Military police directing traffic has attracted public comment in recent days with people offering divergent views on its pros and cons. Yet a long-term solution will only be found if the core issues of investment for upgrading public transport to reduce congestion, address safety issues and reduce harassment are properly addressed.
Successive governments in Sri Lanka have been obsessed with building highways and have disregarded the need to reform the country’s transport system. Despite the existence of a feasibility study by JICA to implement a Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) system, which would cost significantly less than building new expressways, it has been overlooked for more than half a decade. Cities around the world invest in proper public transport systems because there is no other way to avoid congestion.
Sri Lanka is fond of looking to Singapore as a model for development. On this front, Singapore has followed policies completely contrary to Sri Lanka but for different reasons. Singapore is one of the most expensive places in the world to buy a vehicle but that is because they wish to maintain congestion-free roads, whereas vehicles are expensive in Sri Lanka because of the country’s large trade deficit and low reserves.
However, not content with its current policies, Singapore in 2017 announced it would freeze the number of private cars on its roads for at least two years and has pledged about Sg$ 28 billion to improve public transport. The measure, to be reviewed in 2020, is an extension of Singapore’s already tough controls on vehicle ownership, which have helped the nation of 5.6 million avoid the traffic jams that choke other Asian cities.
Singapore’s 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 simply ignored the issue.
The move, which has won them votes, has exacerbated urban needs and severely reduced liveability in the capital. There is no sign of a policy change, with the last Cabinet meeting approving the seeking of funds for new expressway projects.
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.
The highway-obsessed mindset of policymakers must also change. Improving public transport would be cheaper and would have greater benefits for the people and other sectors of the economy also deserve the same level of attention. It could be that people are already making this shift and demanding that policymakers deliver. There must also be polices that allow technology infusion. For example, the previous Government started a process to include bus timetables on Google maps. Multi-mode transport hubs have to be created to connect people to key places. Park and ride services, if they are implemented widely, would also reduce congestion.
Nothing has been done about reducing sexual harassment in public transport and this causes huge challenges to women, limiting their access and freedom. Many plans have been outlined over many years and it is now time to focus on implementation.