Many decades ago, cars which stalled on the road, got the push-start treatment; some passers-by pushed the car, while the driver (in the driving seat) set the gear to ‘first’ and the car fired after a few stuttering starts. That was the era of the Sri series cars and before. I was reminded of this [...]

Business Times

“Thallu start” to racing cars


Many decades ago, cars which stalled on the road, got the push-start treatment; some passers-by pushed the car, while the driver (in the driving seat) set the gear to ‘first’ and the car fired after a few stuttering starts. That was the era of the Sri series cars and before.

I was reminded of this when Kussi Amma Sera and her friends Serapina and Mabel Rasthiyadu were giggling and shouting “Thallu …. Thallu (push … push),” watching some young men pushing an old Morris Minor, which had seen better days, down the road.

A lot of water has flown under the bridge since those “thallu start” days with Sri Lankan entrepreneurs producing their cars and now even buses and vehicles being computerised which means if it stalls, the “thallu start” mechanism doesn’t work. For that matter, few modern vehicles stall on the road the way they did those days.

Not only are enterprising Sri Lankan entrepreneurs producing buses, SUVs and cars nowadays but recently a team from the University of Moratuwa produced a Formula-type racing car for the world’s biggest student motorsport competition, Formula Student 2018. The event was held recently in the UK with Sri Lanka’s participation. Ingenuity has no barriers, it seems.

Recently it was reported that Unimo Enterprises Ltd, a fully owned subsidiary of United Motors Lanka PLC, is aiming to assemble Zotye brand cars and also others like mid-sized SUVs and JMC commercial vehicles. Then at the IT Park, Trace City at Maradana near Pettah, a group of developers are working to produce Sri Lanka’s first all-electric supercar, using superior software and hardware solutions.

As I was contemplating this week’s column on cars and other motorised transport, the phone rings. ‘Karapincha’ Perera, the local tea-kade gossip, is on the line.

“I-say, they have gone and increased the tax on small cars again. Why can’t they make up their minds?” he asked.

“Ok, but is that a problem? Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera says the tax is still below the 2014 rates,” I reply.

“However, small cars are considered the middle class mode of transport since our public transportation is chaotic,” he counters adding that the latest tax move would further add pressure to the creaking bus and rail transport system.

“Well the Minister seems to think that reducing the number of cars on the road would ease the congestion,” I reply, also noting the Minister’s comments on the crisis that hit Bangkok some years ago when office time traffic went at snail’s pace due to overcrowding.

“But I don’t think reducing vehicles on the road will alleviate the transportation problem,” Karapincha argues. I agreed with him and ended the conversation as my column was getting delayed, just as the car on our lane fired up and drove off, after all the pushing, shoving and shouting. “Jaya wewa (hooray),” shouted Kussi Amma Sera.

Sri Lanka’s transportation woes are far more complex than piece-meal proposals to reduce congestion on the roads. Many decades, ago, a Sri Lankan transport specialist John Diandas (known as Mr. Transport owing to his knowledge of the transport sector) said it is far better to increase the number of buses with 60+ seating capacity as they take less space on the road. For example, to accommodate 60 people you need 15 cars (at 4 persons per car comfortably seated) while one bus with the same capacity will occupy the space of just 3-4 cars on the road. Furthermore, in today’s context, the average car only has two passengers – which mean 60 passengers occupy the space used by 30 cars. Think about it!

If local roads into the city of Colombo get congested like the chaos in Bangkok, then be prepared to equip your car with a portable toilet, flexible kitchen and plenty of reading material, as the Thais did!

By the way, are figures misleading or what? For example, the number of new registrations of all categories of vehicles has been coming down, not going up when one looks at congestion on the road. In 2015, the figure of new registrations was 668,907, in 2016 – 455,544 and 2017 – 447,367. According to the Department of Motor Traffic, the total number of vehicles in 2008 was 3.4 million, in 2010 – 4 million, in 2015 – 6.3 million and in 2016 – 6.3 million. These data show a surge in vehicle numbers in 2015 against 2014. So how do you analyse the falling numbers of registrations in the past three years, vis-à-vis congestion on the roads? One probable reason would be the increase in 2015 which added to the capacity on the roads and has increased the congestion, mostly in Colombo city and its suburbs.

Rapid urbanisation in favourable residential areas like Nugegoda, Maharagama, Battaramulla, Moratuwa, Kiribathgoda and the increase in the numbers living in apartments may have contributed to the congestion.

To go back to the view of Diandas, the only way Sri Lanka can reduce congestion is through a more efficient transport service (haven’t experts been saying this all the time?), with more buses and trains that would take care of the morning and evening rush. Plans for an LRT (Light Rail Transport) in Colombo and the suburbs should also be speedily implemented. With more and more people travelling by train, there should be an increase in these services with added comfort included.

Decisions like reducing the number of vehicles must run parallel to a more efficient bus and rail transportation service. One complements the other and by dealing with one only (reducing the car population), such decisions are unlikely to work. It would burden the already over-burdened public transportation services. What is also important is for an efficient pick-up system from the railway station to your workplace – either by cheaper tuks at the railway stations or a shuttle service to key nearby points (example Kollupitiya Railway Station to Eye Hospital, etc).

Many years ago, a veteran motor car dealer said that the priority for young people getting married was to own a house and then a vehicle (motorcycle and later progressing to a car). A few years later, he said owning a vehicle was the first priority for the simple reason that public transportation was becoming a problem.

Governments believe that building new highways will reduce congestion. It won’t because the number of new vehicles tends to increase as Thailand realised in the 1980s. According to reports, the Thai Government focused on increasing road and expressway infrastructure to reduce congestion but that had little impact as the number of cars rose sharply. That is when the Government decided to opt for the Bangkok Mass Transport System (MTS) and the sky-train (on elevated platforms) which has proved to be an efficient system and can also help in easing road congestion during days of protest (a common problem in Sri Lanka). On Sunday December 22, 2013 when there was a mass political protest in Bangkok, a record 760,000 passengers used the sky-train far above the normal Sunday average of 400,000 passengers.

Singapore deals with road congestion through a mix of high taxes for use of busy areas and efficient bus and rail transport. Sri Lanka needs to consider all these systems and enforce what is suitable to the local environment, capacity and affordability conditions. Reducing the car population is just one way of easing congestion but this must run parallel with an efficient bus and rail transportation system. Plans have to be drafted (most probably there are plans) over a 10-20 year-period on improving transportation while at the same time reducing the number of cars on the road. These measures have to run simultaneously, not in isolation.

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