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Technology and transport

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Sri Lanka’s public transport system took a step forward this week with schedules for buses and trains being made available on Google Maps. The initiative, which is currently limited to major cities, comes after five years of gathering data and attempts to improve access and thereby user experience.  

Sri Lanka’s privately-owned buses are tightly regulated through a route licensing system, which has straitjacketed a large number of individual bus owners, preventing consolidation and innovation. This, together with the climbing aspirations of people, has resulted in the increased use of personal vehicles or taxis. The railway system has also become unreliable due to lightning strikes and has limited comfort levels.   

Sri Lanka has seen a renewed discourse on public transport and the need for it to meet safety and comfort levels to better meet the needs of people. In this instance it is imperative that policymakers look at how public transport can be improved, not just in terms of expensive projects such as the Light Railway Transit (LRT) system but also relooking at the entire structure and finding ways to make it more efficient for the widest possible number of users. 

In such an instance the updating of Google Maps so that public transport options are given in Google Transit is a step in the right direction. Another step would be putting trackers on buses so Google Transit can give real time updates to passengers. Just as taxi operators have revolutionised their industry through apps, it will help passengers and encourage more users if an app can be used to book train and bus tickets. Both these are apparently in the pipeline, according to reports, but need to be rolled out as fast as possible. 

Technology can be used to change the way people travel, help them feel safer and encourage a more responsible and professional public transport system. Some telecommunication companies already assist their users to book train tickets and these are widely popular services. Bus booking websites that allow online payments are another segment that has seen rapid growth and help women and families travel comfortably and safely. These initiatives should be encouraged and scaled up by policymakers.

Singapore is famous for discouraging personal vehicles and their approach is rare in Asia where the blistering pace of urban development in recent decades has often been accompanied by unchecked growth of car and motorbike ownership, spawning huge traffic jams in many major cities. Colombo is no different and successive Sri Lankan governments have concentrated on building expensive highways and other infrastructure rather than improving public transport. There can be multiple approaches to dealing with transport issues and stakeholders should use as many options as they can find.

Cities need to be planned. If, like in Sri Lanka, they are not, then smaller changes are needed to encourage progressive mobility. The further people have to commute, the more traffic they cause. It is impossible to create more and more roads for cars without substantially damaging the liveability of a city, so the only alternative is to improve accessibility and quality of public transport.

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