Colombo is always stuck in traffic

By Dimithri Wijesinghe

If you live in the city of Colombo, you are sure to have at some point in your daily commute experienced the infamous traffic jams that plague the city during certain hours of the morning and afternoon.

This consistent state of traffic congestion causes city dwellers or those who come into the city to experience slower speeds, longer trip times, and increased vehicular queuing; this unfortunate characteristic has become increasingly problematic in urban road networks, not only in Sri Lanka, but around the world.

Colombo city has exceedingly worrying levels of traffic congestion and thereby a considerable loss of man hours, and in response to better managing the situation recently, under the direction of the President and on the instructions of Army Commander Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva in collaboration with the Colombo City Traffic Police Division, the Military Police have been deployed to “assist” the Traffic Police.

This new step has brought on an onslaught of various other concerns such as: Does the Military Police truly belong in this scenario? And what sort of jurisdiction do they really have to carry out such an activity?

In response to these questions, Police Media Spokesperson SSP Jaliya Seneratne said: “What I can confirm is that when the Police is enforcing the law, they are within their purview to seek assistance in order to effectively carry out the task, even from civilians,” adding that “as per the (Motor) Traffic Act, Military Police does not have jurisdiction, but what they are doing is supporting us”.

We spoke to some members of the public about their concerns or experiences with regards to the new initiative and many expressed their confusion with regards to what the Military Police actually does. In answer to this, Military Media

Spokesperson Brigadier Chandana Wickramasinghe shared: “The Military Police are those who maintain discipline within the ranks inside the camp and they are specifically trained to handle issues like this. They would direct vehicular traffic within the camps and such as well, and maintain order,” he said adding also that “the situation here is that the Military Police is only coming in to assist the Traffic Police; the police are fully empowered and as a reason of national interest, they have are being deployed to provide necessary assistance.”

What do the public think?

In addition to their general confusion about the involvement of the military, people also had much to say about the actual effectiveness of the initiative.

Malindu Karunarathna said: “Every morning I travel from Pepiliyana to Hulftsdorp, Colombo. This commute usually takes between one to one-and-a-half hours. The Sri Lanka Traffic Police were conducting and clearing traffic for the past few months and I personally thought they did a good job. They had turned off all the pedestrian traffic lights down Galle Road in the morning to avoid ripple effects in the traffic that would contribute to more congestion, and many policemen were overlooking all the junctions and byroads that we’d have to go through to get to our destination.

“Since the Military Police took charge, I haven’t felt any difference in the traffic situation nor have I got to my destination any earlier. In fact, we got a little late today. I fail to see the reason why it is necessary for the Military Police to handle a situation that the Sri Lanka Traffic Police were already handling to their best efforts.”

Chamath Alwis, a resident of Colombo who commutes within the city for work, shared: “The traffic situation is Colombo is infuriating, unless you live and work in the heart of the city. One of the biggest problems there is the lack of discipline of the drivers. Traffic works well if everyone falls in line. The moment a person decides to break the rules, the entire thing goes haywire. As for the involvement of the Military Police, there is no significant improvement as of yet. There is no marked reduction in traffic blocks. Having agents of law and mechanisms do not help if they are not enforced.”

Danajaya Perera, who makes his daily commute to the Attorney General’s Department situated in Colombo 12, shared: “The fact of the matter is that wherever there is Military Police there is Police as well, so I don’t see a point to that. It’s like when a father tells his child, ‘okay, you get to do this task alone’, and then that father is there doing that task for that child. I just see no point. It’s just another person standing in the middle of the road taking up the space where another car could have been.”

Focused areas

Brigadier Wickramasinghe shared that the Military Police will primarily focus on the areas surrounding the military headquarters and as the tri-forces have been called in, the areas in and around the Navy, Air Force, and Army headquarters will be manned by military personnel.

He also shared that they have identified the most congested points across the city limits and are providing assistance in such areas during the peak hours between 6-10 a.m. and 4-7 p.m. on all seven days of the week.

Temporary solution?

City Traffic Director Kamal Pushpakumara also shared that while this collaboration between the authorities have reaped good results and the Military Police deployed for traffic have been training with Traffic Police, they will be a good addition moving in to the future, and he said that this is a temporary solution.

He said: “Some junctions need about five to six police officers and we simply don’t have that kind of strength right now and the Military Police has alleviated this stress on our forces and in addition to being more manpower, the Military Police has specific training that is helpful.”

He also added: “In the meantime, experts are planning to implement more permanent strategies, looking in to bottleneck roads and narrow roads that are causing most of the issues, synchronising the traffic lights in the city, etc.”

W.J. Weerawardana, in his study “Estimation of demand for bus rapid transit: Case study for Galle Road from Moratuwa to Pettah”, stated that 65% of the road space is used by 38% of the passengers, and according to statistics, the total vehicle population has increased from 3.39 million in 2008 to 6.33 million in 2015. He concluded that the increase in the use of private vehicles is a major cause of traffic congestion.


Learnings from abroad

We don’t really need stats to tell us that there are way too many private vehicles on the road, but the solution for it is less obvious. However, there are international examples where cities have made attempts at dealing with the problem.

Copenhagen, a city that has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050, currently has one of the lowest traffic congestion rates in Scandinavia due to a number of initiatives they implemented a decade ago. The city’s transport strategy includes creating corridors for designated types of mobility such as cyclists, buses, and cars, which are linked to specific goals pertaining to reduction of travel times. Due to these designated pockets of transport and improved infrastructure for public transport, the city has seen a high percentage of trips made via walking, cycling, or public transport.

There also are other cities that have employed various methods to deal with the traffic problem.

Stockholm’s electronic road pricing scheme charges motorists for entering the central city on weekdays with exemptions to public transport users and they’ve seen peak-period traffic volumes drop by 25%, and the revenues from congestion tolls have been used to improve other transport and transit services.

Hong Kong has employed public light buses (PLBs), known as mini-buses, to complement their public bus system to serve areas that are hard to reach by the public transport system.

A long-term solution for traffic congestion is improving road capacity, however most roads in the city are at their maximum limit. As such, a more feasible solution would be to improve our public transport. As people shift towards private transport from public transport, there is an increase of private vehicles on the road; the shift may be for convenience, comfort, the level of service provided in public transport and in Sri Lanka especially, the preconceived notions or attitudes of people towards using public transport – all this unfortunately contributes to the lack of road space. Therefore, it is imperative that policymakers make it so that improving public transport is higher on their list of priorities.