Recently, newspapers reported that the Urban Development Authority was planning to construct a modern Central Bus Terminal in Colombo, adjacent to the Fort Railway Station and covering the current vegetable wholesale market premises. The Bus Terminal will offer better facilities to buses and commuters, and will include shops and other facilities.
In a completely unrelated incident, a few weeks ago, private bus services in Colombo South were brought to a standstill when bus operators protested against the issue of unfair permit for a new bus route.
The Pro-vincial Min-ister for Tra-nsport claimed that the new route was introduced to accommodate commuter requests for convenient transport from a suburb of Panadura to Battaramulla. It was claimed that the new route would enable daily travellers to reach their workplaces in Battaramulla, a distance of nearly 25 km, which currently required changing over to three separate buses, with a travel time of two and half hours.
Although the two incidents seem to be completely unrelated, this highlights the deficiencies in transport planning by successive governments. Decades ago, all government and private sector offices were centred on Colombo Fort, and most shopping was done in Fort and Pettah. The Government transferred the Parliament and most offices to Battaramulla and the trend has continued; however, hardly any changes were made to accommodate the travel requirements of staff.
Colombo during by-gone era
Since Portuguese times, Colombo has been the administrative, financial and commercial capital, due to its harbour. Foreign rulers had their communications with the outside world; import and export goods had to pass through the harbour. For centuries, most imports were offloaded in the Colombo harbour and then distributed through wholesalers in Pettah.
In addition, the presence of St. John’s Fish Market, the vegetable market and jewellers in Sea Street drew buyers into Pettah. With the establishment of the railway for long haul transport, Fort railway station brought commuters and goods for transport.
With the popularity of transport among locals, tram-cars were introduced which were replaced by buses. Fort/Pettah became the transport hub of Colombo and practically all roads converged in the Colombo Fort area, leading to the current situation.
Colombo City is divided by the massive railway complex running from Colombo Fort, Maradana extending up to Dematagoda, allowing only three entry points. Entry from the south is through the bottle-neck roundabout near Lake House/Hilton; decades ago vehicles were allowed to travel around Fort behind the Central Bank and the President’s House via Chaithya Road. Exit from Fort is either through Olcott Mawatha or Sea Beach Road, which is the continuation of Chaithya Road. Pettah is entered through Technical College Junction and Main Street.
The commencement of transport services from Fort Railway Station and Pettah Central Bus Stand has created a major traffic gathering in Colombo. Practically all travellers, whether from Galle to Kandy or from Puttalam to Ratnapura, are forced to come to Pettah to board a bus. The restricted entry and unnecessary convergence of commuters into Pettah especially in slow moving buses have created the biggest traffic problem in the city.
Easing of the Colombo traffic was attempted as far back as 1976, when the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government made moves to transfer the fish and vegetable wholesale markets to a location adjoining Avissawella Road and the railway just off Baseline Road.
The location enabled easy access from Kandy Road through the Kelani Bridge, and up country through Avissawella Road; and a new railway station was planned. The construction work undertaken by the State Engineering Corporation was stopped by R. Premadasa, the Prime Minister of the J.R. Jayewardene Government, and the location is currently used as a container yard.
With containerisation of imports that are offloaded outside Colombo, the importance of Pettah as a wholesale and trading location dropped. The Parliament was moved to Sri Jayawardenapura, along with a few administration departments and the visiting public. In 1990s, the LTTE exploding bombs caused customers to avoid Colombo, who were then gleefully snapped up by provincial shops, especially those selling jewellery and clothing.
Years of war restricted the development of Colombo roads, while the population and vehicle numbers multiplied many-fold, exerting pressure on the roads. With tourism booming and the expected entry of numbers of foreign investment into Fort and immediate environment, traffic would soon become unmanageable. But the public transport system still remains based at Fort/Pettah.
While the government organisations have moved out of Colombo towards Battaramulla, commuters are forced to come to Colombo, as the Fort Railway Station and all long distance buses commence from Pettah, which draws massive crowds into the Fort area, crowding all roads along the way.
The present Government wishes to develop Colombo into a tourist hub and practically all Government departments including Police and Postal Headquarters located in Fort are expected to move out, while some establishments including the Army have already been relocated.
The majority of daily commuters are office workers employed with the Government and private sector. Others come to the city to attend to personal matters or to visit a patient in the hospitals. Travellers passing through wishing to be board another bus are uninterested in the location of the connection point as long as it saves time. The requirement of the people, especially those travelling from outstations, is to have a convenient way of reaching their desired destination.
Inner Circular Road?
Current road development, especially the Outer Circular Road is expected to divert traffic – which would mostly be privately-owned vehicles bypassing Colombo – away from the city centre.
Now that the Outer Circular Road is under construction, what happened to the Inner Circular Road? The Road Development Authority is silent over the issue. Even the National Road Master Plan (2007-2017) does not mention the subject at all.
It can be assumed that the Inner Circular Road too was planned and the current Battaramulla-Pannipitiya Road section is a part of the master plan, but somewhere along the way the Inner Circular Road dropped out of the picture.
For proper flow of traffic and to save Colombo city from exploding, the long proposed road needs to be completed by extending across Piliyandala Road and intersecting with Galle Road to the south, and crossing Low Level Road and meeting Kandy road to the north.
New central bus station
Commuters require a suitable mode of transport for staff and public to reach government offices in the Battaramulla area, and a convenient way to board long distance transport without having to waste time travelling in a different direction.
The need could be fulfilled by establishing a New Central Bus Station on the Inner Circular Road near Battaramulla catering to long distance buses, with a transport service to offices and connecting services to various sections in Colombo city.
Need for coordination
The construction of Inner Circular Road with a Central Bus Station will divert a substantial part of traffic currently forced to pass through Colombo Fort, which has been proposed as a tourist/financial hub of Colombo. This would ease the traffic load, thereby avoiding the acquisition and demolition needed for the improvement of city roads. The monies saved would more than offset the construction of Inner Circular Road.
The construction of Inner Circular Road, the New Central Bus Station, and the proposed Colombo Metro needs to be coordinated to achieve best results and avoid duplication. Meanwhile, the construction of the proposed Central Bus Terminal in Colombo can go ahead and will serve commuters of the newly-developing Colombo City Centre.
(The writer is a Chartered Civil Engineer who graduated from Peradeniya University and has been employed in Sri Lanka and abroad. He was General Manager of State Engineering Corporation of Sri Lanka and left the position in February 2010. He is presently employed at a Chinese construction organisation. He also ran a manufacturing and a sales organisation for over a decade.)