Colombo’s other problem

Daily News Editorial

A lot has been written about recently on Colombo’s garbage problem. But there is one other problem that is equally unhealthy for Colombo. The city is bursting at the seams, unable to cope with the chaotic traffic situation.

On an average weekday, one million people enter Colombo by 30,000 buses. An equal number of people use more than 500,000 vehicles to enter Colombo daily. Most private vehicles have only one or two occupants. This is an almost criminal wastage of fuel and money, not counting the effects on the environment. The result is chronic traffic congestion, as all types of vehicles battle for limited road space.

What if at least one-third of these vehicle occupants give up their cars and come to the city by bus or train? There will be much less traffic congestion. But for this to happen, the buses must be far more efficient, punctual, comfortable and clean. If the buses can go faster than other vehicles, that in itself will be a major draw.

This was the main aim of the priority bus lane project introduced a few months back in Rajagiriya, which is essentially an experimental Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. This project turned out to be a success and the Cabinet had approved the proposal made by Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka to expand the Priority Bus Lane concept further and to take action to attract more people to use public transport services.

Accordingly, Bus Priority Lanes will be implemented in Moratuwa-Ratmalana, Wellawatte-Kollupitiya on the Galle Road and from Parliament Junction to Rajagiriya, Borella, Maradana, Pettah and Colombo Fort along the Parliament Road. The concept is also likely to be put into practice from the roundabout in Chittampalam A. Gardiner Mawatha to Pettah, Thummulla Junction to the Museum Junction and the Eye Hospital Roundabout to the Thummulla Junction during busy hours.

This is a very pragmatic proposal. With the Cabinet giving the nod to promoting the import of Low Floor air-conditioned buses through concessionary loan schemes and preparing a common ticketing system with electronic card payment facilities, all the ingredients are present to attract a good number of motorists to a nascent BRT network. Air-conditioned buses and convenient payment methods are a “must” to attract the car-loving city workers.

Sri Lanka is late to the BRT party. In a proper BRT system, buses can actually use the left lane of the opposing side of the road to pick up and drop passengers at “centre island” bus halts. It is essentially a train system without the trains, with all infrastructure such as terminals and stations, gates, sidewalks, warning and direction signs, and pedestrian crossing facilities.

Many countries, even developing ones, dedicate a separate lane for buses at least during the rush hours. This speeds up the flow of buses and also allows other traffic to move without being hindered by buses which usually hog all lanes. In some countries such as Singapore the bus (and train) network is so good even without a proper BRT system that most people do not think about buying a private car. This should be the eventual goal of our transport planners too.

Sri Lanka already has more than six million vehicles, from just one million vehicles as recently as year 2000. If current registration trends continue, the country will have 10 million vehicles in the next 10-15 years even amidst a high duty and tax structure. The majority of them will still be fossil fuel powered. Being a net importer of oil, our fuel bills will soar as a result. We will indeed be able to save a lot more foreign exchange and minimize traffic snarls if more people opt not to buy private vehicles in the first place. However, this will never happen if the local public transport system is not improved by leaps and bounds. The proposed seven electric Light Rail Transit (LRT) lines (with some interchanges that interconnect at least two lines) into Colombo and the BRT system are likely to entice motorists who will appreciate their comfort and convenience. This is more likely to succeed than several failed initiatives in the past such as “park and ride”.

Developing public transport is essential if we are keen on reducing traffic congestion. Exports have already expressed fears that traffic could crawl to just 3 Km/h on roads leading to Colombo in a few years (at present vehicle registration rates). Everyone aspires to buy a vehicle, at least a motorcycle, because public transport options are limited and inconvenient. Comfortable, safer, punctual and cleaner public transport is the key to reducing the craving for private transport.

But there could also be an alternative answer. Ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft are already making it possible to live without a private car. Driverless car technology is progressing at a rapid pace and they are likely to be commonplace by around 2030. You will be able to summon one through an app, input your destination and get off. Between the LRT/BRT and car-on-call, who will really need a private car?

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