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Can We Build a World-Class City with Third-World Public Transport?

15 February 2024 12:00 am - 19     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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As I was admiring a  skyscraper, I was jolted back to reality by a rickety old bus pulling up in front of it. Somehow, the blueprint to make Colombo world-class seems to have forgotten all about public transport

Colombo is a city in a hurry. New hotels, shopping malls and highways are mushrooming everywhere, and the skyline keeps growing upwards, promising to take us to a world-class future. I went to Galle Face and Port City recently to soak in the Global City in progress. As I was admiring a brightly-lit skyscraper, I was jolted back to reality by a rickety old bus pulling up in front of it. Somehow, the blueprint to make Colombo world-class seems to have forgotten all about public transport. 
Buses and trains are by far the most affordable modes of transport in Colombo; a bus ride from Mount Lavinia to Pettah costs about Rs. 85, about 1/10th the price of a three-wheeler hire, and trains are almost as inexpensive. Yet, the public transport system is so uncomfortable, inconvenient, outdated, and even unsafe that it has lost almost everyone who could afford private transportation. The result is endless traffic jams, a glut of three-wheelers, smog-filled skies, and a car culture Sri Lanka can ill-afford. As experts have long known, wider roads lead to more traffic, not less congestion in the long-run – and one look at Parliament Road at rush hour when average speeds plummet to 8 km/h by some measures – is all it takes to understand this paradox. 
Cars, highways, and fuel also eat up a tremendous amount of foreign exchange, which, as the recent economic crisis reminded us, our economy with its limited export base cannot really afford. With a weak rupee, tax hikes, slashed fuel subsidies and import restrictions, a used car has become more expensive than a suburban house, and owning and operating a car is no longer a realistic possibility even for the middle class. Despite all the investments in highways, all but a handful of the urban elite now have no choice but to rely on a woefully inadequate bus and train system and expensive private alternatives like taxis and three-wheelers. As Gustavo Petro, the former Mayor of Bogotá, the Colombian capital, famously said, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” In Sri Lanka, the poor don’t have cars, and the rich don’t use public transport. 
The economic case for improving public transport is straightforward. It is one of those rare investments that can make the economy more efficient, equitable and sustainable. Yet, it seems like we are stuck in a vicious cycle, since the infrastructure is expensive and the government is too broke to make such ambitious investments. Is there a way out of this predicament? If there is one area that the government should seek the help of donors and foreign investors, this should be it. In fact, we already missed two opportunities: the Light-Rail Transit (LRT) project funded by a generous Japanese loan, and urban transport development assistance in the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant. There is an ADB-funded railway improvement project that is still alive. 


If the government is keen to avoid further debt traps like expensive highways, there are plenty of relatively low-cost, high-return options available. We can turn to the experience of other developing countries, and some of the most interesting examples come from Latin American cities that have pioneered innovative ways to make public transport work. In the 1970s, Curitiba, a city in southern Brazil similar in size to Colombo, built a simple Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system at a fraction of the cost of a more technologically sophisticated subway rail system. Since then, other cities have followed this path, the most famous example being the much-studied TransMilenio BRT system in Bogotá, which managed to lower air pollution by 40 percent and commuting times by 32 percent, within just five years of operation. Each BRT system is different, but among their essential features are energy-efficient buses, dedicated bus lanes with right-of-way, accessible bus stands, and streamlined ticketing systems. While none of these systems are perfect and some have struggled to live up to their early promise, they offer valuable lessons for us to think creatively about what works for our own city. In fact, Sri Lanka’s own Urban Transport Master Plan of 2014 already incorporated many of these ideas, including upgraded rail and BRT systems for three urban-suburban corridors. What Sri Lanka lacks is action, not plans.


We can start with incremental improvements to the existing bus system. The first step should be to gradually replace the 1970s vintage diesel monsters with comfortable, accessible and energy-efficient buses. The recent government proposal to introduce 200 air-conditioned, electric-powered buses to routes frequented by middle-class office workers is a good step in this direction, although it might make more sense to go with hybrid buses that do not require expensive charging infrastructure. The next step should be new regulations for private buses; for example, unsafe forms of competition can be reduced by auctioning off exclusive licenses for each bus route, where bus operators are paid for the distance they cover rather than the number of passengers they carry. At the same time, the busiest sections of the railway can be upgraded and electrified. In the longer term, a BRT, monorail, or LRT should be introduced, along main arteries such as Galle Road, High-Level Road and Parliament Road. 
Whatever the technology that is adopted should adhere to the following principles. Different modes of transport - trains, buses, bicycles, three-wheelers, walking paths, pedestrian plazas - should be integrated, so that they seamlessly feed into each other. Upgraded public transport networks should be paired with public housing, so that low-income households in the urban periphery, especially those who have been displaced by urban regeneration projects, can maintain access to livelihoods. The system does not need to be completely self-financing. In fact, there are compelling reasons to heavily subsidize the use of urban public transport, due to all the positive externalities it generates. Rather than relying on user fees, property taxes can be utilized to finance maintenance, essentially capturing a part of the increase in land value rents that results from infrastructure upgrades. We could also draw on taxes on automobiles, fuel and congestion, which would further incentivize commuters to give up cars for buses and trains.


Whenever we hear about the government’s latest plans to make Colombo a tourist hub, let’s ask ourselves the following question; if a city is not livable for its residents, can it really be world-class for tourists and investors? The cancelled LRT project would have reduced commuting time from Battaramulla to Fort by 30 minutes, saving the average commuter 20 hours of wasted time on the road each month. Reduced congestion would also help those who continue to drive, saving as many as 40 hours a month for someone commuting from 30km away, according to a study of a similar monorail project. Compare this to the tangible benefits from projects like the Lotus Tower. Due to misplaced priorities, Colombo now looks like a heart patient who has got carried away with cosmetic surgery. Let’s resolve to get our arteries unclogged, before we splurge on any more facelifts.
Sanjay De Silva is an Associate Professor of Economics at Bard College, New York and Research Associate at Verité Research. He is currently working on the history of urban development and spatial stratification in Colombo.


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  Comments - 19

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  • Fred Thursday, 15 February 2024 02:00 AM

    World class city for whom? Should begin with ordinary people The thinking so far has been topsy turvy.

    Tissa Fernando Friday, 16 February 2024 05:14 AM

    Yes, people like you deserve only bullock carts for Transport. Go to Singapore and experience the world class transport system which both rich and poor are using.

    Shemel Thursday, 15 February 2024 06:10 AM

    We can with the advice of Gemunu Gobbaratne.

    Tissa Fernando Thursday, 15 February 2024 07:50 AM

    This is a very good proposal. Whoever who comes to power should get the expertise of likes of Sanjay.

    Sokrates Thursday, 15 February 2024 09:29 AM

    That all sounds very good. But with the criminal and corrupt crooks in parliament, implementation is not possible.

    Tissa Fernando Sunday, 18 February 2024 01:50 AM

    Whoever who comes to power does the same thing. But some did a lot of development work but robbed while others only robbed and no development work.

    dinesh Thursday, 15 February 2024 10:40 AM

    before anything workable can be done...the political mafia in hand with the private bus mafia and tuk tuk mafia needs to be dealt with....then proper public ttrransport can be implemented.

    Trehan Munasinghe Thursday, 15 February 2024 01:51 PM

    The pain of society, the public servants, politicians and their lack of understanding the need for a robust modern and private bus mafia free public transport, before building lotus Towers they should have invested that money in modernising the public transport system. We need to understand that, corrupt individuals still earn from the private buses, that continue to be a curse to this country. Many solutions have been bought up, including the bus owners paid a fair rent for their bus and the driver conductor a salary , making it like the developed countries where a private company runs the operations. This will end the private bus mafia and the problems they cause to others who use the roads. CTB also can be restructured or given to a private company to run it. The sheer lack of understanding basics by the so called leaders of this country for decades has ruined many vital services in this country.

    Busman Peris Thursday, 15 February 2024 03:08 PM

    Yes we need better public transport but the problem is also the mindset of the Colombo urban elite do nothings. These are the people clogging galle rd and marine drive in the AM and PM with their single occupancy mega monster SUVs. Their mindset will not allow them to board public transit, however good it may be.

    Ajith Stratton Thursday, 15 February 2024 05:27 PM

    This is an exceptional article - well balanced with both: realistic, practical solutions that are relevent to the current situation, and the futuristic development of a modern, robust city. Well done, Sanjay. It is certainly, well thought out and addressed in a comprehensive, and balanced manner.

    Spartacus Thursday, 15 February 2024 07:28 PM

    World Class City with third world public transport, actually and factually it is not third world public transport but third grade people, last elections was proof we have 69% of them in this country.

    Citoyenne R Thursday, 15 February 2024 10:37 PM

    Good to improve our public transport - the most long term cost effective- transport more, more environmentally friendly

    Fred Friday, 16 February 2024 01:11 AM

    It is all about status not productivity. The assumption is that the bigger the car the bigger the person in it(more important)

    Why should only Colombo remain a CITY? Friday, 16 February 2024 06:52 AM

    There are few things missing in Sri Lankans. 1) lack of intellect [though it's a fact my statement will offend many] 2) the desire to improve at least by emulating other countries. When the Brits left in 1948, Colombo was the only city in Ceylon. After 76 years still it's the only city in SL. Kandy, Anuradhapura, Hambantota, Jaffna, Batticaloa are all srill remain towns (no one says Kandy city but Kandy town. Same with Jaffna), It's the case with railways and roadways. It clearly demonstrates the lack of intellect. Colombo is too densely populated which leads to several woes including traffic congestion. Developing few other Towns into Cities will dispers the population island wide and ease the density in Colombo. It will also help achive far reaching benefits in several fronts not just for Colombo but also for the rest of the country.

    YLG Friday, 16 February 2024 05:59 PM

    Thanks Sanjay. That was certainly an eye opener. We have known this for sometime. But alas the SriLankan political scenario and the Mafia are getting in the way. We need to put our energy in resolving that first. Let's hope it becomes a reality soon.

    Fred Friday, 16 February 2024 07:32 PM

    Paint up the busses like a ride at Disney Land and call them The Antique Bus Ride. You can then up the fare for foreigners to about $20 a trip.

    Fred Saturday, 17 February 2024 12:44 AM

    Another Fred??

    Trehan Munasinghe Saturday, 17 February 2024 08:56 AM

    A country that once had Mercedes-Benz buses, for public transport, then Japanese Rosa , today reduced to Ashok Leyland Lorry chassis buses, which are junk and not even be legal as public transport, because they are Lorries with fitted bodies and idiots behind the wheel, an absolute travesty for our people.

    Harry Tekle Sunday, 18 February 2024 01:24 PM

    Colombo will be built into a first-class city of the present standard in another one hundred years. So, you don't have to worry about anything b'coz you cannot live to that day.


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