This was a ‘friendly’ debate in the garden between Kussi Amma Sera, Serapina and Mabel Rasthiyadu under the margosa tree.
Sweaty and perspiring, Serapina had rushed into the garden, complaining bitterly about the traffic on Thursday morning. “Balanna Akkey, goda kalayak nasthiwuna paare, traffic hinda (I wasted a lot of time on the road due to the traffic).”
“Giya sumane mattath eh-wage wedak wuna (I had a similar experience last week),” interjected Mabel Rasthiyadu. The trio then engaged in a long conversation on the traffic snarls that are evident on roads in the city of Colombo these days.
As I began to type my column focusing on today’s traffic chaos in the city, the telephone rang with Haramanis, the know-all neighbour of broken English fame, on the line.
“I say, the traffic problem is real problem, no.” I nod my head, saying, “I agree.” Continuing, he came out with a long tale about how he spent hours on the road last week in Colombo going to a city hospital for a doctor’s appointment and how it took him more than an hour to travel a few metres.
Everyone will agree that the traffic in Colombo has worsened in recent times, slow moving on all the main trunk roads into the city not only during rush hours but also at normal times. The traffic gets worse in the heart of Colombo.
At a recent event in Colombo, Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka was quoted in newspapers as saying that if Colombo is to accommodate the growing number of vehicles on its roads, the road network would have to be increased by three-fold by 2030.
“Public transport should also be improved. Currently, 15 per cent of Colombo city consists of roads and if we are to accommodate the increased number of vehicles, these roads would have to be increased three-fold by 2030,” he was quoted as saying.
“The amount of roads cannot be increased to three times its current state to accommodate the growing number of vehicles. Therefore, the best solution would be to improve public transport. That is why we have embarked on a gigantic project such as the light rail project,” he said, adding: “Within the next 10 years we need to improve public rail transport to accommodate at least 20 per cent of the commuters.”
Indeed all the outer roads linking the city like the Galle Road from Moratuwa-Dehiwela, the High Level Road from Maharagama-Nugegoda, the Baseline Road from Wattala-Peliyagoda-Kelaniya and the Parliament Road from Malabe-Rajagiriya, are chock-a-block with traffic most of the time, not only during office and school rush hours but always.
It would sometimes take a whole hour, for example, moving from Nugegoda-Kohuwela to Eye Hospital Junction (a distance of around 7 km) compared to just 20 minutes to travel on the expressway between Negombo and Peliyagoda (a distance of over 28 km).
The number of vehicles has been growing over the years but reciprocally not the number of roads or expansion of roads.
For instance, according to official figures, the number of motor cars rose by 51 per cent to 756,856 in 2017 from 499,714 in 2012; the number of motor tricycles (three-wheelers) rose by 67 per cent to 1.1 million in 2017 from 766,784 in 2012 while motorcycles rose by 63 per cent to 4 million in 2017 from 2.5 million in 2012. 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 in the next six years (by 2023), 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. The number of roads, in the meantime, is not increasing, while public transport is way below expectations.
According to a Sunday Times July 22, 2018 report, Senior Professor of the Department of Transport and Logistics at the University of Moratuwa, Amal Kumarage, was quoted as saying that a research study showed that thousands of vehicles “jamming city roads have reduced metropolitan speeds to an agonisingly slow 10 kmph on average despite all the spending on new highways”.
He said that the average speed on Western Province roads in general was 15 kmph with traffic congestion at record levels. The lower the average speed, the more time people will spend on the road, Prof. Kumarage noted. According to current traffic projections, the movement of traffic would be much slower now.
Two academics from the University of Moratuwa in a study titled ‘Measuring the economic costs of traffic congestion’ said in their conclusions that Sri Lanka is suffering from severe traffic congestion mainly in urban centres with traffic congestion resulting in greater losses in the national productivity.
“Increasing population in the urban areas and, as a result, increasing their mobility needs via public and private transport modes coupled with insufficient infrastructure, poor traffic control, complex land-use pattern, hazardous driving behaviour and high density of road users, create heavy congestion in urban roads, costing more to the society in terms of longer commuting times (reducing workforce productivity) and excess operating (fuel) costs. The personalized transport modes and the informal sector such as cars/van, three wheelers and motorcycles are significantly contributing to this congestion”.
It said that the economic costs from road traffic congestion include waste (loss) of time, fuel economy and wear and tear of automobiles and accidents. Most significant factors contributing to the problem were poor city planning, inappropriate public transport facilities and an insufficient traffic system.
In the US alone, traffic congestion cost US$305 billion in 2017, an increase of $10 billion from 2016, according to a recent study. “Those numbers come from the lost productivity of workers sitting in traffic, the increased cost of transporting goods through congested areas and all of that wasted fuel, among other factors,” it said.
If during 1983-2009, the economic cost of the war was astronomical and reduced economic growth, productivity and development, traffic congestion in urban centres in Sri Lanka is the next big killer of the economy and needs to be addressed by policy planners. The more vehicles on the roads (cars, three-wheelers and motorcycles and not buses), the bigger the impact on the economy! Increased, affordable and comfortable public transport is the only answer to the traffic chaos in the city.