THE problem of traffic congestion is not new, yet a long-term solution has proved elusive with the Sri Lankan Government rolling out fresh plans to build two elevated highways linking Kelaniya, Rajagiriya and Athurugiriya at massive cost. Given the already high levels of debt facing the country and the long waiting period for new highways, it is disheartening that policymakers are not considering cost-effective alternatives such as rapid bus transport systems.
Two years ago the Japanese aid agency JICA together with the Moratuwa University and Transport Commission did a study to find better ways to managing Colombo’s congestion. But they have remained limited to paper as the Government insists of preferring more expensive and attention-grabbing ways of improving infrastructure.
Traffic plan proposals have been a band-aid fix at best. There has also been the idea of imposing even higher taxes on the importing of vehicles; a reasonable idea on paper – the taxes bring more income into the country while deterring the importing of vehicles. However, this has proved less effective in years gone by.
Why? Simply put – a lack of alternatives; or rather, effective alternatives. Restrictions on car purchases have provided an opportunity for other methods of private transportation to fill in the gaps; namely taxicabs and tuk-tuks. These options gain viability purely due to the lack of adequate public transportation. It also adds to congestion. Moreover, those in the upper middle class and higher income brackets bring in more cars – regardless of tax hikes – as it is still more convenient than taking public transport.
Therefore, it would seem the obvious solution would be to revamp the public transportation system in the country. Which was exactly the plan announced in June of this year when the Internal Transport Ministry unveiled a ‘Transport Master Plan’ for the Colombo Metropolitan Region (CMR) and its suburbs to address issues in the transport sector. The plan, which would take 20 years to complete, would cost a total of Rs. 1,720 billion.
When we add the ‘Megapolis’ plan to develop the Western Province into the equation, questions surrounding logistics and viability immediately arise. Twenty years seems an appropriate timeline, but focusing solely on the long-term and washing our hands of any responsibility surrounding the present hardly seems prudent.
Revamping the public transport system to the point where it matches the best the world has to offer is a 20-year plan; revamping it to the point where a majority of the population would willingly use it is a much shorter process.
There are several short-term solutions available even now: create and put up maps at bus stops, ensure buses follow regular timetables, ensure information on bus and train schedules are easily accessible, display approximate bus arrival time at bus stops, impose regulations to limit the number of people on a bus at any one time, introduce more buses along popular routes, and make sure that buses only stop at bus halts. These are not difficult or costly measures, yet would make public transport both affordable and comfortable.
“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation,” once remarked Former Mayor of Bogotá Colombia, Enrique Penalosa; it would seem that Colombia knows a thing or two about Colombo.