Sustainable and broad-minded solution for Colombo’s traffic

Friday, 8 March 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 Traffic is created by drivers who drives recklessly and selfishly to reach their destination as fast as possible – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

By Yasith Deshapriya

Daily commuters travelling to Colombo from suburbs and beyond are struggling every day to reach their work or school or home on time. 

It’s been three months since I moved to Colombo to settle in after eight years of living abroad. The traffic has worsened over the intervening years despite the many infrastructure developments in place. I commute back and forth to work through ride-sharing services (Uber, PickMe). 

The other day when I was going off from my work (Colombo 2) for my home in Koswatte, Battaramulla around 5.30p.m. the traffic was at a standstill near the Rajagiriya flyover. The friendly driver, who was very talkative, shared with me that when the flyover was not in place there was a better traffic flow. He also stated that the flyover should have extended at least past the HSBC HDPL building. 

I didn’t want to explain to him that the traffic is created by drivers who drives recklessly and selfishly to reach their destination as fast as possible. They never follow lane discipline, never bother about pedestrians, and they go wherever they can move their vehicle thinking that this is the way to avoid traffic in Sri Lanka. I was silently looking out and observing the behaviour of the drivers. It was horrific and pure negligence. I wonder if some people think that honking at the vehicle in front, which is also stuck, will help to move the traffic flow. 

It is really the lack of road development and infrastructure, the lack of discipline of the road users, and the lack of proper public transportation system on top of it all. Unfortunately, whenever I try to have a decent discussion about these topics with my friends and relatives, they always give me negative feedback, such as Sri Lanka will never grow, the politicians are ruining the country, it’s because you lived so long abroad, and we are used to it now, etc. I mean, seriously? I was there only for eight years. The rest of my life I lived in this city. I came back hoping that the country would have advanced at least to a certain extent. Is that wrong? In fact, the road network has been upgraded, but the mentality of the people has become jaded. They preach that “Sri Lanka will never develop, whatever happens,” as though it has been absorbed into their veins.  

Changing the public’s way of thinking

The Government is not responsible for everything. They can build roads, introduce better transportation systems and so on, but the public must show some courtesy as well to balance it. Remember what they did with the newly introduced train? People ruined it with trash within 24 hours. Think about it; it was not a political party or terrorist group that did that, it was us, the bigoted community. And whose money was spent in vain? The Government’s? No, it is mine and your hard-earned tax money. So, what do we get from ruining this public facility? Will the Government or any political party/person be hurt? Why should they? I can’t believe that, despite having easy access to see how the other side of the world is developing and knowing how we are stagnating at the same level, people still don’t care. Probably the internet is only a tool for other purposes (in one of which we have achieved a world-record) but not for education or enhancing knowledge.  

So, before I put in my two cents on sustainable ways of reducing the traffic, the most important factor is to change the mindset of the public and politicians of the country. An open-minded and well-disciplined public will reduce 50% of self-created traffic jams. What should we do about the other 50%?  

Upcoming public transport developments

The Central Bank Annual Report 2017 suggests that Sri Lanka requires cheaper and faster solutions for traffic jams which lead to loss of productivity. They also stated the importance of having a Light Rail Transit (LRT) system. Japan has agreed to finance a JICA project to build the LRT, expected to be completed by 2024, which I believe is the most suitable option at the moment to reduce traffic coming from Kaduwela, Athurugiriya, Malabe, Koswatte, Battaramulla and Rajagiriya. All of these have been identified as highly residential areas with the highest traffic flow to Colombo, as the Southern expressway exit is also situated in Kaduwela for Colombo-bound daily commuters. 

The LRT is expected to reduce the number of public transport buses from these areas, which will have a good impact on the road. The Government should also encourage people using cars to switch to the LRT, to reduce more traffic once it is operational. It has been identified that low occupancy vehicles such as cars notably increase traffic. I know for a fact that owning a car is the most important aspect to a Sri Lankan, which I believe is a most unwanted one if there is a better transportation system.

Why is a personal car unwanted? What other options do we have?

I myself had thought to own a car, as I’m spending heaps of money using ridesharing taxis to commute daily. The lack of a proper public transportation system which leads me to stick to ride-hailing apps and a refusal to sacrifice my life to private bus stunt-drivers has been the biggest demotivator for using the current public transportation system. Perhaps I want to die peacefully! 

So I did my evaluation to see which has better value - owning a car or sticking to my taxi rides? To own a decent car, you need at least Rs. 1.2 million, for - let’s say a Suzuki Maruti Alto 2005 model (as per which is good in fuel consumption and has less maintenance cost as well. Since I don’t have a penny in my hand I’m going to take a full lease which is Rs. 2500 per 100k that wraps up around Rs. 30,000 per month (2500 x 12). My daily route consisting of 26km per day up and down. I work 20 days a month which adds up to 520 km a month. Assume the car does 12km/l in heavy traffic which means approx. 43.5 litres of petrol per month, and the cost for fuel would be Rs. 5600 per month (at Rs. 129 per litre) just for the office run. If I allocate Rs. 3000 per month for maintenance and depreciation the total cost for owning a car per month adds up to Rs. 38,600. 

Now, let’s take using Uber/PickMe as my ride into consideration. In the morning from my home to the office it has cost me Rs. 750 at lowest and highest Rs. 1475. I want to be optimistic so I’m taking Rs. 1400 as an average. On my way back home, it has cost me the highest Rs. 750. I’m taking Rs. 700 as an average, so per day I spend Rs. 2100 up and down therefore Rs. 2100 x 20 = Rs. 42,000 a month. Well, it is Rs. 3400 additional than owning a car but remember I took the highest amount as my average cost. Forget about 3400 bucks, if I have my own car, that will contribute to the traffic that is rising, I have to take the stress of driving the car in bumper to bumper traffic daily, which will eventually effect my productivity, added to the stress of maintenance and finding a place to park. My car will be idling 8-9 hours in a parking lot. A 13-year-old car can breakdown at any moment; will I be able to sell it after the lease agreement? Last but not least, it will contribute to the CO2 emission as well. If I use a ride-hailing taxi I will not have to worry about anything. Just book my taxi, sit get in sit down, go and pay the fare. So, isn’t it worth the extra bucks?

If you agree with me on the above, try explaining it to someone. I bet they will tell you that you are giving a stupid excuse for not being able to afford a car. That’s the mindset of the people here, in the land built on Buddhist philosophy which teaches you to let go and not get attached to materialistic things. Now, if you own a car that doesn’t earn you a cent and only helps vanish your money, please return it to the leasing company that you borrowed it from. If you still want to keep your car to show your prestige to the world, make it a thing that earns you something instead of idling in a parking lot, to at least cover your expenditure. 

I know you must be thinking that I’m insane, but trust me the world is moving in that direction. Owning a car is a big thing for yesterday’s world. The sharing economy is evolving and valued by developed countries. Car manufactures are struggling to sell their vehicles in the West, they are changing the concepts, replacing fuel-operated cars with electric vehicles. If you have ever been to Singapore and used both their public transportation system and the various ride-hailing options available, you will realise that you will not require a car of your own to commute in Singapore.

Introducing Electric Vehicle incentives

The Government should introduce incentive schemes to encourage the public to buy Electric Vehicles (EV). At the same time, they should also increase taxes for fossil-fuelled vehicles to control the imports. The tax money earned from these vehicles should only to be used for developing the public transport sector. Almost all the car manufactures are now building EVs to cope with higher demand from eco-friendly consumers around the world. EVs are pocket-friendlier too, as it requires lesser maintenance. 

The Government should initiate infrastructure projects to have more solar-powered charging stations around the island and to encourage the public to have solar powered systems in their homes, which is already in progress. In many countries people tend to convert their regular cars to EVs and Sri Lanka’s first ever hyper EV car manufacturer Vega Innovations has also started EV conversions recently. The Government should encourage and facilitate such start-ups to have more conversion centres by giving them financial incentives too.

Corporate entities helping the cause 

Many corporations, including my employer, are indirectly involved in reducing traffic in various ways. Eight years ago, when I was working here in Colombo, many companies used to provide vehicles to its sales teams to visit their clients. This has changed after the introduction of ride-hailing apps. Now the companies use their corporate facilities to reduce the number of cars added to the roads; it also helps their budget. Although working at home and flexible working hours are concepts not very famous in Sri Lanka, many countries use them as another way of reducing peak time traffic and also to reduce the cost of operations. 

Work and schools almost starting at the same time in SL is one of the major reasons that the traffic problem is enduring. I do understand that some businesses need to be open at specific times. But if you analyse the issue, not all employees are required to be at office by 8 to 9 in the morning except for the frontline staff. Those who work in the back-office may start working from 9.30 – 10 or whatever time is flexible. Some job roles can be identified as ones possible to work from home by providing a laptop and internet connection. These methods have been proven to reduce traffic and increase productivity as well.

Widen roads by compromising residential unit size

More cars, less space is the key issue here. The number of cars are increasing day by day, but roads are not getting wider to accommodate them. The problem is we have bigger residential units and never want to compromise that for the sake of having better road network. Isn’t it true? Are you willing to relocate to a two-bedroom apartment to let the Government take your 10 perch land with a two-storeyed three-bedroom house to widen the road? I wish you would, but unfortunately no one is willing to sacrifice their home or land, as though they will take it to their grave when they leave this world. 

I’m not comparing everything to Singapore, but I heard many people say they wish Sri Lanka could be like that. If you roam around Singapore city, you won’t find a single standalone house anywhere. You will find only the skyscrapers full of residential apartments. Imagine – in a 20 perch plot of land, five people can live in one house. An apartment complex in the same-sized piece of land can house a thousand people.

Buying land 20-30km away from the city, spending all your earnings and taking a housing loan to build a beautiful house, taking a lease and buying a car only to get stuck in never-ending traffic, and then blaming the whole world for our own mistakes, are the fantasies of Sri Lankans.