Traffic congestion: On the road to Seoul or London?

May 22, 2006 (LBO) – Most people trying to move across the city of Colombo in recent days have experienced increased difficulties. A trip that used to take 20 minutes now takes double that time or more, especially around the recently closed upper section of Bauddhaloka Mawatha and the Sri Uttarananda Mawatha.

One may ask why this is. After all, the former road was closed for years and opened to traffic only in 2002.
The answer is provided in the chart below: the 250,000+ new vehicles registered in the country after 2001.

Even if we assume that a number equal to all the registrations in 2005 and 2006 has been taken out of service and half of the vehicles registered in 2002-04 operate outside the Colombo city, we still have an increase of over 100,000 in the vehicle population in the city.

Source:  Jayasinghe, JAKS (2005), MBA thesis, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Moratuwa (based on Central Bank Reports)

Source: Jayasinghe, JAKS (2005), MBA thesis, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Moratuwa (based on Central Bank Reports)

The city was already clogged with these vehicles.

As soon as Bauddhaloka Mawatha was closed, the traffic was displaced to other routes choking them to the point of immobility.

It is true that the city creaked along with closed roads prior to 2002 (Bauddhaloka Mawatha all the time, Galle Road from Kollupitiya after 6 PM, New Kelani Bridge after 6 PM, etc., etc.).

But it is only the naïve (or the non-naïve who take the public to be stupid) who will claim that the traffic patterns will return to normal after drivers “get used to the closures.”

The qualitatively higher number of new vehicles added since 2002 will not allow a return to the traffic volumes of 2000 or 2001.

Knee-jerk road closures are accelerating our descent to Seoul-like congestion levels, without Seoul’s efficient underground public transportation system.

Quick fix

Security and the economy are complementary.

Without security, the economy will falter.

If the economy is harmed, security cannot be sustained.

This was the single biggest lesson of the disastrous failure to defend the international airport in 2001.

The ease with which the LTTE penetrated the international airport demonstrated to the world our inability to provide security.

Risk premia were slapped on; tourist arrival declined; projects got cancelled.

With the economy in tatters, what war effort there was also faltered.

There is no debate about the need to safeguard strategic locations and symbolically important persons from terrorist attack.

But the safeguarding must be done in a way that does not causes more costs than benefits.

The attack on the Army Commander inside Army Headquarters was terrible.

In most countries, this would lead to courts martial and resignations, if not dismissals.

Because this is Sri Lanka, we can only hope.

In addition, steps would be taken to increase security at the Army Headquarters (where the public road, Baladaksha Mawatha, has been closed for security reasons for many years).

One hopes this has already been done.

But why is Bauddhaloka Mawatha, far from the scene of the attack, closed?

Because some top brass live there, we are told.

Let’s assume three or four official residences along this main thoroughfare.

Why not relocate these persons to the palatial government residences in the security enclave off Bauddhaloka Mawatha, which has controlled access in any case?

If that is inadequate, why not move these persons into the Army Headquarters (or the equivalent locations in the other forces) itself?

There used to be officers’ quarters in there.

The failure of the Army to protect its commander despite the closure of a public road should cause pause to the authorities when they are petitioned for more and more road closures.

It should cause them to rethink the already ordered closures.

Permanent patch
As stated in a previous column (http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/congestion-becomes-a-hot-topic-as-sri-lankas-telecom-sector-goes-through-another-growth-spurt/), congestion is a feature of network industries, an outcome of the need to balance capacity and costs. It can managed, but not necessarily eliminated, especially in high-growth settings.

In the case of urban traffic congestion, the constraint is not simply cost; the city cannot be destroyed to make way for the roads needed to serve it.

There is a limit to the road building and widening that can be done.

This leads many transportation experts to bemoan the proliferation of private transport and to extol the virtues of public transport.

But these prescriptions rely too much on the tried and failed reliance on “government funding.” The government is too busy feeding at the trough to fund anything of value, like public transport that actually works.

There is no doubt Colombo needs better public transport.

The question of how to build effective public transport organizations that will not sink into the morass of inefficiency and corruption that the country’s state-owned public transportation entities are currently mired in is a topic for separate discussion.

Assuming the organizational problem is solved, there is the question of money.

How are these high-capital-cost projects to be paid for?

As most Asian countries that have embarked on these projects recently have found, it is not easy to recover the capital and operational costs from passenger fees only.

Subsidies are necessary.

Where will the money come from?

Congestion charging:

A simple economic tool that will both help control congestion on a continuing basis and will also provide a regular, dedicated source of funds for public transportation subsidies.

Is this another “right-wing” conspiracy to charge for the inalienable right to be stalled in traffic?

Not really.

It’s greatest proponent is “Red” Ken Livingstone, the current Labour Party Mayor of London and a man who once caused Maggie Thatcher to eliminate a whole level of government just to get rid of him.

The congestion charging system that he put in place in 2003, amidst opposition, (http://www.citymayors.com/report/congestion_charge.html) has already reduced traffic by 20 percent. London no longer appears in the most congested lists.

What is congestion pricing?

Those who use roads at peak times have to pay for the privilege.

The purpose of congestion pricing is to use price to control congestion.

To use Galle Road from Ratmalana to the Fort between 7 AM and 9 AM will cost, say, 50 rupees; between 9 AM and 12 noon, say, 20 rupees; between 9 PM and 6 AM, nothing.

There will be charging bands, like in telecom.

The money goes into a fund for road improvement and subsidies for public transport; but its primary purpose is to make people take public transport or share vehicles and leave their cars at home, unless essential.

Essential means the driver is willing to pay for the use of the road.

Public transport can be exempted.

Congestion pricing works best when a city has good, but underused, public transport. Colombo does not.

But that does not mean that congestion pricing cannot be used in Colombo.

Congestion pricing will be unpopular at first.

But Red Ken did it and got re-elected.

The key to its success in Sri Lanka is that money that is raised is not wasted (i.e., does not go into the Consolidated Fund) and that it is used to create immediately visible improvements in public transport.

This cannot be implemented in a matter of months.

The organizational problem of using the subsidy efficiently has to be solved.

The mechanism for charging the congestion price in a way that does not cause additional congestion has to be implemented.

This requires the use of information and communication technologies.

More than anything, this new policy instrument and its benefits have to be explained over and over again to the people.

For that, we need a Red Ken. Perhaps we have one in the new Mayor, if he is actually allowed to take office and run the city.