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Next in Greater Colombo: What is the best urban transport mode?

Comments / 3321 Views / Tuesday, 10 December 2013 00:05

In early 2014, Colombo city will undergo a significant change: the Urban Transport Master Plan for Greater Colombo – which is graciously funded by Japanese aid – will be released. It will picture the daily flows of commuters in Colombo and its suburbs and will state which mass public transportation modes should be favoured. Even if we know that traffic jams are not going to get a quick solution – there will always be some traffic jams in the city – the Government is now looking for perennial and effective solutions to meet the transportation needs of an urban area that keeps on spreading. In our view, a good transportation system for Colombo city shall help to reduce travel time to a strict minimum, must reduce carbon footprint, should be collective and finally will promote urban comfort  – i.e. lower the level of urban noise. Anarchical spread Despite past attempts to plan the city – the last implemented plan was of British town planner Patrick Abercrombie – Colombo spread anarchically. In defence of local and central authorities, the capital city experienced a population explosion. Today, what do we observe? The densest areas are along the shoreline and Cinnamon Gardens has become the midpoint of the city, cutting it as a large green corridor that alters traffic to western parts of Colombo. There is no clearly established business centre other than Fort which is the least accessible district of the city with two lakes as boundaries. Logistics centres are located downtown rather than spread on the main exits of the cities; what’s worse, the development of the new port terminals will induce heavy freight traffic through the Fort congested area. The urban morphology of Colombo is getting disorganised and is not structured with an appropriate road network. The network consists in radial lines of small size and poorly designed junctions; it lacks detour roads or system to remove excess traffic. Few years ago, when traffic was still low, it was manageable; but today’s boom of vehicle sales makes this issue more relevant than ever. For the whole district, the population of Colombo is just 2.2 million inhabitants; Colombo has not reached the nature of a megalopolis like Mumbai, Shanghai or Chennai. There is still sufficient time to react and ease urban flows; but the longer we wait, the more difficult it gets. The vehicle fleet in the Western Province represents two-thirds of the national fleet (all types of vehicle) on a small portion of the country; it is already one motor vehicle for 4.8 people. It is still low a ratio – in the UK it is one vehicle for two people – but it grows so fast given everybody wants a motor vehicle and dislikes collective transportation. In the Western Province, the fleet of 1.2 million vehicles can run on a small network of 3,559 km of roads (from Class A to E). To compare with France where there are 43 vehicles per km of road, in the Western Province there are 338 vehicles per km. You better know why there is so much jam in Colombo city; too many cars squeezed into too few roads. Transportation modes What are the transportation modes presently available in the capital city? First of all, you can walk. It does not pollute, it is not expensive (and good for health) but it obviously doesn’t take you far. In addition, there are almost no proper sidewalks in the city (except a few installed for COHGM). Second, you can ride a bicycle; despite the lack of bike paths, it is still as fast as the car (due to traffic jams). But it degrades you since commuting by bike is uncomfortable – especially on rainy days. Your first step as a richer man is to purchase a motorbike. This is the faster mode of transportation, but it remains unsafe. Motorbikes are often overloaded, bikers do not know how to ride their vehicle – thank god, motorbikes are still lowly powered in Sri Lanka – and they contribute heavily to general congestion by hazardous riding. Then we have to consider the trishaws. Some people believe they can help improving traffic flows in the city given this narrow vehicle can transport up to three passengers, tightly. But it is unreliable – it tends to break down due to mechanical issues or not having enough fuel – and it pollutes due to its outdated technology. Drivers themselves can be an issue; they go faster than cars in congested cities but their haphazard driving prevents smooth traffic flows. We can now consider private cars with the eco-friendly Prius and the irrespective SUV (the use of which does not make much sense in a narrow city). With a large wheelbase, cars are not suitable for commuting alone or with a driver to work every day. One needs to go to mass transportation mode, whether public or private buses, which can contain a lot of people in a confined space. But there are disadvantages of that mode: present buses have outdated engine technology that makes them pollute. They are poorly equipped, uncomfortable, difficult to access by the handicapped and the old, and slow in city centres. In Sri Lanka, most of the bus drivers are unfortunately reckless, behaving irreverently of their own passengers or other vehicle drivers. Finally there are other modes of travel in the city; the cart pulled by a bull, the land-masters, the tractor or any other locomotion that should not be in modern cities. For those who are really concerned about the environment, you can also categorise transportation modes according to their level of pollution – mainly carbon emissions: excluding hybrid models, cars generally release at least 180 g of CO2 per passenger/km. Motorbikes release 100 g. Surprisingly, diesel buses are slightly more polluting than motorcycles with 120 g/pax; in Sri Lanka, it would be probably due to an outdated fleet of buses. Electric transportation modes are much cleaner but it varies according to the generation mix of electricity per country and the share of thermal production. Thus, depending on which country, trams or light rails can release 10 to 110 g per passenger/km – in France, it is even 5 g of CO2 per pax/km. Finally trishaws are not panacea because they burn up to five litres of petrol every 100 km: it is as much as small cars and more than hybrid models which are more comfortable. Main reasons for congestion To come back on specific traffic issues in Colombo city, what are the main explanations of congestions? Firstly, roads are not wide enough, rarely standard sized, are both poorly designed and marked. The author of the article, for instance, drives every morning from Nawala to Fort. That’s a 10 kilometre drive at an average speed of 13km/h. My major issue is that I start on a three-lane road that turns quickly into a one-lane road when traffic gets denser. On roads, marking is poor – and seldom observed, drainage is poor – with too many potholes during rainy seasons, and sewerage manholes are improperly built on roads, which drivers try to avoid. In addition to the bad road network, there is a lack of car parks and the few existing public parks are not easily accessible. Intersections are still poorly designed, far from convenient to change directions. There are not enough subways, fly-over bridges and roundabouts. Secondly, too many drivers behave irresponsibly. Few of them respect entirely the rules of driving. Road misconduct is scarcely punished because of poor knowledge of traffic laws by the law-enforcing authorities. There is too much bad behaviour which can provoke congestion. For instance, a lane can be blocked by a single vehicle which is illegally parked or stopped or due to an accident while waiting for insurance guys to come. For example, two lanes can be both blocked by a single vehicle that is driving in the middle of them. How many times have you observed trishaw drivers driving beyond the edges of the road or rolling to the opposite direction blocking the oncoming traffic? How many times have you seen drivers U-turning anywhere? How many times have you seen buses stopping abruptly without warning – notably due to the lack of brake and flashing lights? All particular misbehaviours have a bad impact on traffic jamming. What’s more, it kills! Last year, road accidents killed 2 109 people in Sri Lanka. It is huge when compared to other countries: for instance in a bad-driving country like France in Europe, it is four times less. Sri Lankan people are gentle but when it is about driving they go berserk. Rare are those who understand that driving is all about fitting smoothly within a vehicle flow and preventing doing harm to others. It means one has to signal every intention – like signalling before turning – to allow others to anticipate moves. Rippling and undisciplined driving lead to car agglutination and to traffic jams. Next steps Having found facts, what should one do next? Before committing to a specific mode of transport and launching expensive works, one should ask preliminary questions: First question is whether a behavioural change is possible. Everyone gets bothered with traffic jam but change is not easy, especially when you have proudly bought an expensive car or bike and you can no longer show off. If ever you are against using mass transportation modes, please consider how much money should be spent to build roads, digging larger areas and evicting people from wealthy places or even building elevated motorways at prohibitive costs and aesthetics. The second question is all about eco-awareness, which in other words is understanding how people perceive pollution and noise due to traffic in the city. Engines are noisy and noise can be stressful. But some people do not care. We all know petrol engines are polluting but due to sea winds, pollution is little felt in Colombo. Perception and reality are two different things. It is going to be difficult to convince people that there is an environmental issue at stake. Third question is a matter of urgency even if it does not seem so at first sight. Developing a comprehensive urban transport network can take at least 10 years. The longer we wait, the more the increase of the vehicle fleet. Imagine the state of Colombo city if everybody had a car? We must keep in mind that a good Urban Transport Master Plan should be included in a larger development plan for the city that would define the purpose of each urban zones, like logistics areas, commercial areas, hospitality and cultural areas and residential zones. It should then quantify and determine the traffic each zone is supposed to generate. A major objective of town planning is indeed to reduce commuting time (and distance) between work and home. Another objective is to determine the desired density of each area and the urban morphology that will be induced (will it be tall and dense buildings, independent houses etc?). Usually, after the urban development plan is completed, we can anticipate future traffic flows and define suitable corridors and urban transport modes. Transport policy What kind of transport policy should be implemented? The prime objective is to optimise the usage of what already exists. Carpooling system was once the talk of the town. A clever idea could be to improve load factors by imposing taxes on single occupant vehicles and promoting carpooling or ridesharing. In terms of infrastructure, there are many measures which could be taken at low cost: developing pedestrian walkways and bridges, stopping jaywalkers, prohibiting U turns by building central fences. Then there are technical means to reduce congestion and this requires better planning – like diversion roads – better and coordinated signalling equipments. Furthermore, a public transport policy still requires restrictions which limit individual flows and promote mass transportation. In some countries, you can use your vehicle on special dates only according to your license plate number. Pedestrian dedicated areas could also be created. Special lanes could be reserved to mass transportation modes. Cars could be forbidden in city centres or certain restricted access areas could be determined with a toll system to enter in. In terms of restrictions, do not hesitate to use the tax weapon. Taxes can be really useful as long as they are based on clearly defined rules. For instance, a tax could be applied on vehicles according to its level of petrol consumption or according to its carbon footprint. Another way to limit car flow towards the city is to restrict available parking spaces – generally speaking car park should not be financed upon public resources and can be easily privatised. But to be efficient, such a policy should substitute modes of transportation and punish illegal parking. To summarise, a good transport policy will favour mass transportation, which streamlines traffic in dense cities, reduces Green House Gas emissions and noise. Such a transport policy has to promote economical ways to move. Let us keep in mind that road development is extremely expensive. In developed countries (with better economies of scale), motorways can cost between US$ 9 to 11 million per km and much more if it goes through mountains. When it concerns an elevated expressway, it can more than double the expenditure. What’s more, cost of maintenance is high and can easily go up to US$ 100,000 per km per year. To summarise, highways are generally expensive and does not divert much traffic when they are intra-cities. Mass transportation In the provision of mass transportation, the choice is usually between fast buses, trams, light rail transit -LRT which are underground or elevated – heavy metros (MRT). The latter is suitable for megacities and Colombo is not yet one. In terms of costs, there are major differences: 1 km of underground light rail costs as much as 5 km of trams or 25 km of Rapid Buses (BRT). For the installation of a first line, the infrastructure costs are between US$ 2 to 12 million per km for a BRT, US$ 16 to 27 million per km for a tram and US$ 40 to 75 million per km for a light rail. Then you have to pay for rolling stocks of which life expectancy can vary a lot: a bus can operate from 10 to 15 years while the heavier railcars last 30 to 40 years. Purchase costs per vehicle may differ; it is from US$ 350,000 to 1 million for a rapid bus, US$ 2 to 3.7 million for a full tram and US$ 3.7 to 5 million for a light rail. Then you have to consider operating costs which also differ from US$ 4 to 6 per km for a BRT, US$ 7 to 12 per km for a tram and 10 to 12 km for a light rail. Finally, the choice of suitable materials depends on the expected volume of traffic and the distance between areas to be served. You then have to consider the hourly capacity of the different modes; a metro can transport 20,000 to 35,000 passengers/hour/direction when a tram can only transport 10,000 to 20,000 pax/hour and a rapid bus (BRT) will transport 10,000 to 15,000 pax/hour. In terms of speed, differences are huge but the average speed in city is fairly low: a bus drives at 10-15 km/h on average whereas a BRT will reach 15 to 30 km/h (if corridors are reserved). Trams will run at the same speed and metro lines can run up to 30-50 km/h. All the data have to be taken into account to determine the appropriate modes of transportation. Key thoughts In conclusion, since the Urban Transport Master Plan for Greater Colombo is supposed to be released by few months, several thoughts should be borne in mind: There is no good transport plan without a complete urban development scheme for the whole conurbation. It is urgently needed to anticipate the future roads where city is sprawling and reserve land from now – in the future, it will be increasingly difficult and expensive. The transport plan must also avoid creating bottlenecks; it is useless to concentrate all modes in a single node (like Fort). Main corridors should be considered according to future development of the city. Then appropriate means of transportation should be determined. Finally a good transport plan must not forget parallel facilities like pedestrian crossings which are often essential to the good flow of new modes. The work period is highly disruptive and its impact on traffic should be carefully anticipated (detour routes, traffic modelling). It is advisable to take into account the long term projects when renovating existing facilities; it could be smart to design corridors prior to BRT systems or trams when the existing roads are being renovated. A transportation system can work well when all stakeholders collaborate in a harmony: police has a key role. When setting a new network, Police can contribute to its success or its failure. All wrong parkers shall get fined and money could then be used to finance public transport modes. Driving tests should be toughened up and introducing a point-licence is probably a good idea. Drivers should be encouraged to change their behaviours; bus drivers must be trained in eco-driving; meaning a cheap, disciplined and fluid driving. Other drivers should learn to better overhaul their own vehicles to reduce accidents and pollution (a well maintained car can lead to a reduction of up to 25% of GHG). When it is about public policies, there is always adversity based on short term economic interest. There a need for a strong political support given implementing a master plan will jeopardise the interests of taxi, trishaw, bus drivers who will feel their customer base will get eventually diverted from them. It will also cause some expropriations which are always difficult to carry out. Even if the Government decides to go for private concessions and to delegate the implementation to private companies, public authority should keep committed to the project if it is to be successful. A practical transportation system has to be an interconnected network of the most adequate transportation modes. These modes should strictly address the needs of the population and be the most cost effective. It should also fit within the existing corridors when it can be done. In terms of cost, do not forget that 10 km of elevated highways can cost more than 200 fly over bridges or it can cost as much as 20 km of rapid bus lines. One should avoid show off systems which turn to be expensive and focus on the most appropriate transportation modes for the best convenience of Colombo inhabitants. For the new system to be sustainable, it should rely upon an economic model that will last over the years. A transportation system that is too much subsidised cannot last for long and it is therefore necessary to find a balanced business model that charges customers a significant part of the real costs. Some complimentary resources could be looked for to decrease the total cost of the project. For example, the development of the reserved lands surrounding stations could provide ancillary revenues to the transportation company. For the new transport system to be successful, connecting all modes of transport should be properly synchronised and made easy to commuters. But inter-modality has a high cost and can be difficult to implement; it should be anticipated long before it starts. A final caveat; in terms of pollution (per pax), buses or wagons pollute less when they are full. True optimisation of a transportation system throughout the day is a major issue; buses should run all day long and not be parked except during commuting hours. Second, if you go for electric transportation modes, it should be kept in mind that it is truly cleaner when electricity is generated from low emission sources. Here are few thoughts about an issue that will probably be at the top of 2014 agenda. Whatever modes are chosen, they will be successful if all stakeholders are properly consulted and informed to revolutionise and redirect the prevailing transportation system. Future consumers have to take over the project. Be collaborative and let us move to a modern mass transportation system in Greater Colombo. [The writer is the Country Representative for the French Agency for Development (AFD) in Sri Lanka.]

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