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Moving Asian cities to public transport crucial, difficult - experts

by Amantha Perera | @AmanthaP | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 3 May 2013 12:00 GMT

Traffic - a worsening problem in fast-growing Asian cities - jams the streets of Bangkok. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Amantha Perera

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But drivers won’t leave their cars for transport that is “not on time, noisy, unclean, unsafe and sometimes like traveling on a mobile public restroom”

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – It is a mere distance of 10 km, but every day Kareema Silva keeps aside three long hours for the commute to work and back.

The executive, who lives in the suburb of Wattala, just outside the capital Colombo, spends most of that time idling in traffic or driving in the lowest gear. “There is always traffic on the road. Even at 10 at night, there is traffic,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Alternative routes into the city offer little relief. “After a couple of weeks, they are no longer alternate. They are as clogged as, if not more than, the main roads,” she said. And she loathes public transport, even in emergencies, she said, as it is slow, “not on time, noisy, unclean, unsafe and sometimes like traveling in a mobile public restroom.”

Silva’s problem is a common one in many Asian cities, where too many cars crowd limited roadways, and inefficient, limited or just unpleasant public transport systems offer little help.

A recent World Bank publication on city planning notes that traffic congestion is a worsening problem in many fast-growing Asian cities, and that easing it will require finding public transportation solutions that work well enough to lure drivers out of their cars.

For a small city -  around 40 sq km (15 square miles) in extent -  Colombo attracts a lot of traffic on work days. Over 250,000 vehicles enter and leave the city daily, according to Amal. Kumarage, a professor at the Department of Transport and Logistics at the University of Moratuwa, just outside the capital.

Of the daily influx of a quarter million vehicles, the vast majority - over 220,000 - are private vehicles.


Even though private vehicles take up 85 percent of the road space, they only carry 45 percent of the people. This is the biggest issue,” Kumarage told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Kumarage said that while traffic into the city has shown an average increase of around 5 percent annually, road capacity has not increased proportionately. Within the city and its suburbs, the average speed on a workday is around 21 km (13 miles) per hour. It reduces to around 15 km (9 miles) per hour when traffic reaches its daily peaks in the mornings and evenings, Kumarage’s research found.

The academic said that the number of people entering the city has not shown major increases, but it seems that more and more are opting to travel in private vehicles, if incomes allow it.

The number of people arriving in Colombo each day by public transport has dwindled from 60 percent in 1995 to 42 percent in 2012, he said.

Tens of thousands of slow-moving vehicles on city roads on a daily basis is a classic formula for high urban pollution – and climate-changing emissions, according to O.P. Agrawal, an urban transport specialist at  the World Bank in Washington DC.

“Traffic is a high consumer of energy and a big contributor to emissions,” he said.

Agrawal who co-authored the recent World Bank report, said that worsening congestion was mainly a result of decades of cities expanding outward with limited urban planning. Cities in Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Nepal were creating constantly widening urban sprawl with increasing pressure on limited resources, he said.

The World Bank report noted that a third of new Indian towns were born within a 50 km (31 mile) radius of existing cities of over one million. Population density within the 50 km radius of large Indian cities was recorded at 2,450 persons per square kilometer.


What is the answer to dealing with the worsening problems? “The key is to get people out of private commutes and into public transport,” Agrawal said.

That remains a challenge in places like Colombo, however.

Kumarage said that metropolitan rail transportation has attracted as many as 30 percent of urban commuters in some cities, such as Bangkok, but remains a costly choice in relatively poorer and less dense countries like Sri Lanka. He said that an urban metro system was likely to cost between $30 million and $100 million per kilometer to build.

The transport expert said the best solution for cities like Colombo is “bus rapid transport” – essentially a system of high quality buses that operate like trains. Such systems “combine quality and affordability,” he said.

Similar systems are being operated efficiently in many South American cities such as Bogota, Colombia; Curitiba, Brazil; and Santiago, Chile.  

Kumarage, however, warned that the key to making such a system work would be to find ways to attract commuters like Silva out of their cars and into buses.

Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka. 

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