Urban traffic congestion: Are bus lanes panacea or pipedream?

By Prianka Nalin Seneviratne (Daily FT) 

The value of a transport system is a function of the level of mobility (or speed), accessibility (or reachability), affordability, and availability. The first two are the most important and are inversely related. For example, a one-way system or restricted turning at an intersection may increase the rate of traffic flow, but accessibility to some destinations may be lowered for some people. The challenge is to find the right balance.

Journalists, road users, well-meaning citizens, expatriates, transport experts, and politicians regularly express their views in the print media and in conversation on how to reach this balance in Colombo. For example: “Galle Road bus lane wins commuter support (Business Times, 27 August), “Massive Rs. 32 billion loss due to traffic congestion” (Business Times, 13 March 2011); “Strangling the working class and the economy(Letters to the Editor, Sunday Times, 30 October 2016); “Remedies for traffic congestion” (Business Times, Sunday, 20 November 2016); “Rs. 500m loss incurred daily from traffic congestion” (Newsfirst.lk, 16 March); Colombo Vehicle Statistics (2015) (http://indi.ca/2015/10/colombo-vehicle-statistics-2015/), “More teeth for traffic laws to rein errant three-wheeler drivers (Sunday Times, 27 August 2017), “Cabinet approval sought for bus lanes” (Sunday Times, 26 March), and “Transport and congestion: is there a way forward?” (Business Times, 2 July).

The majority blame the rising stock of private automobiles for the declining mobility in the city. According to two commentators, half a million vehicles and 1.9 million passengers enter the City of Colombo daily, and 90% of the vehicles are privately owned (Newsfirst.lk, 16 March and http://indi.ca/2015/10/colombo-vehicle-statistics-2015/).

A few months earlier, another placed the number at 250,000 vehicles per day (Business Times, Sunday, 20 November, 2016). A third commentator has stated that the running speed between Dehiwala and Fort (about 15 km) has dropped to 15 kmh in 2016 from 30 kmh in 2014 (Letters to the Editor, Sunday Times, 30 October 2016). An expert who estimated the annual cost of congestion to be Rs. 32 billion in2011 (Business Times, Sunday, 13 March 2011), has raised it to Rs. 182.5 billion by 2017 (Newsfirst.lk, 16 March).

Some commentators have implied that the current state of affairs is a result of lack of attention and slow response of the politicians to their suggestions. These suggestions include: building more bridges, flyovers, and parking garages, restricting container traffic, reducing sidewalk widths, allocating reserved lanes for buses (bus lanes and bus rapid transit), inner-city taxis, etc.

Given the colossal cost and the expert solutions on offer, shouldn’t the 1.9 million daily travellers into the city, particularly the 52% of them who are crammed into 29,000 public transport vehicles (http://indi.ca/2015/10/colombo-vehicle-statistics-2015/), be outraged at the politicians? Are the politicians non-responsive because they are either uncaring or do not know which solution(s) to implement first? Or is it because they are not convinced that the solutions will work, particularly because the facts used to show cause are inconsistent? Could it be because they do not see or experience congestion, because the streets are forcibly cleared when they travel? Is it because the State does not have money? Or is it all of the above?

Consider the numbers

Let us first consider the numbers cited by the commentators. According to the Business Times of 20 November 2016 and Newsfirst.lk, 16 March, traffic entering the city has doubled in less than a year. One of commentator quoted 170,000 at the outset and 500,000 in another part of the same clip (http://indi.ca/2015/10/colombo-vehicle-statistics-2015/). Likewise, congestion cost has reportedly increased nearly 500%in six years (compare the figures in Business Times, Sunday, 13 March 2011 and Newsfirst.lk, 16 March). The private vehicle occupancy is estimated at 1.87and compared to 33.6 bus occupancy and this is illustrated in a cartoon (http://indi.ca/2015/10/colombo-vehicle-statistics-2015), although nearly half the “private vehicles” are motor cycles and tricycles, and hence private vehicle occupancy cannot be much higher. Are these figures trustworthy?

Suggested solutions

Then consider the suggested solutions:

(a) Bus lanes: According to the Daily Mirror of 16 March, the buses are moving 30 seconds faster than the other vehicles in the experimental lane implemented in March in the Kotte Municipal area. But, according to the Business Times of 27 August, there is a 23% reduction in travel time from Moratuwa to Kollupitiya (about 17 km) after implementing the bus lane (now it takes 23 minutes compared to 30 minutes before). This makes one wonder whether a 30-sec time-saving entices motorists to switch modes to travel in the Kotte area, and the car users should be made to travel at less than 15 kmh while an average bus is allowed to travel at 44 km/hr from Moratuwa to Kollupitiya;

(b) Examples from other cities: According to Business Times, Sunday, 13 March 2011 Singapore, China, and Columbia have successfully solved congestion through one or more initiatives such as “park and rides, bus lanes, cycle ways, improved transit, express highways, electrified railroads, metros, light railways, and maglev railways, Mass Rapid Transit, and vehicle restraint measures”. “Staggered hours for schools/offices/tutories”, proper town plan, friendly public transport facilities and a sufficient operational traffic system” are also suggested in the same article; and

(c) More infrastructure: In Business Times, Sunday, 20 November 2016, a commentator has suggested “mega car parks, overhead/underground pedestrian crossings, subsidised taxi services for intracity travel, park and ride, increased penalties for traffic violations, public disclosure of violators’ identities, and higher parking fees”. An earlier commentator has said in Business Times, 13 March 2011 that no solution can cure the congestion woes. So what should the politicians do?

Congestion and economic growth

Now consider this. Congestion is a natural by-product of economic growth (A Leading Indicator: The Good Side of Traffic Congestion, http://econlife.com/2013/08/traffic-congestion-might-be-a-leading-indicator/). Sri Lanka’s economy grew at an average of 6.4% between 2010-2015 (http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/srilanka/overview).

Import-export traffic at the Port of Colombo from 2014 to 2015 grew by 8.1% (http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/colombo-port-container-handling-up-5-7-pct-in-2015/), and the gross national income doubled from 2005 to 2015. To achieve this, people must have had to travel and goods must have had to move. This raises to two questions. One is, were these movements cost effective, and two, if they were, can that effectiveness be either improved, if not sustained at the least?

Private vehicle ownership

The experts quoted in the media say that the supply of road space, parking (including taxi stands and bus terminals), and the alternative means of transport have remained unchanged for decades. In fact, one opines that the quality and supply of public transport has been on the decline for several years (Business Times, 13 March 2011). If that is the case, which many would agree on, private vehicle ownership will no doubt rise, particularly when financing is easier and lifestyles are changing (e.g. suburban living). Yet, cars in Sri Lanka still account for only 38%of the vehicles entering the city (http://indi.ca/2015/10/colombo-vehicle-statistics-2015/). The number of registered cars in the entire country in 2015 was just over 670,000 or 11% of the vehicle population. From 2011 to 2015, the number of registered cars increased by 11%.

In contrast, the motorcycle and tricycle numbers in the same period increased by 55% and 21% respectively (http://www.transport.gov.lk/web/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=255). Some of the motorcycle trips are service-related (sales, marketing, delivery, etc.), and not just commuter trips. Look around at a cricket or rugby game for the number of parked three-wheelers. They are not waiting for passengers. The drivers have come to watch the game—alone or with their families. Increasing business activity and changes in retail trade, for example from corner stores to supermarkets and the boom in the construction industry, have increased also freight traffic. Therefore, arbitrary restrictions on private vehicles—using bus lanes or hefty tolls—without offering either comparable or cheaper alternatives, may negatively impact the economy.

Instead, policy and lawmakers must create an environment for voluntary redistribution of trips among the modes by enabling and requiring the modes to be more attractive. The aim must be to create an environment that lead to increased mobility and accessibility for all—regardless of age, gender, disability, and economic status. This means that people must be able to travel and goods able to move seamlessly and efficiently, using one or multiple modes of their choice.

For this to happen, the country needs a complete restructuring and reorganising of the public transport networks, and coordination among the modes. Most importantly, it will require public financing, at least at the outset. The private sector has a large role to play as the concept takes shape. Likewise, the support of the people—the users, the employees, and the related agencies—is fundamental for its success. There must be a mindset change. All this needs the changes to be disclosed with accurate cost and revenue estimates, implementation schedules, and clear outcomes to enable open public consultation.

Conceptual model

In 1982 and again in 1995, this writer informally presented a conceptual model – applicable in all cities, particularly Colombo, to academics, politicians, large private firms, and government agencies. The concept was for combining private cars, railways, buses, lorries, private vans, and even three-wheelers to provide people and goods an integrated “almost” point-to-point travel opportunities. Accordingly, a passenger or a shipment is moved by car, foot, bicycle, bus, lorry, van, taxi, or three-wheeler to the nearest line-haul train/bus/lorry terminal, placed on the line-haul vehicle in a class of choice. At the destination, the access process will be reversed for the distribution.

Large employers and businesses can operate their own shuttle services at either end. The minimum requirements for this are (i) increased rail/bus/lorry frequency, (ii) improved on-board and at station/terminal services and comfort; (iii) improved station/terminal and access infrastructure; (iv) single-window regulatory authority with the powers, responsibilities, and committed professional staff to set minimum service standards and tariffs. With today’s sophisticated vehicle tracking, on-line booking, smart phones, and smart cards, this type of concept is now easier to implement than when it was first proposed.

Two standard questions were raised in 1982 and 1995, and will undoubtedly be raised again today. The first was, can the government afford the investment? The second was, will it be acceptable to the unions and associations? The answer to both is yes. In the first case, with transparent conditions and firm government assurances, there is potential to attract the private sector so that the government share will be less.

Sri Lanka Railways

In 1995, few corporate customers of rail freight services expressed interest in partnering with Sri Lanka Railways, especially for leasing the track during the off-peak periods, and are likely to be of the same view today. Moreover, Sri Lanka Railways, as one of the largest property owners in the country, can easily raise the capital for such ventures and increase its revenue through leasing space for retail and advertising. The space inside and outside trains and buses are prime advertising space.

Currently, railway assets—locomotives, track, maintenance facilities, railway stations—are perhaps the least utilised among the public assets in the city. Additionally, it is fair to suggest that most users today are willing to pay for speed, comfort, and reliability. The service providers can help by offering more comfort-, time- and speed-based fares, from which the users can choose, thereby spreading the peaks. The motorists will be willing to pay for parking and using road space if they receive quality facilities in return.

The answer to the second question is: if the operating revenues rise, and the employees are proportionately compensated and provided better working conditions and retirement packages, why would the associations and unions oppose? It will be unethical and unreligious for anyone one or group to oppose a transparent and justified change to provide greater mobility and accessibility for all. People will revolt against the opponents if they see the benefits to them of a government strategy to improve transport services. The unionists themselves will benefit from the greater mobility and accessibility. Even a slight improvement will be felt by the entire nation. Draw from the example of the Colombo Port-a highly successful public private partnerships in South Asia—where the employees agreed to change and benefited themselves and the nation.

(The writer, PhD. P.Eng, is the Managing Director C&S DevCo Ltd. Engineering Consultants. He can be reached via email prianka@candsdevco.com; https://www.linkedin.com/in/prianka-nalin-seneviratne-2424357/.)


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