Though it was a bright and sunny morning, the mood was anything but bright. “Balannako akki, traffic hinda hungak parakkuwuna (See Sister, because of the traffic, I am very late),” grumbled Mabel Rasthiyadu. She was complaining because it had taken several hours to get to a friend’s place off the Galle Road. “Aei, mokakde wune [...]

Business Times

Chaos …


Though it was a bright and sunny morning, the mood was anything but bright.

Balannako akki, traffic hinda hungak parakkuwuna (See Sister, because of the traffic, I am very late),” grumbled Mabel Rasthiyadu.

She was complaining because it had taken several hours to get to a friend’s place off the Galle Road.

Aei, mokakde wune (Why, what happened)?” asked Kussi Amma Sera. “Aei, danne nedda, loku meeting ekak thibuna hinda, hunga-denek parakku wuna vedata yanna (Why … didn’t you know, because of some big meeting, many people got late to go to work),” said Serapina, all three seated under the margosa tree.

Indeed, there was chaos on Galle Road and all arteries connecting it this week owing to large numbers gathering for the 10-day international Bohra conference being held at the community’s hall at Bambalapitiya.

There were some 21,000 visitors from 40 countries attending the meeting while hundreds more from Sri Lanka participated at the week-long event. Tourism authorities said the conference was a huge boost to the economy and helped show that Sri Lanka was open for tourism after the Easter Sunday bombings shattered the nation’s position as a key destination.

With many byroads near Bambalapitiya off Galle Road linking up with Marine Drive being closed for traffic, motorists used other roads causing chaos and traffic moving at snail’s pace, inch-by-inch.

As I contemplated on these issues, the phone rang. It was my jolly-mood economist friend, Sammiya (short for Samson), on the line. However, this time he was not in a jolly mood.

“I say, it took me three hours to get to Fort from Dehiwela,” he said, angrily. The distance normally takes him less than an hour. “You should have avoided Marine Drive,” I suggested.

“In fact, I came on Galle Road and was stuck for hours because of this conference,” he said, adding that “it was a waste of valuable time”.

“Maybe there should have been a better traffic plan to allow a smoother flow of traffic,” I said, adding that Sri Lanka needs to be prepared to host big conferences of this nature.

According to tourism authorities, the conference was expected to generate US$30 million to $50 million in revenue with the event being the largest ever meeting of foreign visitors to be held in Sri Lanka.

While you could see that the police was totally unprepared to tackle the heavy flow of vehicles used by foreign visitors alongside the usually heavy flow of vehicles during rush-hour traffic, the issue calls for an integrated approach to traffic management.

For example, was there a joint meeting between the tourism authorities, conference organisers and the police to plan traffic movements ahead of the conference? If so, the traffic plan lacked proper management.

All roads entering Colombo from the south (Dehiwela), from Battaramulla, from Nugegoda and from Negombo were affected by the morning chaos that also spread across the whole day. Many motorists decided to leave early for work after being affected during the first two days of the week.

According to official statistics recorded in 2012, studies show that, on an average, 250,000 vehicles, made up of 15,000 buses, 10,000 trucks and 225,000 private vehicles enter Colombo daily. Include the dozens of vehicles that carried the foreign visitors to the venue from their hotels, some outside Colombo, it would then have been a sizable number entering the city and adding to the chaos. We are referring only to 2012 numbers…… many more vehicles have now been added to the daily swell of traffic.

Be prepared. This week’s chaos begs a proper solution to vehicular traffic in the city particularly if and when Sri Lanka begins to host mega conferences and reaches the elusive figure of four million tourists in the years to come, from a current two million.

The problem, however, is that the number of vehicles is growing phenomenally and not in proportion to space on the roads or new roads or new flyovers.

The total number of vehicles rose by 67 per cent to 7.2 million in 2017 from 4.8 million in 2012. This means that Sri Lanka had a ratio of 1:3 (vehicle-to-persons) in a population of 21 million in 2017. Comparatively, the bus population (public transport) increased only to 107,435 from 91,623 in the corresponding years.

Based on an average 60 per cent increase annually in the next five years (by 2024), the total vehicle population is likely to increase to over 11 million, making it a 1:2 ratio (vehicle-to-persons) of the population and over 17 million by 2030, according to some calculations. Public transport, which can ease congestion, is however way below expectations.

As stated earlier, with Sri Lanka gearing to host 4 million tourists in the next few years, there is still no integrated plan for infrastructure to cater to their needs while also making sure locals are not inconvenienced, like what happened this week.

For the record, motorists and public transport users wasted valuable time and fuel, being on the roads for several hours this week. If one is to take a cost-benefit analysis, the time, money and fuel lost might be close to the $30 million that the visitors brought in. If this is the case, the benefit to the country would have to be measured only in terms of sentiment, showing the world that the country was safe for travel. In that sense, it was a good boost to tourism, though not in value terms.

Sri Lanka, as suggested earlier, needs to be prepared to host large conferences with a better traffic plan than the one that we saw this week in Colombo. Public transport needs to be enhanced and proper route planning made. There are many examples to follow in conference hosting particularly from countries like Dubai and Singapore which host conferences that could take at times 100,000 visitors per event. Even with large gatherings, there is hardly any traffic problem on the roads because in most cases, visitors also use efficient public transport to get to their venue.

This week’s chaos has a positive side: The need for an integrated solution to traffic flows that would also bring in tourism authorities particularly when the number of tourists doubles and Sri Lanka hosts conferences that would cater to 40,000-plus visitors.

The weakness, however, is that road space is bursting at the seams and with the increase in new vehicles, traffic flows would soon slow down to a snarl in Colombo during the morning rush. Better public transportation is the answer but no one in authority has a clue as to when this would happen. Flyovers, elevated highways and LRT are the answer to these problems which Sri Lanka simply cannot afford at this time, when our annual revenue is adequate only to meet interest payments of loans while we borrow to pay off the debt (capital).

As I take a breath of fresh air from the open window of the office room, Kussi Amma Sera walks in with the second cup of tea, saying: “Keepa denek vedata yanna pramada vuna (Several people got late for work).” I nod in agreement, hoping that the authorities will look at integrated traffic planning when large events occur.

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