Sri Lanka incurs a massive financial and man-hour loss due to traffic congestion as a result of no proper vehicular traffic in Greater Colombo areas and in 2009 this loss was estimated at Rs 32 billion per annum. “The main reason for congestion was poor city planning, inappropriate public transport facilities and insufficient traffic system, which leads to waste of time, fuel and wear and tear of vehicles,” said University of Moratuwa Civil Engineering and transport expert Professor Amal S. Kumarage in an interview with Business Times.
He noted that the country was losing 1.5% of the GDP due to traffic congestion. Sri Lanka’s road network in the city is not capable of handling increasing traffic flows at the rate that is demanded which will be around 10% increase per year. “Maybe we can increase capacity by around 2-3% per year on average”, he said. Prof. Kumarage predicted a spike in the number of vehicle imports/vehicles used with per capita rising in 2011 due to reduction of taxes and duties. However, even otherwise, with 8% growth in the economy anticipated, vehicle growth will be around 10%, when capacity can only expand by say 3% per annum and this will be worse than a spike and it will remain at 10% which will be a permanent surge, he said. He noted that the demand for road space will increase rapidly. Currently Sri Lanka has a vehicle population of 3.2 million. “If we expect the economy to grow at 8%, the country’s vehicle population may increase to 5 million,” he said adding that there will be 250 vehicles per 1,000 people which are likely to be concentrated around the city.
Sri Lanka can impose different car restraint policies, but alternatives should be available. Park & Rides, bus lanes, cycle ways, improved transit, etc are options used by other cities very successfully, he added. Citing an example he said that traveling in Singapore is both easy and economical. There is an efficient public transportation network, which offers taxis, buses, and the modern Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) rail system. With its excellent public transport system, Singapore is, without a doubt, the easiest city in Asia to get around, he added. As transportation in China becomes more accessible and more reliable, it is also becoming more technologically advanced. Modern modes of transportation such as express highways, electrified railroads, metros, light railways, and maglev railways are becoming increasingly common, especially in larger cities.
Staggered hours for schools/offices/ tutories as an option to reduce heavy/congested traffic flows will have some effect in easing the demand in the morning.
Proposals for this were made in 2008 and 2009 and did not receive any backing from either the private sector or Ministry of Public Administration. Referring to the construction of flyovers as a solution, he noted that flyovers are useful for particular problems, not as a solution for every location that has traffic congestion. In most cases they only transfer the problem to another place. Generally the public loves such piece-meal solutions.
he fact that they interfere with city architecture, cost lots of money, does not solve the problem and permanently are hidden from the public. He said the ad hoc construction of flyovers and highways would not provide a proper solution to the prevailing conditions of heavy traffic in the city of Colombo. Citing an example he noted that the Dehiwala flyover bridge has failed to ease traffic on Galle Road. This area is still congested during peak hours even after the police made it one way for both lanes. One way system has shifted the congestion to other areas like Kirulapana, Narahenpita and Maradana, he said. Another example was the Baseline road in Dematagoda which had two lanes before was made into six lanes to reduce traffic. “Traffic at the Baseline road has increased after being made into six lanes more than what it was with two lanes due to more vehicles on the road and no proper traffic plan,” Professor Kumarage said. He said congestion could not be reduced within a short period. A proper town plan, friendly public transport facilities and a sufficient operational traffic system is needed to resolve the current congestion in the Colombo city.
India, which has a high population density, is addressing the problem by directly increasing state investment in the public transport system, he said. Singapore is discouraging private vehicles wasting time on the roads through a road tax that goes into a road and transport development fund.
Sri Lankans have to be made ready for this type of transition. Enrique Penalosa, former Mayor of Bogota has transformed the city by creating friendlier public space with new metro systems, public transport terminals and bus traffic trunk systems. They are leaders who saw the real root of the problem and took the message however difficult, to the people and got support for the 'hard' but sustainable solutions. “We need leadership that is willing to listen and understand the real causes of these problems and would not want to limit themselves to popular projects that do not solve the problem,” he asserted.
The traffic congestion on the streets of Colombo is getting worse by the day. The large numbers of private vehicles plying on the streets is a message from the people that they are not prepared to use the unorganized, outdated, and overcrowded, public transport system in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka had the second best public transport system in Asia several decades ago. In the 1960’s tram cars, trolley buses, busses, railways were operated in city routes following proper timetables and standards. For various reasons the country has gradually lost all these transport services. The country has lost the technology, the management capabilities etc. However the backbone needed for a successful transport system is there, he said.
“We are a small country; our population density is very high. Our cities are not that big. We cannot widen our roads and build enough new roads as we like. Therefore, we will not be able to accommodate this huge demand for vehicles,” he said. The constraints of road space and parking space also add to the misery of a densely populated city such as Colombo. This has been further aggravated with only 10 % of the population owning cars. The constraints of having additional road space and parking space simultaneously also exist. Even if the vehicle ownership is continued, the free usage of these private vehicles is also constrained.
This is the time that a new measure and concept of vehicle restraint measures or demand management measures have to come in where the limited road space is managed, leading to efficient traffic management, he said. “What we need in a successful city is more people and fewer vehicles,” Prof Kumarage said.