By Amila Balasuriya, Research Professional, Centre for Poverty Analysis
The contribution of transport to the wellbeing of people in today’s world does not require great elaboration. Although improvements in transportation have a direct impact on the development of regional and local economies, such growth is underpinned by the negative effects of air pollution as a result of increased emissions. This is evident in Sri Lanka, as well as other nations where transport is central to socio-economic development – as evidenced in its increasing contribution to Sri Lanka’s gross domestic production – but also increases levels of emissions.
Of particular concern to Sri Lanka is that 60 per cent of all petroleum imports are consumed by the transportation sector – a burden for the economy considering the use of foreign exchange that is required for such importation. On the other hand, a cursory review of the impact on the environment shows that fossil fueled emissions in the sector are responsible for 49 per cent of all air pollution. Similarly, the carbon emissions resulting from a rapid, unregulated growth of the sector have short and long term health implications. What is apparent therefore is that although transport is a critical infrastructure feature in today’s world, the socio-economic and health costs in the absence of an integration of a sustainable framework to the sector are extremely high. Hence, there is a critical need for a more planned and sustainable approach to manage the transportation demands.
Notably, as people’s lifestyles change, so do the demands for transportation. Sri Lanka’s graduation to a lower middle income country status has been accompanied by a change in preference in modes of transport: people are increasingly opting for private instead of public transport, a fact evident in the number of private vehicles entering the roads daily. At present, of the 6.3 million vehicles registered, an overwhelming 53 per cent are motor cycles, 17 per cent are three wheelers and 11 per cent motor vehicles. Thus, over 80 per cent of all registered vehicles are utilised for personal use. In contrast buses, which contribute over 50 per cent towards meeting the demand for public transportation, constitute around 1.6 per cent of the total number of vehicles registered. As such consumption takes hold and personal vehicle use increases, and so does the emissions and the resultant traffic congestion which has become symptomatic in urban centres such as Colombo and its suburbs.
In order to address the traffic congestion that is ‘choking’ cities like Colombo, what is required are solutions that go beyond the short-term. One way of addressing these concerns is to encourage people to use public transport. Towards this end, the government has increased the tax on new vehicles which has had an impact on reducing the number of new registrations. However, the feasibility of such a strategy in the long run is questionable. For, one of the reasons lower middle income households opt for private modes of transport is the failure of public transportation to meet the demand. Without any comprehensive plan to improve the quality, the outreach and capacity of public transport, such taxation schemes may not reap the intended benefits in the long run. For instance, a workable solution for congestion is the use of trains – one of the most common means of travelling from the suburbs to Colombo. However, in real terms railways contribute less than 4 per cent towards public transport. The lack of finance and focus to improve the related infrastructure has led to a standstill of the sector. Hence, the focus should be on attracting private vehicle owners to use public transport by offering a more improved, public transport service that is both reliable and efficient.
Widening the existing roads, seeking alternative routes and opting for expensive flyovers can only go so far in providing a sustainable solution to congestion. The piloting of a priority lane for buses in Colombo should be improved and expanded. Furthermore, charging a congestion fee during the peak hours on vehicles entering the city limits can, to some extent, ease congestion. While a new concept to Sri Lanka, this has been successfully implemented in such cities as London, San Francisco, Stockholm and Milan etc. Similarly, a fee can be levied on vehicles that enter the city with only one or two passengers, despite their capacity to carry four or more passengers. While it is acknowledged there may be greater opposition to such a scheme, a localised strategy that addresses the owners’ concerns can be designed and piloted.
Despite several national level plans and strategies being designed to address the concerns that the transport sector is currently grappling with, experts point to the lack of commitment and the lacklustre progress in implementation. If the exponential growth of this sector continues unabated, transport experts predict that within Colombo, the average speed would reduce to less than 20 km an hour. Such a stagnancy in Sri Lanka’s commercial and administrative hub will only increase inefficiency and lead to decreased levels of productivity. Hence, the need for a better thought out, effective policy intervention at the national level that integrates the concerns of relevant stakeholders including the daily commuters and private vehicle owners is imperative in Sri Lanka at this juncture.
(WALK the LINE is a monthly column contributed by CEPA, an independent, Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty related development issues. CEPA can reached at www.cepa.lk or via firstname.lastname@example.org)
Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty-related development issues. CEPA believes that poverty is an injustice that should be overcome and that overcoming poverty involves changing policies and practices nationally and internationally, as well as working with people in poverty.
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