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When a Diplomat and 'once a Diplomat' cycle to nowhere

The Dutch are obsessed with cycles. The Ambassadress for Netherlands in Sri Lanka, Her Excellency Ms. Joanne Doornewaard, no doubt is too. She therefore proposed “cycling around” instead of “driving around”. Ms. Doornewaard with the Colombo Municipal Council Mayoress, launched the first ever project they called “CarFreeCMB”, for six hours in Colombo city on anything that is not motorised. “Car free Colombo” was Sunday 14 July, when Ambassadress Doornewaard and Mayoress of Colombo city, onetime diplomat Rosy Senanayake got on cycles and were given publicity in mainstream and social media.

What were they out to achieve? From what they told media, they intend reducing public dependency on motor vehicles and promote a healthier and more sustainable urban lifestyle. They called people to come play on the streets, roller skate, walk and do anything other than run on vehicles. This was announced as a “pilot effort” initially tried out once every month. The launch was not about reducing use of motor vehicles at least during the 06 hours announced. Vehicles were re-routed instead, by closing a few kilometres of city roads. Also, except for a media briefing, there was no campaign in creating awareness on why motor vehicle use should be substituted by cycle use. Most importantly, there was no stress and importance given to city air pollution and major traffic issues that has other reasons, why increasing numbers of private vehicles are on the streets.

Netherlands had a tradition of using cycles pre WW II. They gave up on that after WW II. Present Netherlands became a “cycling nation” once again through sheer public agitations in the 70’s. In the 50s and in the 60s with a steep rise in private vehicle use, Netherlands experienced an increasing number of road deaths that shook them as a society. In 1971, Netherlands experienced over 3,000 road deaths that included 450 children. In response, the “Stop de Kindermoord” (Stop Child Murder) public campaign that emerged, grew into a strong civil movement demanding safer cycling paths for children that changed the entire landscape of public commuting. The 1973 petroleum crisis also played a motivator and helped the shift to cycle use.

We have far more serious crises at hand, but don’t have such social outcry. The CEA official website says, “Annual averages of ambient PM10 level in Colombo over the years have remained relatively within the 60 to 82 µg/m3 range with a slight decreasing trend from 1998 to 2011.. ……These values, however, consistently exceeded WHO latest guideline value of 50 µg/m3 for PM-10. Thus Colombo city is very unhealthy in terms of its particulate pollution.” The same source says, “Regulations for vehicle horn noise control was gazetted (no details though) and vehicle horn noise testing program was implemented to aware and control noise pollution caused by vehicles.” (accessed on 17 July 2019). On police records, last year alone, 3,164 deaths had occurred on Sri Lankan roads.

The “car free Colombo” campaign, did not bring any of those major issues into focus. This “cycle campaign” therefore was seen as and is, an urban middleclass “health exercise” and nothing more. As Mayoress of Colombo, if Rosie Senanayake is serious about reducing vehicular volume on its roads, “CarFreeCMB” is not the campaign slogan to use. Nor is closing roads once a month for cycling going to be anything serious. A more practical theme would be “CycleToSchool”. All government schools from 1962 admit children to “Year One” on the distance to school from “home” that initially was a maximum of 02 miles. For all popular and leading schools in Colombo, that distance came to be reduced over the decades due to the crazy scramble for admission. Distance to them now is less than 01 km. One km is a distance all children can even walk to school and back. With over 55,000 students in the 10 leading public schools alone within Colombo city, campaigning for “CycleToSchool”, should technically stop school vans and buses and even cars that transport children to school.

Yet in Colombo, that would be one of the hardest tasks ever to achieve. It has other dynamics at play. Nevertheless, the campaign “CycleToSchool” if launched, would expose one of the biggest scams in this country, Rosie Senanayake could take pride in exposing as the City Mayoress. Almost 90 percent of the “Year One” admissions are on “false documents” obtained through official channels to prove “false residency” as permanent. That remains the reason for school vans, school buses and cars to operate from as far as Aluthgama, Eheliyagoda, Gampaha and Negambo. A phased out “CycleToSchool” campaign to remove long distance school transport stand valid in answering the major traffic issue in Colombo and air and noise pollution as well.


Cycling as a mode of transport can only be introduced as part of a “public commuting” programme in the City. As Mayoress responsible for convenient commuting in her city, she has every right to take over “city commuting” under the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). She could revive the “Tram car” or the “Trolley bus” service the CMC owned from 1944 and ran till M.H. Mohamed as UNP Mayor scrapped the service in 1965 instead of settling the Trolley bus workers’ strike. Bonus in having a fast moving, Tram car or Trolley bus service in the city is, they are “Carbon free”, running on electricity and is “green commuting”.

Sri Lanka’s eternal city traffic jams and increasing hazardous air and noise pollution has many vested interests and many unnecessary factors accommodated. There is no stopping people buying their own 02 wheel or 04 wheel private vehicle, in a society the governments ignore the responsibility of establishing an efficient, comfortable and an affordable public transport system. In that context vehicle buying is very much accelerated in a free market economy which promotes selling of any commodity with leasing and part payments; everything from a mobile phone to a high-powered super luxury four-wheeler. For governments in search of revenue, allowing unrestricted import of vehicles provide a source of steady revenue that in 2017 had been Rs.230,000 million (IRD Performance Report 2017) plus around Rs. 290 million from licenses issued by the Import and Export Control Department, for import of vehicles. There is more revenue at the RMV Department as well as with the “Carbon” tax added to the previous “emission tax”. The simple logic is, more vehicles on roads, more revenue for poverty struck governments. For politicians in power, adjustments to taxes and duties levied, often provide many untold and unspoken of privileges and profits.

Numbers say it all. In 2017 from new registration of 451,653 vehicles, around 50 percent were motor bicycles, around 15,000 were 3Ws, while the rest were all 04 wheelers. That works out to about 208,000 4W vehicles imported in 2017. Leaving a margin of about 10 percent for public and agricultural purposes, new private vehicles registered in 2017 total to about 190,000 vehicles. (calculated from RMV data)

It is a vicious cycle. More vehicles on roads for government revenue in turn increase import of fuel. That adds to city pollution as return. Once again, in a free market economy dominated by the “filthy rich”, fuel import is an extremely profitable business for middlemen. In 2014 Sri Lanka imported 36,480 crude oil barrels per day and was the 58 largest crude oil importer in the world, that year. The cost was 2.1 million US dollars per day (The World Factbook). Despite fluctuation of prices in the global oil market, the total burden on the national economy would not have had any worthwhile difference, in reducing the burden.

In terms of the burden People have to bear, in 2017, total revenue from “exports” was 17 billion US dollars (SLCB). That reads as 46.6 million US dollars a day. On a very conservative calculation, if the c.i.f value of importing a vehicle is left at 18,000 US dollars at an average, the total cost on private vehicle imports in 2017 would have been around 9.6 million US dollars a day. This proves, out of 46.6 million US dollar income per day, we are spending 11.7 US dollars a day for import of vehicles and fuel only. This chaos is in the increase. Currently Sri Lanka has a total of 6.6 million vehicles including 3.5 million motor bikes on the roads. Obviously, it is waste of fuel and productive time of People in disgusting traffic jams, morning and evening.

Yet Sri Lanka is one among the “eternally developing” countries that pays no attention to efficient, comfortable and affordable public transport as a profitable way out of this nightmare on city roads. The whole focus is on widening roads, construction of overhead bridges and adding “highways” with speed limits. Lately with the Megapolis urban transport project, the “light rails” are also on board at an unbelievably high cost. Within this awfully filthy, free market economy, every heavy construction related project with mega budgets are loaded as solutions to problems. That’s where the money is for everyone involved in numerous ways.

To get out of this dirty mess, Colombo “ratepayers” should demand for a “Carbon free” city with an efficient, comfortable and an affordable inter city public commuting service. Before cycles are brought in, Sri Lanka should replicate the Dutch slogan “Stop de Kindermoord” (Stop Child Murder) with our own “Stop killing our time” slogan. Demand for a decent public commuting service the CMC and the government are both responsible for.

Kusal Perera

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