Traffic congestion is an inescapable result of growing metropolitan cities such as Colombo. With over 510,000 vehicles and around 1.9 million passengers entering the city on a daily basis, the traffic within the city of Colombo has become unmanageable, despite attempts by the authorities to mitigate the issue. The causes for the ceaseless traffic congestions are numerous. The ongoing constructions on the roads, excessive vehicles and regular protest marches have contributed to the problem. As a result, the severe traffic jams continue to be a major strain on the road systems, the Police, public transport services, government agencies and most importantly, the daily commuters. The loss of man-hours and massive financial losses are not negligible, either. So are the negative effects on the environment and the health of road users and those involved in road traffic management.
As identified in the Western region megapolis master plan, around 7.8 million of the 10 million daily passenger trips to the Colombo Metropolitan Region are motorized. Therefore, at the peak of traffic, the average travel speed in Colombo drops to a dismal 12 Kilometers per hour, causing a massive loss of man-hours.
While vehicles enter the city through seven main corridors according to the Ministry, attempts to provide traffic solutions to each corridor has failed as people not only travel on the main corridors but between these corridors as well, thereby further complicating the issue.
As seen in Slave Island these days, with Malay Street being dug up in two places creating bottlenecks, and a large construction crane parked on another spot taking up much road space, has become a commuter’s worst nightmare during peak hours. Road users point out, making Kumaran Ratnam Road temporarily two way would be a quick solution to ease traffic congestion on Malay Street allowing motorists entering Colombo to use it as an alternative route.
The government continues in their efforts to find a solution to the issue. Under the Western region, megapolis transport masterplan various improvements in transport have been suggested to reduce traffic congestion. As the demand for road space continues, the growth of passengers entering Colombo is expected to increase to around 4.4 million by 2035.
These plans categorized into short term and long term will be expected to fully resolve ongoing traffic-related problems within a span of 20 years.
Sri Lanka incurs a massive financial and man hour loss on account of the severe traffic conditions in the Colombo Metropolitan Region. In fact according to an expert on transportation, Prof. Amal Kumarage of the Department of Transport and logistics management, University of Moratuwa the cost of mobility under which the economic cost of traffic congestion falls amounts to Rs 400 Bn per annum.
Skin and eye irritations
Patali Champika Ranawaka
According to Prof. Kumarage this amounts to 10 per cent of the GDP of the country. “Ideally, this should amount from six to seven per cent of the GDP to be efficient. This total cost of transportation includes, fuel consumption, contributions from vehicle usage, air pollution and cost of time spent in transport,” Prof. Kumarage said. He added, if the cost of congestion is calculated, compared to 20 kilometer per hour threshold, when the speed is below this level, the costs amount to approximately Rs 300 million per day.
Along with the economic effects severe traffic can also cause health issues among the public. Speaking to the Sunday Observer Deputy Director General, Health Services, Dr Amal Harsha de Silva said, carbon monoxide and other poisonous gases from exhaust fumes of the vehicles induce severe health issues on human health. “These affect lung capacity, lung function and oxygen absorption capacity of the lungs. According to Dr. de Silva, currently, Sri Lanka has a high incidence of lung and respiratory diseases. ¨Also, due to exhaust fumes, lead levels in the blood increases,” he said, adding that these issues can be countered by the use of electric and hybrid vehicles. According to experts diesel engines emit high levels of airborne particles of soot and metal. These cause skin and eye irritations and allergies, and these fine particles lodge deep in the lungs, where they could cause respiratory problems.
Prof. Amal Kumarage
But the health effects of traffic are not simply physical. Motorists and commuters can even suffer from mental health issues due to experiencing traffic conditions on a daily basis. Dr. N Kumaranayake, Clinical Psychiatrist, Base Hospital Kiribathgoda, said, according to a CNN report, a 2012 study by Washington University in St. Louis noted that being exposed to the daily hassles of traffic can lead to higher chronic stress. According to Psychology Today, Psychiatrist, Emily Deans has claimed that stress is a killer disease and it makes people vulnerable to other diseases, including depression.
Meanwhile, the environmental effects caused due to vehicle emissions and other factors are also undeniable. Today, the world over private vehicles have been identified as one of the single greatest sources of air pollution as emissions from the excessive number of vehicles add up. Research has also found that vehicle emissions are responsible for up to 50 percent of the emissions that form ground-level ozone and up to 90 percent of carbon monoxide in major metropolitan areas. Driving a private car is probably a typical citizen’s most “polluting” daily activity according to experts. Private vehicles and traffic also contribute to noise pollution resulting in a large number of negative effects.
Constant use of roads by vehicles and especially, heavy vehicles in Colombo due to the booming construction industry has also taken a severe toll on the road system calling for constant maintenance. But many road sections close to these sites remain in disrepair and seriously damaged.
According to the Traffic Police no check on the weight of these vehicles are currently being done though Gazette 1847/32 issued on January 29, 2014 dictates the weight vehicles should be in order to use the roadways. Police say weigh bridges are needed for the task but Colombo only has one such bridge located in Peliyagoda. With no checks in place heavy and loaded vehicles are allowed to enter the city freely wreaking havoc on the road systems while also contributing to traffic congestion.
However despite these serious effects of traffic, governments throughout the years have failed to find a lasting solution to the issue which has now brought the country to a breaking point with the situation becoming unmanageable. According to Prof. Kumarage many major cities in the world suffer from traffic congestion, but, the traffic situation in Sri Lanka has become severe due to inaction by certain former politicians who had no vision to make a change. He also pointed out that there has been a lack of experts actively taking part in these issues in order to make a change. ¨Ït has been a struggle for many of us¨ he said, adding that also many policies being implemented now are almost a decade too late. According to him the bus lane was first proposed nine years ago when conditions were more fair to such as move. ¨But many plans are being implemented late and are proving to be difficult to enforce as the traffic congestion issue has become severe and unmanageable¨ he said.
Nevertheless, the government in recent times has tried to implement several short term solutions to the issue which is expected to supplement the long term plans such as overhead bridges they are currently working on.
Accordingly the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development in March this year introduced a trial priority bus lane in Rajagiriya in a bid to introduce the concept to the public and improve the speed of public transportation. While the trial was hailed as a success the concept was later introduced to nine other routes in Colombo.
A benefit for daily commuters however the move has drawn some criticism from motorists, especially in the Rajagiriya area who are also facing traffic congestion due to the construction of the overhead bridge at the Rajagiriya junction.
According to Chandana de Silva, a resident of Ethulkotte the construction along with the bus lane is an issue during peak hour traffic congestion. He suggests that one solution would be to allow other vehicles to use the bus lane, which is implemented from 7am to 9am, when it’s free. He further said, the number of trishaws on the roads have to be considered in adapting the bus lane.
Flexible working hours
Along with the bus lanes the more recent move has been to introduce flexible working hours for government offices in the Battaramulla area in a bid to reduce traffic congestion. Accordingly flexible working hours were introduced to 41 offices with effect from September 18.
Introducing the move Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Patali Champika Ranawaka confirmed that the government has planned to introduce flexible working hours to limit the traffic congestion on the road at peak hours.
“Under the previous government roads were improved and enlarged as a solution to minimize traffic yet due to the growing number of vehicles the effect was less even though 45 percent of government funds worth over Rs 1 trillion was spent” he said.
According to the Minister the government’s effort is to reduce about 250 vehicles coming into the road at a specific time by changing the office hours.
But according to members of the public traffic around Battaramulla is constant throughout the day with some wondering out loud if the new introduction of flexible hours in the reason behind it.
Speaking about the various criticisms Prof. Kumarage said that the traffic in Rajagiriya is not solely due to the bus lanes. ¨While it is too early to say I do not believe it is due to flexible hours as well¨ he said adding that due to various road constructions and other obstructions in the area the beneficial effects of the newly implemented plans such as the bus priority lane and flexible working hours are not visible in the Battaramulla – Rajagiriya areas.
But the main solution to reduce traffic congestion is seen as the improvement of the public transport system thereby getting the public to move away from the use of private vehicles for their daily commutes. According to experts this can only be done by implementing a fast, comfortable, cost effective and high quality public transport system in the country while also implementing regulations that limit private vehicle entry to the city such as by way of fines. Prof. Kumarage pointed out that many cities have enforced an anti-car policy to reduce traffic but provided a good public transport service.
Therefore many plans to improve the public transport system is in the pipe works through the Western Province Megapolis transport master plan. The plan includes the introduction of a monorail system, restructuring and modernization of the public bus service, rapid transport systems among many others.
However Prof. Kumarage says it is now time to go beyond the Megapolis Transport Plan. According to him what the country needs now is an Advanced Transport Management System.
This system will look at public transport system. ¨The City has definitely reached the threshold of traffic possible now¨ he said adding that therefore an Advanced and Integrated Transport Management System which will inform the public of real time traffic conditions, public transport options, travel time information and various other important services.
¨Therefore what we need is high quality, fast and real time public transport solutions to resolve these issues¨ he said.
Protests: Adding fuel to the fire
Bus Lane to ease congestion
Bottlenecks and congestion
Excavation sites and various constructions on the roads in and around Colombo city is clearly one of the main reasons at present, for the increased traffic experienced by commuters and motorists on a daily basis. While these sites have increased recently they create bottlenecks on the main roads leading to long delays for the public, not only during peak hours but at other times as well.
Taking some examples:
Malay Street is a scene of chaos at all hours of the day with two excavation sites and one construction crane creating three bottlenecks with yet another excavation going on in Justice Akbar Mawatha which eventually joins Malay Street. Rajagiriya junction has also suffered a similar fate due to the on going construction of the flyover bridge creating severe traffic jams while negatively affecting businesses in the area some of which have had to close down. Park Road in Colombo 5, and Mattakkuliya currently, are no go areas as well, due to road construction activities.
While construction and related activities are needed for the development of a country, the public however has found the time taken to complete the construction a major point of contention.
A. S. Millawithana of Nugegoda spoke to the Sunday Observer on the difficulty faced when commuting via Rajagiriya. According to him, during the office hours, from 12 noon to 2 pm, 15 to 20 minutes are spent in the traffic jam. In the evening the situation gets worse.
Rajagiriya fly over
“This is both a waste of time and a waste of fuel. We have to leave home one to one and a half hours early, to keep our appointments. Sometimes, we use bylanes to avoid this part of the route,” he said. He added that the construction of the flyover has taken around a year, which is a long time period for road construction.
However, Mahinda Rathnayake, a resident of Kotte says, the traffic situation near the Rajagiriya fly over is improving, as it is progressing towards completion. Rathnayake said, six months ago, the traffic congestion in the area lasted about one and a half hours. “Congestion will die down once the construction is completed, depending on the number of vehicles on the road. It would have been a better solution if the flyover was built up to Parliament.” Rathnayake says, building flyovers here and there is a temporary solution to traffic congestion and that road construction process needs to be streamlined in order to provide long term solutions.
Residents of Slave Island, where three excavation sites exist on Malay Street and the junction, spoke of their inconvenience. Tyron, a trishaw driver said, the inconvenience caused by subsequent traffic is indescribable. “Both roads near the digs are one way and the traffic is unspeakable from 7.30 am to 12 noon. They are inserting underground cables or water lines, which has been going on for four to five months,” he said
Sahabdeen, a resident of Stuart Street, Slave Island said, the excavation sites have contributed considerably to the traffic congestion in the area. “However, nobody seems to be working at these sites, the excavations just exist,” he said. He said, that between 7 am to 6 pm, too many vehicles are on the roads and the Police officers find it difficult to control the traffic due to these excavations.
Meanwhile, H N Fonseka, a bus driver in the Panadura- Colombo route said, extra 40 minutes are spent on his journey due to the excavation sites in Slave Island. “Sometimes it takes two hours to reach Panadura, whereas, the allocated time is only one hour and 10 minutes,” he said.
While many of the excavations appear to be long drawn with no end in sight for the frustrated public, Provincial Road Development Authority (PRDA), Chief Engineer, Kumuduni Wijegunawardana said, if the task is not completed within the agreed time period, compensation should be paid to the relevant authority. ¨If a private body is involved, it is possible to take legal action for causing inconvenience to the public¨ she said, adding that despite the excavations and constructions, vehicles should be allowed to pass.
According to Wijegunawardana, to excavate the roads for purposes of inserting underground cables or drainage, etc. the procedure is to make a payment to the relevant authority, and obtain a Memoranda of Understanding (MOU). The authorities in charge of the roads include, Road Development Authority (RDA), PRDA and respective Urban Councils. “The MOU would include details of the time period within which to complete the task and the party that conducts the reconstruction. If reconstruction is by the party involved in digging, the relevant authority is responsible for monitoring the reconstruction process,” she said.
Meanwhile, Colombo has also been experiencing a large number of protests in the recent past which has given rise to major traffic jams, especially, during peak hours, the protesters planning it so, for maximum effect. Just this week heavy traffic was reported in the Town Hall and Colpetty area after office hours due to yet another anti-SAITM protest by the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF). Members of the public returning home were faced with roads blocks by the Police and the protesters, and had to suffer long delays in reaching their destinations. This has now become a common occurrence with various organizations conducting eight protest marches since September 1 to date.
Colombo also continues to face more long term issues. Despite various attempts to reduce the number of vehicles in the country vehicle registrations continue to rise with more people opting for private vehicles as opposed to using public transport.
According to the available statistics of the Department of Motor Traffic (DMT) in 2014, the total new registrations of motor vehicles was 668,907, compared to 429,556 in 2014, indicating a 56 per cent increase in new vehicle registrations in 2015. By 2014, the total vehicle population in Sri Lanka was 5,633,234 which experts said is due to the decreasing quality of public transport, which has pushed the public to use private vehicles.
According to the Ministry of Megapolis, 10 million daily passenger trips are generated in the Colombo Metropolitan Region, of which 7.8 million are motorized trips. Prof Amal Kumarage, Department of Transport, University of Moratuwa says, these numbers must be reduced to ease the ongoing traffic congestion. ¨Public transport must be improved so that people will opt for that rather than use one’s own vehicle within the city area¨ he said, adding that in most cities abroad driving into the city thus contributing to the traffic is almost considered an anti social behaviour. With the number of passengers entering Colombo poised to rise up to 4.4 million by 2035 according to the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development, Prof. Kumarage said this is in fact the need of the hour.
Poya day motorists
Meanwhile, the dated traffic lights system within the Colombo city also continues to be problematic, especially, for traffic management by the Police. Policeman manually operating traffic lights, after switching off the system is a common sight. According to experts this is a result of the city not having a synchronized traffic light system along with a traffic control centre to monitor the traffic flow and ensure centralized real time traffic management.
¨Today, a good and trained traffic policeman is far superior to the traffic lights system that we have in place¨ he said. According to Prof. Kumarage data has to be manually fed and will work well only in those expected traffic conditions. ¨But in Sri Lanka there are variations in the traffic every day due to reasons such as, holidays, protests and rain¨ he pointed out, adding that the system in place can only input around four to five cycles leaving motorists to adhere to these signals despite the variations. ¨For example, on a Poya day motorists are made to wait at traffic lights as if it is a normal working day due to this issue¨ he said. Therefore he says a good central command center will give better visibility to the Traffic Police and the ability to manage traffic efficiently.
With many of these issues hampering the mobility of the general public, Prof. Kumarage says, what is needed now is an Advanced Transport Management System. ¨The City has definitely reached the threshold of traffic possible now¨ he said adding that therefore an Advanced Transport Management System which will inform the public of real time traffic conditions, public transport options, travel time information and various other important services will not only improve the public transport system but will drastically reduce the traffic conditions being experienced in the present day.