Boost for public transport

Daily News Editorial

Everyone in Sri Lanka wants to buy a vehicle, at least a scooter or motorcycle. It is certainly an aspirational desire, but even more than that, there is one other compelling reason for wanting to buy a car. Our public transport system is so pathetically inefficient, crowded and inadequate that most people seek “liberation” by buying a vehicle. It is not surpassing that the country’s vehicle population has climbed exponentially from just three million vehicles in 2008 to over six million today.

This has resulted in gridlock and chaos on our main roads in all cities. The average vehicle speed within Colombo was between 40 to 60 kilometres per hour in 1980 but it has been reduced to 8 kilometres per hour. It is predicted that this speed limit will be reduced to six kilometres per hour by 2020.

The solution to this problem is not restricting the import of vehicles or widening the roads, though these could have a temporary beneficial effect. The best solution is developing the public transport system to the level where everyone will be keen to keep the car at home. Almost no one uses the car to go to work in London, Tokyo or Singapore, because the public transport system is so good. We should aspire to achieve the same goal.

The Government has realized the need to have a world-class transport infrastructure system and given priority to building a Light Rail Transit (LRT) system covering Colombo and the suburbs. The plan is to identify entry points to the city and start a light railway system from each point. This new LRT will cover main suburbs including Borella, Kottawa, Battaramulla, Kaduwela, Maradana, Mattakkuliya, Peliyagoda, Dematagoda, Kadawatha, Bambalapitiya and Kirulapone.

The LRT will be the best solution for Sri Lanka, since a subway (underground) Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) will be enormously expensive and complicated to build. A good LRT system, with trains running only a few minutes apart, will help attract car owners and tourists as well. The authorities can even have a Gold/First Class in the front carriages for those who want a bit more luxury at a higher cost. They can also implement a cashless smartcard payment solution for the trains with automatic gates.

The Government also plans to electrify the main suburban rail lines, which will enable faster travel at 100 Km/h. This was a long overdue measure. The Kelani Valley Railway line will be extended up to Ratnapura and an additional line will be constructed between Polgahawela and Kurunegala. A Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system is also in the works, with separate lanes for buses. Such systems are already operational in several countries, with launches due in India, Bangladesh, Tanzania and Vietnam. Transport experts are already talking about autonomous buses whisking passengers along BRT corridors – the technology for this exists, but the regulatory framework does not.

Although it is very difficult to widen existing roads, it is easier to build all-new elevated roadways. A flyover is already being built at Rajagiriya, one of the busiest towns in the country. Plans are already afoot to launch the construction of two new roads, one between New Kelani Bridge and Athurugiriya and, the second road between Kelani Bridge and the Colombo Port next year. Considering that nearly 350,000 vehicles enter Colombo daily, this is a praiseworthy move. The Western Provincial Council plans to cut down the number of vehicles entering Colombo daily by 50,000, but this will succeed only if an alternative, more comfortable mass transport system is introduced within the next few years.

Earlier, there was also a proposal to levy a London-style congestion charge to enter Colombo from vehicles occupied only by the driver (i.e. 90 per cent of vehicles entering Colombo), but this seems to have fallen by the wayside perhaps to practical and logistical problems. The authorities should encourage carpooling or Uber/Lyft style ride sharing to cut down on traffic congestion. Most countries have exempted electric vehicles from these charges to encourage their use.

Sri Lanka can do a lot more to improve public transport. The recent strike by private bus crew showed how dependent we are on the private bus network. The Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) with its 6,000 buses cannot match the private bus fleet. The Government should take urgent steps to strengthen the SLTB, which actually has a workforce far in excess of the number of buses. These workers can be put to better use if additional resources are made available to the SLTB whose buses are the only option available in certain remote areas and after about 8 p.m., in all other areas. These core strengths of the SLTB should be reinforced.

All public transport systems must be integrated to give the best possible deal to the commuter. A good LRT system will be of no use if there are no “last mile” buses to take the commuters to their homes. The LRT planners must take such factors into account to make it a success in the real world.