Colombo traffic has suddenly gotten dramatically worse. This is largely seasonal, due to the rains, but it won’t get any better given current policies. The government tries to limit car use by taxing car purchases heavily, but this just means that the rich get (multiple) cars and the poor take their soft babies on motorbikes. It’s not fair. What’s especially unfair is that it’s not like these insane car taxes go into better public transit or anything to actually help the people. Here are some no brainer policy changes that could alleviate the problem.
1. Change Tax Structure
The current tax structure for is fire-fighting, it’s not aligned with any particular goals. It’s a blunt instrument, but our vehicle taxes are so insane that they can be a profound policy lever.
The goal of Sri Lanka’s vehicle policy should be an all-electric fleet by 2030. Given the small size of the country we can easily be covered with fast charging stations and lead the world in that regard. To that end, taxes should be aggressively graded – tax breaks for electric vehicles, low tax for hybrids and small cars, low tax for high occupancy vehicles (vans), and the highest taxes for luxury vehicles and jeeps.
Right now the tax structure is roughly like this, but it’s patchy and inconsistent. If the taxes were oriented around a clear policy goal, that could lead to a profoundly better country in 15 years.
2. Congestion Pricing
People already spend a ton on cars, but nothing for the roads. Given that this more than the car is a finite, shared resource, it should be priced accordingly. In Singapore, manual congestion pricing led to a 45% reduction in traffic. Automating it decreased traffic a further 15%. We could potentially decrease traffic by 50% with congestion pricing.
In Singapore they implemented it first via toll-booths, which we’re almost guaranteed to mess up, but it is possible to do congestion pricing (and payment) digitally. We already have data on where and when traffic is traveling (see some of my dad’s research results). In Singapore they use a custom on-board-unit that takes a cash card and dynamically varies the amount you’re charged to drive. This could also be done locally with, like, a smartphone, but God knows how the final product would be tendered.
Barring that complexity, you can simply charge people a fixed fee for an entry permit into the city center. Like a revenue license. If you don’t have that, you have a problem, and God knows our cops are good enough at checking that sort of thing.
Either way, we have to impose some cost on the use of roads to actual decrease traffic.
3. Public Transit
None of the efforts to reduce traffic are good, however, if people don’t have a better alternative. That is why the moribund and frankly counter-productive public transit system needs to be overhauled. Sri Lanka’s ‘privatization’ of public transit was an abomination. The private sector can’t set prices or innovate and the public sector isn’t well funded. It was neither here nor there and just created weird cartels fighting for scraps.
Public transit should just be public and a set amount of revenues from vehicle taxes and congestion pricing should be directly invested in it. We need to have new, air-conditioned low-rise buses in dedicated bus lanes around the city. Sidewalks need to be improved and vehicles should be fined heavily for stopping on zebra crossings and generally being hostile to pedestrians. For constant lols/tears on this subject check out Sri Lankan Traffic Violations.
At the same time our existing rail network can support a lot more commuters from Nugegoda side, Wattala, Kalutara, etc. We even have canals that are under-utilized. Even without investing in a new mono-rail system, if we just put more trains and carriage on the tracks, it will help.
4. School Buses [UPDATE]
I just thought of this coming back from lunch. School kids are ferried in private vehicles or vans and – given that Colombo has a school every 500 meters – this makes traffic a soup twice a day. Why not have free school buses that take 30 or 40 kids at a time and drop them off? I suppose the van system is relatively efficient, but crowded, hot, and sometimes dodgy. Why not just normal school buses? Definitely better than the swamp of private vehicles that descend upon the city to take one small person home.
The development of highways and all is great, but at the end of the day this stuff only means MORE traffic coming into Colombo. So does rising living standards (also good). Right now the government policy is to fight the inevitable and try to keep middle classes away from decent transport (while hoarding cars for themselves).
What’s needed is a coherent policy with goals – reducing use of oil, reducing traffic, increasing use of public transit. Sri Lanka is uniquely positioned in terms of policy levers (taxes, investment, foreign donors) to change our transport system dramatically. Done right, it can create jobs, improve lives and produce broad economic growth for years to come.
For further, more economic, reading on this LBO article quoting Murtaza Jafferjee is a good read.