Registered vehicles, via statistics.gov.lk. Bus use is obviously way higher.
When people think about traffic they think about cars, but the actual metric is people. In a country like Sri Lanka, there is only one car for every hundred people. The plurality of people are on the bus, and the most popular form of personal transport is the motorbike. Any public policy should really be designed to accommodate this real human traffic rather than simply moving cars around faster. According to statistics.gov.lk there were about 311,000 cars on the registers in 2005. That means about 1.5% of Sri Lankans use a car. About 1.2% use a Trishaw, while a surprising (to me) 6.03% use motorcycles. The vast majority, however, are either hoofing it or sweating on the bus. There are about 12,000 buses operating everyday, carrying about 4.8 million passengers. That means about 23% of Sri Lankans are taking the bus. To break it down [this number is deeply flawed], out of 100 people, 23 are on the bus, 6 are on bikes, 1 is in a Trishaw and 1 is in a car. The other 69 are at home or infirm or walking around or something. Regardless, the point is that this is not a car culture, and a different kind of public policy is required.
The current transportation policy is ass-backwards. I’ll take Colombo cause it’s what I know. Some recent initiatives include making main roads in Colombo one-way, banning Trishaws (beginning in 2008) and banning private buses of less than (I think) 20 seats. The latter I can’t find anything online about, but I remember reading it in the paper. All these measures benefit cars more than anyone, and they largely hurt the plurality of pedestrians and public transients.
For general perspective, here are some quotes from Robert Sullivan’s Op-Ed in the New York Times:
As a New Yorker who has spent two years researching roads and transportation across the United States, I am saddened to see our city falling behind places like downtown Albuquerque, where one-way streets have become more pedestrian-friendly two-way streets, and car lanes are replaced by bike lanes, with bike racks everywhere…
We have lost our golden pedestrian touch in New York mostly because we still think about traffic as though it were 1950, and we needed Robert Moses to plow a few giant freeways through town to get the cars moving again. But the fact is that more roads equal more traffic…
The simple and elegant cure for the loss of New Yorkâ€™s inner pedestrian is to open up car-clogged streets and public spaces. Another of Mr. Schallerâ€™s surveys, sponsored by the citizensâ€™ group Transportation Alternatives, showed that 89 percent of people questioned on Prince Street in SoHo got there by subway, bus, foot or bicycle, and that the majority would gladly give up parking for more pedestrian space.
I would also add that, as a purely subjective experience, there are two tiers of public transport. There is general transport which gets you to an area (buses, trains) and specific transport which gets you to a point (taxis, trishaws). For the former, what’s important is a predictable and logical bus/train route that covers a given area, and enables you to connect to other buses and plan an efficient route. For specific transport you need instantly available wheels, and a decent market price. Then, for the last bit, you need streets that are safe, walkable and, hopefully, pleasant. With that in mind, here’s a brief take on each issue:
One Way Streets
One-way streets are a total disaster for pedestrians and buses. They are very difficult to cross, and their layout breaks up existing bus lines. There are benefits along the North South route, but the buses serve little point-to-point purpose now. That is, you can’t necessarily hop out of a bus in front of where you need to go, and even when you do its through treacherous traffic. As an example, the trip into Kollupitiya (Galle Road) is now so convoluted that it makes the most sense to get off within a 100 meters and walk. Many spots are like that now, the bus takes such a twisted route that it forces you to get off somewhere nearby and hoof it. One may say that it is good for people to walk, but it is also good for buses to be efficient and effective. That is, the way to encourage healthier transport is not to hobble public transportation.
This weakened bus system has the added detriment of making people more likely to use cars. In the past, when parking was a bitch I’d hop a three or take a bus route. However, I’d only do this if the trishaw was cheap and the bus didn’t involve so much walking that I arrived with a soggy shirt. Now neither condition is met and I’d take the car almost anywhere, even places previously covered by trishaw/bus.
Aside from the weakened bus system, ‘downtown’ Colombo is now hellish to walk around. For one thing, you don’t know which way the traffic is coming, so you don’t know where to look. Also, crossing main streets like Duplication/Galle used to be difficult, but not impossible. Now it is shit scary and people only cross in packs. On both counts, the one-way streets do not serve the Colombo that is, and they’re a counterproductive strategy.
Banning (Two Stroke) Trishaws
Is actually OK from an environmental perspective, and it’s great for drivers. I hate trishaws… except when I need them. When you need to get somewhere specific and get there fast, trishaws are perfect. There are no taxis here in the sense that you can hail a cab on the street. Only trishaws. For all their pollutants, they are cheap and convenient. This I’m divided on cause I don’t know the alternative, but a Colombo without trishaws is a Colombo without an effective taxi service. It is a Colombo without specific public transport, or where that is being phased out. The hope is that more efficient four stroke engines will come in, and that they will be affordable enough to be adopted. My worry is what happens to people that have invested their entire savings and livelihood in a trishaw, only to have spare parts run out in 2011.
Allowing only big buses would make sense if there was a large, efficient operator… but there isn’t. Most of the buses I take down Galle Road are little ones, and I prefer them cause they’re A/C’d and more comfortable (sorta). Big buses generally mean big operators, which might makes sense were the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB) not so literally and figuratively bankrupt. I personally only see state owned buses in numbers during Mahinda rallies, when they’re clogging the streets. The state of Public Transport via the CTB is really bad, as in the (older) Sunday Times
“The present situation is really bad. There is no money to pay salaries,” the Minister said. While the country has a fleet of 9,430 buses only 6,900 are in running condition, the minister said adding that the number of good buses are fast declining.
Mr. Piyasoma said neither the ministry nor the CTB had money to repair the buses that were not in operation. But to run the 6,900 buses, there are about 44,000 employees in the CTB, the minister said pointing to the problem of overstaffing.
That is to say, the government can’t handle public transit in an efficient manner, so private operators step in. As of 2005 the CTB operates about 3,800 buses per day compared to 11,800 for the private sector. Seeing as the government is doing such a bad job, I don’t know if this type of ban first ask questions later is good, but I really don’t know what can be done for the dysfunctional buses.
Is I don’t know. To start with, the policy should think of the majority pedestrians and bus-riders before thinking of cars. Ideally, that would mean functional, specific and rapid transit within Colombo. Unfortunately, the one way streets just pump more cars into the city, crippling the bus system. Ideally, I’d love to be able to park my car at work or at the outskirts of Colombo and take rapid and comfortable public transit within the city. The current system of Big Buses (cheap) and Small A/C Buses (more expensive) is already a step towards monetizing that comfort factor, though that is being dismantled. Then, of course, there is money. For viable public transit you need money, which means petrol/car taxes or toll roads. Of course, giving money to this government is like giving a loan to a crackhead. So I dunno the way around that. At a basic level I’d have more pedestrian friendly two way streets, direct bus routes, and … wait minute, that sounds like the way things were. The best policy for this government I think would be to just sit on its incompetent hands and not mess things up more. In other words, be a good doctor and do no harm.
There are many beneficial changes to traffic flow, and cities are making them. However, the world over, those changes mean making cities more pedestrian and bus friendly while Colombo is going the opposite direction. Traffic does not mean cars and moving them faster. It means moving people, and on that count, Sri Lanka is failing badly.