The strains of Bob Dylan’s perennial favourite “Blowing in the Wind (how many roads can a man walk down)” comes to mind when assessing the number of vehicles on urban Sri Lankan roads. The 2015 budget has – rather than give solutions to this ever-growing crisis – aggravated the situation by providing more and more [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Grappling with urban traffic chaos


The strains of Bob Dylan’s perennial favourite “Blowing in the Wind (how many roads can a man walk down)” comes to mind when assessing the number of vehicles on urban Sri Lankan roads.

The 2015 budget has – rather than give solutions to this ever-growing crisis – aggravated the situation by providing more and more vehicles to the population. There are few solutions, if any, in moving towards a developed society where public transportation – buses/mini buses, railways and metros take charge -, rather that cars which are affordable to a few.

Of course every individual has a right to a good life – decent income, education, quality family life and other needs like cars, motor cycles, etc. However is the growing number of vehicle imports aligned to the expansion of roads to cater to new demand?

According to the latest Motor Traffic Department statistics, 320,276 motor vehicles had been registered in the 10 months to October in 2014 with imports of duty free/duty slashed permits, luxury cars, sport utility vehicles and hybrids, up by more than 4,000 units in the same 2013 period.
Across the countryside, in car sales centres thousands of vehicles wait for potential buyers. Plenty of new car sale centres have been opened by newcomers or existing players. Take the 2-km stretch from Pamankade bridge (at Kirulapone) to Kohuwala – a new landmark for car sales centres-; there are at least a 1,000 vehicles lying in wait for a buyer. One of the biggest importers of new cars imports an average 400 units a month.

This means there are thousands of new vehicles waiting to get onto already-clogged roads while hundreds more are on ships at sea arriving any moment now, mostly at the Hambantota port.

Every week agents of renowned models launch a new product in grand fashion by dazzling models with the glitterati invited and deals made instantly over the counter.

So how does this work in a country which the rulers want to transform into a developed status in the next 10-20 years? Simply, lopsided policies and the arrogance of power.

One doesn’t need rocket science to surmise that traffic congestion in the morning, mid-day and evenings on key roads – Sri Jayawardenapura, Reid Avenue-Havelock Town, Duplication Road (absolute chaos), Galle Road, Nawala Road, High Level Peliyagoda, Nugegoda-Kohuwela, etc – needs immediate solutions. And again these don’t come from importing more and more vehicles; rather the need is wider spaces, wider roads, more parking bays, independent traffic police (not cowing down to politicians and their convoys and powerful individuals), less private vehicles and last but not least, improving public rail and road transport.

Traffic congestion at present is partly also because of haphazard and disorganized road construction. A Business Times story today relates a conversation between officials and ministers on the dilemma of road construction. It says: ‘Pavements cannot be built till the roads are carpeted, roads cannot be carpeted till they are properly built, roads cannot be built till the pipelines are made, pipelines cannot be made till the cables are pulled out, the boundary to pull the cables cannot be obtained till the pavements are built.’

At a recent panel discussion on transport logistics, it was concluded that the government needs to implement strict policies for the next five years in order to reduce traffic congestion.

Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was quoted at this meeting as saying that “Sri Lanka needs well trained professionals in the field of logistics and transport…”

At the same meeting, an international transport logistics expert Dr. Dorothy Chan said that railways is the key to reduce traffic congestion in cities citing Hong Kong as an example where the public mostly travel in public buses, mini buses, railways and metros.

The Defence Secretary says Sri Lanka’s best experts should be used to combat traffic congestion. While this doesn’t happen in real life (the advice of accomplished experts at the Moratuwa University’s advanced transportation department is often ignored), on the other hand no effort is made to provide an efficient, urban public transport system. Rather the policies are otherwise – import more vehicles with fewer space on the roads!
The budget will add more woes to traffic congestion. Tax incentives will boost sales; at least another 100,000 (or even more) new vehicles will get on the roads through duty concessions to migrant workers (who will probably sell their permits like any other ‘privileged’ category does today) and 50,000 motor cycles to police officers.

Are there statistics on the number of how many vehicles are too old for use and cease to exist as against new vehicles? For every new vehicle on the road, one old vehicle should cease to operate and attractive concessions provided for an old vehicle user to buy a new one, similar to the age of technology where a one-for-one (old-for-a-new computer) scheme exists.

The duty concession scheme for migrant workers to buy vehicles is unclear (just like many of the proposals in the budget). However if one million (there are more) Sri Lankan migrant workers opt to use this scheme, the answer – like Bob Dylan says – is blowing in the wind: one million more vehicles! This is unlikely to happen, nevertheless a mind-blowing thought.

Yes, new roads are coming up but as proven in other crowded cities like Singapore for example where heavy taxes are imposed on the use of most roads to discourage private vehicles and encourage public transport; new roads means more vehicles. And the traffic congestion continues.

The quality of life that the government hopes to achieve through the Mahinda Chintana policy framework must also take into account many issues including the time wasted on roads and the quality of the air that we breathe. And that would never happen if traffic congestion continues with lopsided policy-making and ad hoc decisions.

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.