The Economics of Colombo Traffic

A Beijing subway map

Traffic in Colombo is not pleasant. Leaving home at the wrong time can ruin your whole day. Do this for a while, and soon cursing behind the wheel everyday will likely give you grey hairs and a prematurely weak heart.

Blame The Cars

Tax reform, low interest rates and possibly increasing middle class incomes have multiplied vehicle imports faster than road networks can expand. The UDA has been trying to keep up, they’ve extended Marine Drive to Colpetty, opened up Bullers Road and have generally tried to fix things like perennially bad maintenance. Traffic lights and police presence has been increased, but still cars pile up faster than hungry people at a dansala.

I drive down Galle Rd often and it used to be that i’d invariably try to take Marine Drive to avoid evening traffic, but now i steer clear because of the massive wait at the turn off back into Galle rd. Similar situations are playing out along all of the major exit-entryways to the city. Baseline Road, Negombo Road and Kandy Road are veritable nightmares in rush hour. Let’s not even go near Rajagiriya, literally, you want to stay away from there when other people exit their offices. There are just too many. freakin. cars bob.

Don’t Blame The Cars

But blaming the vehicles is moot. There are good reasons why people feel they need cars. People are worried about getting to work on time, they also need to get there smelling good. So will drive if they can afford it, or paradoxically take a tuk tuk if they cant. As traffic increases, drivers get more and more frustrated and will wish for alternative ways to travel. But aside from moving closer to the city (an unthinkably expensive option for most) they have no other alternatives. This is absurd, but that’s just the way things stand now.

Public transport is unreliable, too congested, and completely ruins the attire of your average executive, discouraging most of them from opting for it. The lack of a cheap taxi network is also a problem. Tuk tuks, even metre tuks, are overpriced.

Building Our Way Out

The Defense Ministry/UDA (whats up with that? no one even talks about it anymore) has followed a strategy to expand capacity and increase efficiency by improving roads, building flyovers and increasing police presence. But it has only worked so well. In fact, capacity is so limited that everyone breaks road rules when the cops aren’t looking to get ahead. Our roads are ganglands, whatever you can get way with is legal, Gehan has a good post on driving and its malcontents.

The situation poses some interesting problems for urban policymakers. Things have come to a point where even the bureaucracy must realise that there is no building our way out of this, at least not in the conventional add-em-as-you-go fashion.

Trains have worked remarkably well in other cities. But Colombo’s existing train lines only circle the city and do not venture inside, making them just feed lines to hubs just outside the city centre and that too only from the North and along the coast.

The bus networks are mass market. And probably already transport double the amount of people travelling in cars. The recently launched Executive Bus service has failed to spark much interest. Again due to unreliability, irregularity, coverage gaps arising from the fact that they only traverse a single main route, and did I mention unreliability, the bus service can only do so much too. The much touted ferry service is also floating about aimlessly if you’ll excuse the bad pun.

Innovative work policies can help. Firms can rethink employment policy and offer the option of working from home. Or offer flexible hours to enable employees to beat traffic to and from work, like my new workplace. Individuals can also avoid traffic if they decide to leave early because not everyone will do it especially here where being fashionably late starts half an hour after an appointment.

Bring The Commonwealth Games to Colombo

A subway system would be ideal, as indi says, a good subway system can completely eliminate the need for cars. The Delhi Subway system cost somewhere around 700 million USD. Peanuts in comparison to how much we are borrowing for other projects of dubious worth. Maybe the Chinese can help us out with a loan and even expertise, the Beijing subway lines are superb; and are an excellent way of getting around in an otherwise smoky, congested city.

Both the Delhi and Beijing lines were conceptualised and hurried up because of the 2010 Commonwealth games and the Olympic Games respectively. The need to show off and provide seamless transport to attendees forced these cities to consider building what is probably the most efficient urban transport mechanism invented by man.

Colombo is the centre of the country still, the heart that pumps out all the country’s logistics. The main arteries of it are now getting clogged. If hosting big international games can bring a city a subway then Hambantota might end up getting one. But Hambantota doesn’t need a subway system, Colombo does. So bring the Commonwealth Games to Colombo, and build something useful to the economy in the process.

This is a policymaker standing on a minefield

But the relationship between expanding capacity and reduced traffic is not always direct. This study done by USCB shows that when capacity expands and some traffic is diverted through other channels, latent demand clogs up the free space. Meaning when more drivers take buses, people who took buses because the traffic was too much will start driving.

Colombo being a very decentralized city doesn’t help. Public transport is simply not capable of reaching all the crannies where people need to go, most of the inroads can’t accommodate buses anyway. I work on Thimbirigasyaya Road and it’s barely wide enough for two cars. There is an expansion program going on but it had been in the works for over two years now, no results.

There is also mispriced congestion. Drivers don’t pay for the time loss they cause to others, and so will make inefficient decisions on when and how to travel. These ‘negative externalities’ are the social cost of congestion, and can result in little or no reduction in traffic.

Expansion in trains might divert commuters away from the bus service, because the latter is crap, while not affecting the amount of cars on the road. Deteriorating the bus service even further while causing no improvement to traffic.

So wuttudoo? Maybe an expansion in overall capacity, trains, roads and buses, thereby taking levels of capacity beyond ‘latent demand’. Together with innovative alternatives like carpools, office vans and flexi hours and urban planning focusing on centralized corporate space, these policies might help. What is really needed before anything else is a comprehensive study of the city by specialists (its much more complicated than it looks) followed by bottom up policy making to prevent us from arbitrarily building roads that lead to nowhere worth going slowly.

But all this takes intelligent policy making followed by quick implementation. And so far the Defense Ministry/UDA has only been implementing like mad, where the intelligent planning?

Milinda Moragoda has set out a manifesto here, in it he gives some vague outlines of a transport policy that are a bit vague. Aside form promising clean pavements it promises circular bus routes but fails to describe how they will be different from existing bus routes, which cover the city’s main highways pretty well.

  1. Mafaz said:

    Another excellent post. However you have only skimmed on what one of the most important aspects of traffic in Colombo and that drivers’ bad behaviour is not punished and may in fact be rewarded. the incentives are all wrong. Even where there is more than one lane – inevitably you get bunching at traffic lights of motorcyclists and three-wheelers, Both groups are also prone to avoid sticking to a single lane and straddle two lanes or creep up along the side of four+-wheeled vehicles to secure advantageous spots at traffic lights or other intersections.

    Added to this predicament is the general confusion attached to where one can park. Sometimes one wonders if they truly think thru before implementation. On the sea-side of Galle Road in Colpetty for example is a bus lane but also parking bays. The bus lane should be clear of any obstacles and cars entering and exiting parking bays should be on the other-side – more over why do they not build a large-scale car park on Galle Rd for the publc. There is also this feeling that just running into a shop for two seconds while parked outside is OK – no matter what happens to traffic outside – this is fine for the most part but on critical arteries like Thimbirigasaya and Wijerama this can cause blockages. Sometimes it is just a three-wheeler stopping to pick up a customer.

    Then there is the whole thing of school and van transport as well as car pooling…

  2. Johan said:

    Someone connected to the subway feasibility study told me that the economics of a subway doesn”t work out in Colombo. Not enough people for a subway to break even. Not sure if that really is the case. But considering that we’ve got just about 1 million travelling in and out of colombo, I guess that’s small compared to Delhi or Beijing or London. We probably also do not have the electrical generation capacity to run a subway yet (and probably not for a long time). But yeah, would be great to have one for sure. Traffic really sucks.

  3. Good post Halik 🙂

    and…well said Mafaz! I’ll highlight your comment(s) here.

    ‘There is also this feeling that just running into a shop for two seconds while parked outside is OK’ – Spot on! The whole problem of traffic is not due to big issues but a huge collection of smaller bad manners by drivers and pedestrians. Just pick a multiple story building in Galle Road and observe for 1 hour.

    Also I agree that ‘the incentives are all wrong’ – Let’s start rewarding the well mannered drivers!

  4. N said:

    Unless I’m mistaken there has already been a lot of work done by the University of Moratuwa on traffic in the city and in the country. Mostly ignored by the policymakers as usual.

  5. Chavie said:

    Brilliant post, and agree with the comments as well. Public transport (a better train/subway service and more rail lines to cover areas of Colombo) is the answer. And the funny thing is Colombo used to have a famed tram-car service, but they got rid of it ages ago. o.o

  6. Whacko said:

    Thanks for all the comments guys, very informative.

    Maf – yeah i think road discipline is very bad too. Better enforcement of traffic regulations and more moral education can help, but traffic regulations are a drag already.

    Johan – As for subways, yeah i think they are a slightly expensive option, but we wont know until some one does a feasibility study.

    Maho Train – there’s an idea! but how to enforce? btw love the maho train project, have you thought of publishing findings etc?

    N – i would love to get my hands on some of that research, thanks. i should ask around.

    Chavie – yeah why’d they do that? tram cars also look retro hip.

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