Cars or buses? Sri Lanka’s supreme attempt to curb pollution in a transport hub

Oct 29, 2007 (LBO) – The Supreme Court is going to do to traffic in Colombo what it did to Year One admissions to popular schools.   It has ordered the submission of an action plan to reduce air pollution caused by vehicles in Colombo city by mid November 2007.

Presumably, it will then hand down fine-grained guidelines for the control of vehicular traffic in the city, as it did regarding school admission.  We can then expect speeches in Parliament, hand wringing about who is actually running the country, and even more difficulty in getting from point to point in the city.

Some clues have already been given about the guidelines that will emanate from the highest court.   According to the Daily Mirror of 15 October 2007:  “The Chief Justice said that vehicles get congested in Pettah and a new traffic system should be introduced to stop all vehicles coming into Colombo city.”

“He suggested that vehicles should be stopped at the entrance to the city and a system should be introduced to shift the passengers into the city. The bench also suggested a system of converting vehicles in to gas to reduce air pollution.  The Chief Justice said the government was losing Rs. 50 million every year due to the waste of fuel in CTB buses.”

Managing traffic congestion and the accompanying pollution is a perennial problem that bedevils all major cities in the world.   They spend vast amounts on studies to come up with solutions, but we in Sri Lanka can avoid all that trouble and expense: we have obiter dicta from the Supreme Court.


It appears that the Guidelines will come down hard on buses.   “Everyone” knows that the vehicles that congest Pettah are buses.   If they don’t come to Pettah, there will be less congestion and, therefore, less pollution, the reasoning goes.

In addition, the Chief Justice states that government-owned buses (only 44 per cent of the bus fleet) are polluting more because they do not switch off their engines.

Why don’t CTB buses switch off their engines, while private buses do?   Possibly, because no one cares about costs at the CTB.   They always run at a loss because the government covers their losses.

According to the Central Bank, “Despite recent increases in bus fares, the SLTB continued to operate at losses.  In keeping with the increase in bus fares and the adding of new buses to the fleet, the total revenue of the SLTB increased by 20 per cent to Rs.12,424 million in 2006. However, with expenditure rising due to increases in fuel prices and wage bills, the operating losses increased marginally to Rs 2,457 million in 2006.”

That is, 6.73 million Rupees a day in 2006.   If they had listened to the Chief Justice, the losses would have been Rs 6.59 million each day (Rs 2,407 million a year).

Anyway, why would they start shutting of their engines now when they did not all these years?   The solution is to create incentives for reducing costs and increasing revenues.

There is no need to invent such a system: it’s called capitalism.  How you create those incentives is called privatization.

But let us get to the main issue: the insistence on bringing buses to Pettah.   According to the Guidelines likely to come down from Hulftsdorp, buses will be prohibited from coming to Pettah from any direction.

So a person wishing to go to Minuwangoda from Kalutara will have to come to, say, Katubedda or a point outside Colombo, then “be shifted” into the city on something other than a bus (say an electric-powered golf cart that does not exude polluting emissions).

By some means other than a bus (a non-bus in short), such person will make her way to, say, Jaela, outside the city.   Then she will get into the Minuwangoda bus and reach her destination.

Contrast this with the method used today:   Kalutara to Pettah by bus; get off the bus and find the Minuwangoda bus; get in that bus; get off at the destination.

So it seems that there is a reason why buses congregate in Pettah.  It is a transportation hub, an interchange.   It makes sense; it saves money and time.

Even if there is a viable non-bus method of moving large numbers of people within the city of Colombo, it still would be more convenient to have a hub somewhere in the city, where all the non-buses congregate, allowing the passengers to transfer easily.

Cities grow around transportation hubs.   It is nonsensical to propose moving transportation hubs out of cities.  To do so would be to gut the existing cities.

Of course, new cities will emerge around the new transportation hubs.   And will prosper, until someone stomps them out in the name of pollution or something else.


There is no mention of cars, three wheelers and motor cycles in the obiter dictum.   The Court’s focus on buses is surprising because they constitute only one per cent of new vehicle registrations.   Over 50 per cent of new registrations are of motor cycles, followed by three wheelers (over 20 per cent) and private cars (over eight per cent).

The Central Bank does not give cumulative figures.   The National Transport Commission has just established a data and statistics unit and “is in the process of establishing a comprehensive database.”  So we have to work with assumptions.

Table 1:  New registrations by vehicle type, 2004-06

2004 2005 2006
Buses 2,167 2,069 3,346
Private cars 19,116 17,283 27,578
Three wheelers 43,789 41,085 64,466
Dual purpose vehicles 10,736 6,851 7,245
Motor cycles 124,474 130,696 156,625
Goods transport vehicles 10,703 14,262 20,436
Land vehicles 12,857 17,423 20,825
Total 223,842 229,669 300,521

Source:   Central Bank, Annual Reports

Table 2:  New registrations by vehicle type (percentages), 2004-06

2004 2005 2006
Buses 1 1 1
Private cars 9 8 9
Three wheelers 20 18 21
Dual purpose vehicles 5 3 2
Motor cycles 56 57 52
Goods transport vehicles 5 6 7
Land vehicles 6 8 7
Total 100 100 100

Source:  Derived from Table 1

Assuming that all vehicle types go to the scrap heap after more or less the same time in service, we can conclude that the distribution of vehicle types in the overall stock mirrors that among new registrations.   This indicates that over half the vehicles on the road are motor cycles and that close to 30 per cent are cars and three wheelers.   Buses constitute only one per cent.

Many motor cycles and most three wheelers use highly polluting two-stroke engines.  While they may consume less fuel (because most three-wheelers spend their time parked), they emit more pollutants per liter than cars.

Therefore, for purposes of calculation it may be reasonable to simply add them up.   This would suggest that cars, three-wheelers and motor cycles as a whole amount to around 80 per cent of the vehicle stock.

Even if a bus is five times more polluting than a car/three-wheeler/motor cycle, the overall contribution of buses to pollution has to be way below that of the cars/three-wheelers/motor cycles.

Therefore, it is surprising that attention is focused on buses which constitute only one per cent of the vehicle stock, while ignoring the 80 per cent.

The Chief Justice also mentions, obiter, gas conversion.   Obviously, he has heard of the famous decision of the Indian Supreme Court, in response to a similar PIL suit [Public Interest Litigation], ordering the conversion of all of Delhi’s buses to CNG.

The first thing to note is the acronym CNG.   Not very familiar, is it?

That is because Sri Lanka does not have CNG or Compressed Natural Gas like India and Bangladesh.   What we have is LPG or Liquefied Petroleum Gas, which is a by-product of manufacturing petrol from petroleum.

All the LPG in Sri Lanka is imported and is subject to fluctuations in the world market for crude oil.   Converting bus fleets to LPG in Sri Lanka may therefore not make as much sense as what was done in India where they are able to use domestically produced, low-cost and low-emission CNG.

None of the above

Pollution imposes costs on third parties.   Congestion does too.  A good way to get the polluters/congestion creators to pay for these costs is congestion pricing.   The new security gateways that are being built in places like Katubedda can easily be converted into electronic toll gates.

More on the mechanics of this at Choices: Penny 4 U 

Depending on the level of congestion in the city’s roadways, the congestion fee can fluctuate: high during rush hour and free during night time, for example.   This will create incentives for ride sharing and for the use of public transport instead of cars and three-wheelers (that is, if the sensible thing is done and public transport including buses are fully exempted from congestion pricing).

Congestion pricing is successfully used in Singapore and London to reduce congestion (and pollution) by moving people into public transport.   We do not have a good public transport system that people can move to, which causes a bit of a problem.

However, the solution is to take the revenues of congestion pricing and dedicate it to the building of an efficient modern public transport system.   It can also be used to retire old diesel-smoke-belching buses and replace them with new and less-polluting vehicles.  Let’s use that money to get two-stroke engines off the road, without confiscating the life savings of the three-wheeler owners.

Giving a general direction that congestion pricing should be introduced in order to create disincentives for the creation of congestion and pollution would be a good way for the Supreme Court to rule, instead of trying to micro-manage urban transport policy.

Please, no social experiments with transportation hubs.