Only 10% of vehicles on the road are cars, yet policy is designed for them. Motor traffic data, available on Google Docs.
The new Southern Expressway admits only cars and private buses. The new one-way system in Colombo serves commuters from the suburbs. Many readers of this blog use cars and don’t think anything of it, but it’s important to remember that most Sri Lankans don’t have cars and most Colombians don’t commute from the suburbs. While improving transport is good, we have to be careful that it doesn’t just increase inequality.
Here are some fun stats to orient yourself. Only 10% of vehicles on the road in 2010 were cars. The population that lives in Colombo is about 800,000, and about 400,000 commute in daily. So think about it, how have we improved transport for the majority?
Why Transport Matters
Transport is often the highest burden on a working family, either in time or money. According to the 2009/10 HIES survey, the average Sri Lankan household spends Rs. 3,000 on transport, second only to housing. If you have a car or take trishaws you can easily spend that much in a week. Actually, it’s quite possible to spend that in a day on trishaws.
The bus system is there, but it’s old, uncomfortable, often unsafe for women or children, and – most pervasively – it kills time like a homicidal maniac. To take the bus at rush hour (ie, to work) can often take two or three hours, standing, in the heat. Yet, to work and put a child in school, you have to get around. That is why transport matters.
How Current Policy Benefits Cars
Sri Lankan roads and road policy has improved dramatically in the past 5 years, but in what direction? Broadly, the end of terrorism meant that buses, vans and trishaws don’t blow up anymore, a benefit to everyone. The reduction in checkpoints to almost none is also a palpable benefit. Finally, opening roads like the A9 to Jaffna and roads within Colombo are a boon to all.
More specifically, traffic police have tried to and are making a change in behavior. New environmental laws have tied the revenue license to an emissions test, improving our air, to a degree. Flyovers as in Nugegoda and Dehiwela have reduced congestion, sidewalks and crosswalks on Galle Road have blown my mind, and roads and roundabouts have generally been rationalized and improve.
These are changes that benefit everyone, from pedestrians to buses to cars. Some of the biggest changes, however, have been car-centric. Take the one-way system. Colombo has changed from a network of two way streets to broad pipes leading in and out of the city. You take the Galle Road in and Duplication Road out. While this benefits commuters, it makes point to point travel within the city difficult. Old bus routes have been completely fractured, now going in incomprehensible loops rather than straight lines. People who travel by bus now often have to walk a great distance to get where they’re going, or cut across four lanes of traffic just to cross the street.
The new highway system, also, is cars only. As mentioned, however, this serves only 10% of vehicles. 53% of vehicles are motorcycles and 13.4% are trishaws. It does make sense that these vehicles are left off the highways (the thought of a trishaw going 100km is terrifying), but they are still left out of this particular benefit.
How Current Policy Restricts Cars
When I first returned to Sri Lanka I semi-seriously talked about getting a trishaw. It was affordable and you could put a great stereo in there. Everybody laughed at me and now I can’t imagine that I ever considered such a thing. A car is a very clear class marker, but Sri Lankan taxes are such that you have to spend ludicrous amounts to obtain one.
Anyone driving a new Suzuki Swift or regular Toyota could have bought a BMW or Mercedes in America with that money. The taxes are that high. Anyone driving a Mercedes or Prado could have bought a house. Even with a recent reduction in taxes, the prices are insane. This makes sense in that it limits the amount of cars on the road, but it’s not like those tax receipts are funneled into public transit. They’re spent largely on buying vehicles for Ministers while average Sri Lankans sweat it out on the bus.
So there’s the rub. The government is both building infrastructure for people that have cars, and making it harder to get cars. Thus people who can afford cars get economic benefits (cheaper property out of town, choice of schools, more time to work) and people without get economically disadvantaged. Left unchecked, this can lead to rising inequality which is bad for the country as a whole (human capital is less effectively deployed) and political stability in general.
So what’s the alternative? It’s not that building highways or one-way systems is bad. It’s just that there should be some benefits to the other side as well. Most immediately, Colombo needs some sort of middle class public transit. When I lived in Canada I always took the metro and thought that people with cars were suckers. It should be that way. While the bike lane near Independence Square and one modern bus on Galle Road are a start, they’re largely symbolic.
Colombo is not the right size of city to support an underground metro or proper mass transit, but the bus system can at least be improved, and some of the rail (and canals) within the city can be used for internal transport as well. This could be paid for by allocating some of the tax on cars, but that honeypot already has a dozen paws in it. It may be easier to create a new revenue stream, perhaps by making all parking within Colombo paid. Yes, sounds crazy, but major cities have done it worldwide. It makes parking more available, for one thing, and sets a value on what is a cost to the city. It is also possible to have dedicated toll lanes in the city, but that may be pushing it.
People also need personal transit. It’s not enough to tell middle class people that they shouldn’t aspire to cars, especially if you have a family, anything else just doesn’t make sense. It’s terrifying putting children on a motorbike, expensive to put them on a trishaw, and painful to put them on a bus. Cheap cars like the Tata Nano are an idea. Untaxed electric cars are also an idea, though the benefits in Sri Lanka are less than elsewhere (we burn liquid fuel to generate electricity, making it a stupid loop).
At some level, however, something’s got to give. We can’t just build western style infrastructure for cars that people can’t afford and call it development. It is important to remember the value that transport adds to all of our lives, and that we add to each other. It is also important to remember that most Sri Lankan transport is motorcycle, trishaw and bus, and that our tax policy walls these people out of even aspiring to a car. Nowhere is inequality more apparent than on the streets, and nowhere is it more universally irritating. The government has made a good start, but with a bit of consideration we could really do a lot better.