mong the recent moves to address traffic congestion in Colombo, was the new traffic plan tried out on the Borella-Rajagiriya section, with the six-lane parliament road turned into a ‘one-way’ and the parallel ‘four-lane’ road left for ‘two-way traffic’. Although this experiment should have been ‘logically’ successful, given the pre-implementation traffic pattern; on the contrary it flopped entirely on implementation bringing the whole area to a virtual standstill, in the face of unexpected variations in traffic flow, particularly along the by-roads feeding the two main roads, as was subsequently revealed.
This isolated incident, perhaps, superficially serves to illustrate the complexity of traffic planning. However, it nevertheless indicates the current dynamics of a critically important sector of our national economy -- the transport sector, where some prudent strategic interventions are urgently needed. Such interventions are essential not only to create an efficient and effective system of transportation, particularly in the Western Megapolis in the making, so as to enable rapid and sustainable growth of the national economy, but also to prevent the transport system from steadily deteriorating to a highly wasteful and inefficient state that could potentially take the whole economy to a standstill.
Sri Lanka’s cost of mobility or transportation, which currently stands around 11.3% of the GDP, could rise to an alarming 24.7% by 2020, if the current ‘business as usual’ approach is allowed to continue, whilst pursuing a GDP growth rate of 6.5% an year. There are many more startling findings in this regard by some of our local experts, who are authorities on the subject, particularly Prof. Amal Kumarage and Dr. Lalithasiri Gunaruwan.
The economic cost of fuel and time currently spent by Sri Lankans on the roads is Rs.1 billion a day
The cost of mobility as a percentage of a country’s GDP, should desirably remain below 10%, as increasing proportions would be fast eating into the GDP cake. In Singapore, for example, the figure stands around 5%, whereas in Bangkok, its increase to 33% in 1997, occurred with a major collapse in economy.
The economic cost of fuel and time currently spent by Sri Lankans on the roads is Rs.1 billion a day. A person in the Colombo Metropolitan Region (CMR) travels 12 km a day on average between his home and place of work, whereas ideally this should be less than 5 km. The average speed by car or three-wheeler is 16 km/h, while the average speed of a bus within the region is eight km an hour -- less than half the desired speed of 20km/h, expected under an efficient transport system.
In the past three decades from 1985 to 2015, the number of daily commuters to CMR has nearly doubled from One Million to Two Million. While the number of private vehicles travelling into the region has increased from 130,000 to 500,000, nearly fourfold,the number of buses has shrunk from 32,000 to 29,000. What is clearly evident is that the public transport system has completely failed to develop keeping pace with the expanding middle class, thus leading to the inevitable - i.e. the growing middle class becoming increasingly reliant on private transport. Today, private vehicles such as cars and three-wheelers, etc. occupy a staggering 85% of the road capacity, while accommodating only 50% of the passengers to the city, at a rate of a mere 1.78 passengers per vehicle.
It is pertinent to mention here a quote from Enrique Penalosa, a former Mayor of Bogotá, the capital of Columbia, well known for his strategic innovations in urban transport reforms, who famously said, “An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars; rather it is where even the rich use public transportation.”
What is likely to happen in Colombo by 2020 if the present ‘business as usual’ scenario is allowed to continue while pursuing a 6.5% growth in the economy?
The Amount of Fuel used in the Colombo metropolitan region will increase from 1.4 million to four million litres a day, and the transportation cost for one kilometre from Rs.16 to Rs. 40, while the economic resource allocation for transport will rise from Rs.397 billion to a staggering 1,847 billion an year (at 2013 prices). More important will be the cost of providing mobility as a percentage of the GDP, which is already in the alarming ‘orange zone’ at 11.3% rising to 24.7% to the dangerous ‘red zone’ with dire implications for the economy.
The question, now, is “what would be the key elements of a comprehensive strategy to solve the problem in the best interests of the national economy in the short term as well as the long term”. Fashionably sophisticated, high-tech, as well as high cost solutions, modelled along the lines of Tubes in London, U-Bahns in Frankfurt, Metros in Delhi, and Monorails in KL, have been suggested by many quarters for a considerable time. While we stay firmly committed to adapting any high-tech, sophisticated or high cost solution as long as it is found to be the strategically most prudent solution, our approach to reach decisions is through a comprehensive, multi-dimensional techno-economic assessment considering the possible continuum of development scenarios. Thus, according to our analysis, there is a multitude of other cost-effective actions that can be implemented with optimal economic returns in the short and the long run.
The simplest, to begin with, is the ‘enforcement of strict road discipline’ on all road users from three-wheelers, and private buses to ‘VIP convoys’. In the meantime, buses need to be allowed a prioritized lane on the road. Introduction of a “Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)”, a higher quality bus service on Galle Road up to Moratuwa, on Kandy Road up to Kadawata, and on Negombo Road, Horana Road, High Level Road, Parliament Road and Low Level Road, has been identified as a highly effective strategy. Extensive deployment of ICT solutions, including wireless, mobile-based systems for passenger information, interaction and transactions, should happen with the introduction of BRT. Implementation of ‘car-pooling’, a policy encouraging sharing of cars entering the city, is proposed together with BRT.
The cities of Moratuwa, Kottawa, Kadawatha and the 18th Mile Post on the Negombo Road are proposed to be developed as ‘multi modal transport hubs’ facilitating the transfer of passengers.
Several new roads and railway tracks are proposed to be built
Several new roads and railway tracks are proposed to be built. This includes extending of the Marine Drive, building a new road along the track identified between Dematagoda and Malambe together with a railway track, upgrading ‘Kelani Valley’ rail track as a double-line, and building a new road together with a railway track on an embankment to be built along the Southern bank of the Kelani River from Kaduwela to Modera, serving the interests of flood mitigation besides transport.
Another important strategy proposed is to move the government offices, universities, etc. to the proposed new cities such as Kottawa and Kadawata, while also developing new schools in those centres.
A system of electronic road pricing is proposed to be improved parallel to the above measures, with a view to promoting the use of public transport in preference to private transport and rationalizing the overall economic costs. Finally, those measures are to be complemented by an appropriate system of taxation with reduced taxes for greener vehicles with lower or zero emission.
Incidentally, there are two important initiatives, which were introduced during my tenure as the Minister of Power and Energy, with strong implications on the economies of the transport sector, namely, the ‘fuel formula’ and ‘the countrywide network of rapid charging centres for electric vehicles’. Effective implementation of those two initiatives would certainly complement our efforts to rationalize the transport sector along the strategic directions identified above, thus turning it into a vital enabler and driver, rather than a potential inhibitor, of economic growth.