The roads of Colombo are clogged with vehicles, brand new vehicles. The roads have been widened and highways have been built. There are more and more buses and trishaws on the streets as well. But none can keep up with the pace of the brand new vehicles entering our humble streets. Who is to blame? The RDA for not being able to build ever wider roads? The Transport Commission for not putting in more buses on the road? Or is it the middle class’ fault for putting more and more vehicles on to the streets?
I think I lie smack in the middle of the middle class. Hence I like to think I understand the middle class to a considerable degree. What do we want? To simply enjoy the fruits of all the hard work we have done over the years to get to where we are today. From studying hours and hours for exams and then passing all those interviews and all to get to the lovely offices we occupy. Sri Lanka’s post war economic boom was partly caused by the financial and consumer boom of the middle class.
We want to enjoy at least a bit of the luxuries that the high class enjoys while we retain the roots of our struggles of the past in the classes below. Hence we love to get down from our brand new eco-friendly Nissan Leaf and walk into the queue of the “Sawh Kenda Dhansela”. It is here that I believe that one can find the source of the crisis of clogged Colombo roads.
(P.s – reference to class by no means is me trying to define or endorse the existing class system. It is a humble to effort to create a broad identity for an inclusionary article)
No one wants to travel in a cramped up bus with the smell of humans suffocating you at one point. Or use trishaws at exorbitant rates, while choking on exhaust fumes. There is a lovely brand new car at home with AC and your own radio to tune into 99.2 TNL Rocks. ( At least that is what I would do.) But then some of us youngsters are yet to earn enough to buy a car and we are fed up of paying for tuks. The bus is our only real hope of translocation.
A public bus trip to Wennappuwa accentuated my concern about the existing transport system, especially within Colombo. I spent as much time travelling within Colombo and its suburbs than the actual trip to and from Wennappuwa. Gone are the times in Colombo on a week day where traffic is non – existent at non peak hours. Only difference is that during the peak rush hour, vehicles walk.
When one peeks into the thousands upon thousands of personal vehicles clogging Colombo’s vein like roads, there is only one or two people inside. There is space for thousands of people to and from Colombo in these vehicles if they were all public transport vehicles. We are burning away tens of billions of imported petroleum in the traffic clots. But even worse is the human hours and productivity that is being sapped away in the midst of it.
Those inside the lovely brand new cars have AC and the ability to listen to an audiobook to learn something new on the way to and from home. But those standing inside cramped up buses have nothing. And the young lady in the tuk is damaging her lungs inhaling all the exhaust fumes. But yet all of them are losing time that could be otherwise spent at least resting and regaining the energy for the next day. Instead they have less time for everything including parents who have less time to spend with their kids. The end result is Sri Lanka is losing man hours that could add to the GDP and the labor force has reduced productivity thanks to the fatigue.
Is there an answer to this? Not one, but many changes are required to find a long term way out of this mess. Adding more buses to the streets is not going to solve it. Attention must be given to the thought process within the middle class car owners who want to travel in their vehicles everyday everywhere. They are not at fault. Neither is the government entirely. There are market and status symbol factors at play here. We must also look at why Uber style ride sharing might not be prevalent yet. Another aspect is the relatively low urban density of Colombo and why public servants travel great distances to work on a daily basis. If we fail to start addressing these concerns, these clots of traffic on the streets of Colombo will continue to spread elsewhere. One day the hemorrhage of the Sri Lankan economy might be too much for it to bear the fruits of progress and development.
( I will explore the aforementioned aspects of long term solutions in my next article. Do anticipate it very soon.)