Business Times

What you should know when you are stuck in traffic again

Traffic and road management
By Prof. Amal S. Kumarage

Should you tolerate being stuck in traffic again and again?? No you need not!! You can travel before 6 am or after 9 pm or you can migrate to another city and you always have the option not to travel at all. If none of these appeal to you, as they are to me, your only option is to work towards educating your elected representatives and their administrators that traffic congestion is unacceptable and that it is a symptom of poor planning and consequently of poor governance.

Average speed of traffic in the Western Province is 22 km/hr, while in Colombo it is around half that. The estimated cost of congestion in the province is a staggering Rs 40 billion a year. If the average speeds drops to 20 km/hr, which will happen when a 20 km journey time increases by six minutes, this cost will increase to Rs 70 billion at which point it will constitute 2% of the GDP. In other words the total work effort of two people per 100 people would be lost on our roads. On the economic front this makes the city expensive and unattractive for investment. The environment will become, noisy, polluted, unhealthy and visually unattractive. Socially it will sap the energy of the community that can spend its non working hours on meaningful socio-cultural pursuits.

Thus the intended development miracle of the highways, expressways and flyovers will only make life more unbearable for all. Is Colombo one of the 10 worst cities to live in? In February this year The Economist’s EIU ranking of 140 cities included Colombo among the 10 worst cities to live in. While I join many others who would claim that Colombo’s rightful place should be in the top half of a livability or quality of living index, it is indeed true that a city that continues to neglect its public transport and traffic congestion can go only one-way in terms of international ranking.

Our administrators need to realize that planting trees along highways and making roads one-way while being bold, city beautification initiatives, fall short of ensuring the sustainability of transport in the city.
Singapore was one of the first to ensure it had a sustainable transport system. From way back in 1972 the government led by Lee Kuan Yew increased vehicle duties and followed by a shift to road pricing. Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) gave greater flexibilty in managing traffic demand from the late 1980s. This together with a handful of well managed bus companies and two metros have transformed the city to a place where one can live without a car. In fact in Singapore, vehicle ownership is around 150 per 1000 persons, compared to Colombo which has already surpassed 250 per 1000 people. Road speeds in Singapore are estimated at a reasonable 30 to 35 km/hr. It is ranked as the 22nd best place to live in.
Hong Kong manages just as well, even though it did not adopt the tough measures as Singapore did. It simply ensured a top class rail transit system with excellent rail to bus connections, pedestrian and bicycle networks. Though parking is expensive and restricted in land strapped Hong Kong, few people complain since taking public transport is a much easier alternative to finding parking for their vehicle.
London beset with congestion in the 1990s started giving priority for buses under the Red Routes program, introduced congestion pricing and high parking fees and has now become a much cleaner and livable city steadily climbing in rankings. Road speeds have increased to between 30 -35 km/hr and traffic levels have fallen. Public transport use has risen sharply. Many European cities are following similar practices to solve their traffic problems.

Bogota, capital of Colombia plagued with traffic congestion and deteriorating public space in the 1990s has today moved rapidly to be within the top 20 cities. It operates a multi modal transport system which includes 84 km of Transmilleno Bus Rapid System (BRT), 340 km of new bicycle ways called CicloRuta and some 300 km of pedestrian walkways mostly converted from road space. Led by its mayor, the city voted in a referendum to ban all private vehicles to the city centre by 2015.

Closer to home, India already has four cities namely Pune, Indore, Ahmadabad and Bangalore widening roads to install and operate modern BRTs under the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Project, which is to be replicated in another 17 cities. China is also planning modern BRTs and LRTs in more than 30 cities.

Bus Rapid Transits are modern comfortable long length buses that give Metro like travel features but operate on roads on separate lanes. Light Rapid Transit (LRT) is similar but they operate on rails. A lane of BRT or LRT can carry anything from 15,000 to 50,000 people per hour, whereas the best designed one way traffic lane will carry just 3,000 people in cars. When space is limited many cities resort to quality public transport along with car restraint measures. This allows more people to travel faster, safer and greener at less cost and fewer resources.

In order to make a modern city development public transport centered, administrators in an estimated 1,500 cities across the world have tried ‘car free days’ just so that car captive residents learn how to get about without a car for a day and to understand that it is not that impossible after all.

Improvement of public transport not only makes a city more livable, it makes transport for all quicker and cheaper. Our hope is in our administrators who need the wisdom of Enrique Penalosa former Mayor of Bogota who noted that "Typically, when we judge a city's success we talk about skyscrapers, superhighways and parking spaces. The experience of Bogotá shows that cities can prosper by focusing on a new model for success, one that is centered on the needs and contentment of all the city's residents ‚ not just those that own a private car."

Next article: What you should know when you see a crowded bus!

(The writer is Senior Professor at the Department of Transport & Logistics Management at the University of Moratuwa. He can be reached at

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