal workers and left unmarked without a warning to users. Pedestrians have to contend with broken pavements and unclear crossings often also facing risks when crossing as motorists, competing for space, speed at every opportunity.

In economic terms, stress impacts performance which, in turn, affects productivity.

Today it’s a competition for space, inch by inch; brake- accelerate; brake-accelerate for, a little room ahead is enough for another motorist to weave into your space.

Pedestrians and motorists have equal rights. But that’s in another era; today’s rule is compete fiercely to get your space on the road, even if it means breaking the rules. The Police, stressed as they are and woefully understaffed, often turn a blind eye as intervention simply doesn’t alter the situation.

Rainy days are a disaster as the roads get flooded quickly in the city, worsening the chaos.

Google maps and FM radio station alerts of heavy traffic areas help motorists to find the nearest less, congested road. But more and more every inch of road, be it a highway, small lanes and even private roads, has been taken over as motorists scour the city seeking ‘short cuts’ to reach their destination by avoiding the main roads.

Car drivers accuse bus drivers, motorcyclists or tuk-tuk drivers of being the road villains and palming off a ‘couple of rupees’ to a ‘friendly’ cop when pulled up for an offence, and vice versa.

So does it boil down to proper planning rather than ad hoc measures like traffic fines to deal with accidents and dangerous driving? In a way, yes. More vehicles are being imported, while road space is shrinking. On the other hand more roads doesn’t necessarily reduce traffic. City planning has gone haywire with apartment complexes and condos springing up everywhere as if there is an acute shortage of high-end accommodation. Shops, offices and mega tuition classes mushroom overnight without a thought of proper city planning.

Colombo is gripped by a crisis in planning. And no one cares a hoot. Government ministers pontificate about road accidents and decide to increase fines without looking in the mirror and asking themselves: Are we not part of the problem-allowing our vehicles unimpeded access with sirens blaring ordering others off the road? Reality check: Road accidents and breaking the rules will not be overcome by merely enforcing laws. On the other hand, proper city infrastructure planning, reducing non-public transport vehicle imports and creating designated zones for motor-cycles and tuk-tuks (not easy though) would restore peace and and sanity to Colombo’s roads.