Can We Build a World-Class City with Third-World Public Transport?

This article was compiled by Dr. Sanjaya de Silva, Associate Professor of Economics at Bard College. His research interests include development and economic history in South and Southeast Asia. 

Colombo is a city in a hurry. New hotels, shopping malls and highways are mushrooming everywhere, and the skyline keeps growing upwards, promising to take us to a world-class future. I went to Galle Face and Port City recently to soak in the Global City in progress. As I was admiring a brightly-lit skyscraper, I was jolted back to reality by a rickety old bus pulling up in front of it. Somehow, the blueprint to make Colombo world-class seems to have forgotten all about public transport. 

Buses and trains are by far the most affordable modes of transport in Colombo; a bus ride from Mount Lavinia to Pettah costs about Rs. 85, about 1/10th the price of a three-wheeler hire, and trains are almost as inexpensive. Yet, the public transport system is so uncomfortable, inconvenient, outdated, and even unsafe that it has lost almost everyone who could afford private transportation. The result is endless traffic jams, a glut of three-wheelers, smog-filled skies, and a car culture Sri Lanka can ill-afford. As experts have long known, wider roads lead to more traffic, not less congestion in the long-run – and one look at Parliament Road at rush hour when average speeds plummet to 8 km/h by some measures – is all it takes to understand this paradox. 

Cars, highways, and fuel also eat up a tremendous amount of foreign exchange, which, as the recent economic crisis reminded us, our economy with its limited export base cannot really afford. With a weak rupee, tax hikes, slashed fuel subsidies and import restrictions, a used car has become more expensive than a suburban house, and owning and operating a car is no longer a realistic possibility even for the middle class. Despite all the investments in highways, all but a handful of the urban elite now have no choice but to rely on a woefully inadequate bus and train system and expensive private alternatives like taxis and three-wheelers. As Gustavo Petro, the former Mayor of Bogotá, the Colombian capital, famously said, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” In Sri Lanka, the poor don’t have cars, and the rich don’t use public transport. 

The economic case for improving public transport is straightforward. It is one of those rare investments that can make the economy more efficient, equitable and sustainable. Yet, it seems like we are stuck in a vicious cycle, since the infrastructure is expensive and the government is too broke to make such ambitious investments. Is there a way out of this predicament? If there is one area that the government should seek the help of donors and foreign investors, this should be it. In fact, we already missed two opportunities: the Light-Rail Transit (LRT) project funded by a generous Japanese loan, and urban transport development assistance in the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant. There is an ADB-funded railway improvement project that is still alive. 

If the government is keen to avoid further debt traps like expensive highways, there are plenty of relatively low-cost, high-return options available. We can turn to the experience of other developing countries, and some of the most interesting examples come from Latin American cities that have pioneered innovative ways to make public transport work. In the 1970s, Curitiba, a city in southern Brazil similar in size to Colombo, built a simple Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system at a fraction of the cost of a more technologically sophisticated subway rail system. Since then, other cities have followed this path, the most famous example being the much-studied TransMilenio BRT system in Bogotá, which managed to lower air pollution by 40 percent and commuting times by 32 percent, within just five years of operation. Each BRT system is different, but among their essential features are energy-efficient buses, dedicated bus lanes with right-of-way, accessible bus stands, and streamlined ticketing systems. While none of these systems are perfect and some have struggled to live up to their early promise, they offer valuable lessons for us to think creatively about what works for our own city. In fact, Sri Lanka’s own Urban Transport Master Plan of 2014 already incorporated many of these ideas, including upgraded rail and BRT systems for three urban-suburban corridors. What Sri Lanka lacks is action, not plans.

We can start with incremental improvements to the existing bus system. The first step should be to gradually replace the 1970s vintage diesel monsters with comfortable, accessible and energy-efficient buses. The recent government proposal to introduce 200 air-conditioned, electric-powered buses to routes frequented by middle-class office workers is a good step in this direction, although it might make more sense to go with hybrid buses that do not require expensive charging infrastructure. The next step should be new regulations for private buses; for example, unsafe forms of competition can be reduced by auctioning off exclusive licenses for each bus route, where bus operators are paid for the distance they cover rather than the number of passengers they carry. At the same time, the busiest sections of the railway can be upgraded and electrified. In the longer term, a BRT, monorail, or LRT should be introduced, along main arteries such as Galle Road, High-Level Road and Parliament Road. 
Whatever the technology that is adopted should adhere to the following principles. Different modes of transport - trains, buses, bicycles, three-wheelers, walking paths, pedestrian plazas - should be integrated, so that they seamlessly feed into each other. Upgraded public transport networks should be paired with public housing, so that low-income households in the urban periphery, especially those who have been displaced by urban regeneration projects, can maintain access to livelihoods. The system does not need to be completely self-financing. In fact, there are compelling reasons to heavily subsidize the use of urban public transport, due to all the positive externalities it generates. Rather than relying on user fees, property taxes can be utilized to finance maintenance, essentially capturing a part of the increase in land value rents that results from infrastructure upgrades. We could also draw on taxes on automobiles, fuel and congestion, which would further incentivize commuters to give up cars for buses and trains.

Whenever we hear about the government’s latest plans to make Colombo a tourist hub, let’s ask ourselves the following question; if a city is not livable for its residents, can it really be world-class for tourists and investors? The cancelled LRT project would have reduced commuting time from Battaramulla to Fort by 30 minutes, saving the average commuter 20 hours of wasted time on the road each month. Reduced congestion would also help those who continue to drive, saving as many as 40 hours a month for someone commuting from 30km away, according to a study of a similar monorail project. Compare this to the tangible benefits from projects like the Lotus Tower. Due to misplaced priorities, Colombo now looks like a heart patient who has got carried away with cosmetic surgery. Let’s resolve to get our arteries unclogged, before we splurge on any more facelifts.

0 கருத்துக்கள்
கருத்தொன்றை பதியவும்