Commuting uncalled for | Daily News

Commuting uncalled for

The failure of successive governments over the last several decades to develop and modernize the railway in this country has been a major factor contributing to the rapid expansion of private modes of transport. Today, traffic congestion in urban areas has reached a critical point where people of all walks of life are engaged in a massive struggle to move around for diverse purposes. Poor public transport services have encouraged people to use private transport, making the above situation worse by the day.

Recently, I went to a railway station near Kandy to book a seat on a Colombo bound train. On that day, all the seats were sold out so I booked a seat on the same train for the following day. I was given a print out of my ticket and I could not read it because computer typing on the standard form was scattered all over the place. In other words, while a computerized system has been introduced, it does not seem to function properly, either because the system is faulty or the people working behind the counter are not well trained to do it.

The distance from Kandy to Colombo is less than 120 km but the time taken to reach Colombo is over 3 and a half hours. So, the average speed is just over 30 km an hour. If there are delays due to various circumstances, the journey can take much longer. But the time taken can be reduced substantially if the service is improved with greater investment in infrastructure and rolling stock.

The purpose of this article is to highlight a larger issue, namely, the gross neglect of public transport over the last four decades in spite of its enormous potential not only to meet the growing need for goods and passenger transport but also to protect the environment, reduce public health hazards and save much needed foreign exchange. The problem became chronic over the last decade when the obvious government policy has been to encourage private transport, either by design or by default.

Increasing vehicular traffic

The distribution of generous government vehicle permits among senior public servants, politicians at all levels, and even leading Buddhist monks, sent a clear message to the middle class and even to lower middle class to shun public transport altogether. It also promoted corruption across the social spectrum, not just by allowing permit holders to sell their permits to the highest bidder but also by encouraging public servants to engage in rent seeking activities to earn additional income. When you look at the income distribution in the country, the vast majority of the people including public servants cannot afford imported motor cars. It forces people to live beyond their means and encourages people in authority to abuse their power. It is common knowledge that many permit holders sell their permits to businessmen and others who in turn use these permits to import fuel guzzling luxury vehicles.

Southern Expressway was built with borrowed money because the Galle road which was then mostly a two lane road from Colombo to Matara was too narrow to accommodate increasing vehicular traffic.

The best option at the time was to modernize the railway line from Colombo to Matara to increase capacity and speed, combined with a widened Galle road to accommodate more vehicles and facilitate efficient flow of traffic. But, the government decided on the Southern Expressway which not only absorbed a colossal amount of borrowed funds but also led to loss of valuable land and habitats for local communities.

Funds devoted to build the expressway most probably would have been adequate to modernize the railway and improve the Galle road. If a good train service attracted most of the passengers travelling between Colombo and southern cities and an improved Galle road accommodated increasing vehicular traffic, much of the direct and indirect costs of the expressway would have been saved. But the political and business elites who now have high speed luxury cars at their disposal naturally enjoy their journeys on an expressway!

When public transport services are not satisfactory, it is natural for people to find other ways. Increasing motor bikes, three wheelers, cars and vans have filled the void. The result is increasing congestion on our roads, particularly in urban areas. The adverse consequences of this development is obvious today. Over three thousand people die on our roads annually, with many times more injuries.

Vested interests on policymakers

Increasing air pollution due to emissions from all kinds of vehicles is a grave threat to public health. The cost of fuel imported to the country accounts for over 50 percent of our export earnings. The foreign debts incurred by the government to meet the cost of road development projects account for a large part of the overall debt burden of the country. The development of an integrated and efficient network of public transport covering the whole country including the hinterland would have not only spared the country and the people from the above troubles but also improved the quality of life of the masses, reducing not only the gap between the rich and the poor but also the disparities between rural and urban areas. The other benefits of such a system, both economically and socially would have been substantial as well.

As is well known, the country is heavily indebted today and can hardly afford large public investments in a single sector like transport. In spite of the experiences outlined above, leaders talk about building more roads with more borrowed money, not integrated public transport systems. While more road development projects would encourage more private transport, the chances of improving public transport will be slim. In other words, not only that the present situation will persist in the years to come but can even get much worse. So, we will have to brace for more congestion on our roads, more deaths and injuries from traffic accidents, more air pollution leading to all kinds of ailments, great burden on people on account of increasing transport costs, increasing cost of fuel and vehicle imports, etc. All this is due to the persisting influence of vested interests on policymakers and the inability of the democratic system of government in the country to formulate and implement people and environmental friendly public policies.

What is noteworthy is that the ill effects of increasing private transport at the expense of public transport are spilling over from our highways into residential neighbourhoods, adversely affecting the health and safety of residents living in many parts of the country. In many areas, it is not possible for pedestrians to cross the streets running through densely populated areas without risking their lives, not to mention the continuous exposure of people to toxic fumes and inability of vulnerable groups to move around in their neighbourhoods with a sense of safety and security.

No doubt, in some distant future, when we have suffered enough and realize that what we have done over the years has been wrong, we are likely to look for alternatives. But, if our leaders can liberate ourselves today from their ignorance and the influence of vested interests that guide their decision making, we would not have to sacrifice so much before the country adopts an environmentally sound and people friendly transport policy. But, given the fact that, unlike their predecessors several decades back, our political leaders have shunned public transport completely, they are unlikely to give high priority to public transport anytime soon. 



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