Stalled public transport

Thursday, 26 October 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Sri Lanka has seen a renewed discourse on how it can increase its labour component into different segments of the economy. Last week the Government outlined plans to limit three-wheelers on the assumption that it would reduce productivity and increase congestion on local roads. However, one aspect that has not received enough attention is the importance of improved public transport that would strongly reduce congestion as well as encourage people to seek jobs different to taxi drivers.  

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.  

However, not content with its current policies Singapore this week 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 concentrated on building expensive highways and other infrastructure rather than improving public transport. The move, which has won them votes, but has only exacerbated urban needs and severely reduced livability in the capital.

Singapore estimates that as much as 12% of their land is already used up for roads and with limited space has shifted focus to maintaining the livability in the city. This has brought sound results as people from around the world seek to live in Singapore despite the high cost of living, bringing innovation, skills and inclusivity to the tiny State. 

Oslo, Madrid, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Brussels and Chengdu are just a few cities around the world that are trying to scale back cars and allow pedestrians to enjoy their cities. Most have demarcated extensive blocks within the city that are made car-free and people are allowed to walk and enjoy the spaces. This encourages pop-up stalls, cafes, street performers and other small businesses to emerge, increasing business, reducing pollution and increasing the standard of life. 

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 livability 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.