Colombo Urban Development

Colombo's traffic: can solving the problem of schools help?

Originally appeared on Echelon

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

Children hit the books; adults hit the brakes. Back to school for them, back to the gridlock for everyone.

Travelling in Colombo is now a test of patience, traffic having reached an impossible level.

For motorists, disorderly flows of vehicles, people and animals make the roads a nightmare to navigate. Toxic fumes poison pedestrians and residents alike, leaving an unsightly haze visible from the city’s high-rise buildings. Travel forums for tourists include discussions on ‘rush hour in Colombo’ and ‘the best time to miss traffic’.

Even if one gets through the traffic, parking is almost as big a hassle. School vans permanently occupy some streets, while rows of trishaws hog other parking spaces. Traffic congestion imposes a variety of costs, some obvious, some hidden, on businesses and individuals. At the most basic level, increasing congestion means longer travel times for passengers and higher operating costs for vehicle operators.

University of Moratuwa civil engineering and transport expert Professor Amal S. Kumarage estimates that Sri Lanka incurs an economic loss of around Rs. 40 billion annually due to road traffic congestion and air pollution.

Solving the larger traffic problem requires a proper public transport system, but one of the most peculiar aspects of Colombo’s problem is school traffic. The world over, school traffic creates some problems, but for policymakers elsewhere school-related traffic congestion is confined to the overcrowding and blocking of streets on or near school property. The problem with Colombo is that school traffic extends from one end of the city to the other. During peak school hours, some areas of the city are impassable. The reasons peculiar to Colombo include a clustering of popular schools in central Colombo and adjacent areas, growth in student numbers over the years, and an increasing tendency for students to commute daily from outside the city to schools within the city.

Growth in school rolls within the city has far outgrown the capacity it was designed for, and excessive centralisation of economic activity around the Western province in general and the city in particular, which draws in large numbers of commuters. In 2001, the floating population was estimated to be 400,000; today, it is thought to be 1.5 million.

Traffic congestion imposes a variety of costs, on businesses and individuals

A century ago, colonial rulers encountered a similar problem with congestion in the city. The Housing and Town Improvement Ordinance No. 19 of 1915 was introduced to check “the uncontrolled and irregular building spread” in the city. “These regulations attempted to control the size, orientation, spacing, height and spatial arrangement of buildings to permit sufficient direct sunlight to the buildings and maximise ventilation. The chief features of the bill were its preventive and remedial measures. These were four-fold:

  1. No building was to be erected unless roads existed to serve them.

  2. No building was to exceed in height the width of the street on which it was situated.

  3. Rooms were to be provided with sufficient space, ventilation and light.

  4. Open spaces were to be provided in the rear of the buildings as a common channel of ventilation behind continuous rows of houses.

Following this, the Geddes plan of 1921 set the boundaries of the city and designed it to make it “The Garden City of the East”. The tree-lined streets (Bauddhaloka Mawatha) and the grid system of roads in Cinnamon Gardens are legacies of that plan. The Abercrombie Plan of 1948 noted the high concentration of economic, trade and port-related activities in the city and emphasised the decentralisation of the city’s activities to the suburban areas of Ragama, Homagama and Ratmalana as satellite towns. The plan included a ring road to link these towns and the shifting of central administrative functions to Ratmalana. This plan was not implemented and neither was anything else. Despite subsequent plans in 1978, 1985 and later, nothing was enforced. The city grew organically, in an increasingly unruly manner that paid no heed to infrastructure, land or even safety constraints. The most recent spate of building apartment complexes and hotels threatens to overwhelm the water, sanitation and waste disposal infrastructure, what some now term a ‘cancerous’ development. Development, but of a malignant kind, that can eventually choke and poison the city.

Can schools be one place to start fixing things?

It is absurd that people should have to send their children halfway across the country to attend school. To the author’s knowledge, school vans routinely travel from as far as Embiliptiya and Hikkaduwa. This is a colossal waste of fuel and bad for children who are giving up family time or extracurricular activities in exchange for commute time. Parents are lured into these insane commutes by another insane system: the perception that job, marriage and all future prospects are tied to the school one attends, regardless of the actual quality of education. Previously, parents aspired to send children to central colleges within their district that provided excellent facilities, education and the opportunity to enter university.

One of the aims of expanding the system of central colleges in 1943 (when 11 were established) was to check the shift of the rural population to urban areas. The colleges, modelled after Royal College with properly equipped with science labs, libraries, playgrounds, etc, catered to students within a six-mile radius. The number was expanded to 23, and by 1944, there were a total of 54, on the basis of one per electorate.

The schools had good teachers and the principals were selected on merit (by the Public Service Commission), making them immune to political pressure and enabling them to discharge their duties without fear or favour.

“The selection of teaching and other staff was done according to a pre-designed specific cadre. The all-round educational needs of the children were reckoned as the all-important factor, and more than not, the principal was consulted in the matter of appointments. Sometimes he was invited to serve on the selection board. There was also the assumption that teachers selected to central colleges had to be necessarily proficient in some extracurricular activity and be willing to assist in the afternoons at no extra remuneration” – CTM Fernando

The purpose of the Grade 5 scholarship exam was not to send even more children to schools in Colombo, but to gain admission to the closest central college. In its heyday, the quality of the products of the central colleges was not questioned, and that “all central colleges without exception served the purpose for which they were established is borne out by the fact that a vast majority of our professionals and other governmental and non-governmental executives are the products of these central colleges” (Fernando).

The decline of colleges was due to short-sighted politics. People were clamouring for more central colleges and the MPs responded by simply renaming small schools as “central colleges,” lacking the facilities and teaching staff. The politicisation of teacher selection meant appointments of central college principals were taken over by the ministry. “This new breed of politically appointed principals were often accommodated to ‘look after the duties of the principal’, as they lacked the requisite qualification and the experience, not to mention personality, to be one. When some of them lacked any competence in English, it was argued that English was not needed in the “Swabhasha system”.

Their knowledge of education and educational administration was woefully pathetic; but none dared to comment” (Fernando).

The recent spate of building complexities can be termed a ‘cancerous’ development

Can this system be recreated? Central colleges lack ‘cachet’, so we can never return to that and, depending on the politicians who destroyed an existing system, to recreate one is far too optimistic; but could affordable private schools, teaching in English, restore the system of education in the provinces?

If the government has no money to spend building schools, the logical step would be to allow the popular Colombo schools to build branches outstation. Several smaller ‘international’ schools such as Lyceum already have branches outstation. Initial funding could come from investors, either local or foreign, but on the basis that fees would be charged, which is the case at international schools. That parents pay heavily in ‘donations’ to get into popular schools is well known. Paying for extra tuition is widespread. Add to this the cost of paying for long distance school transport. If the right model can be found, paying proper fees for a decent education, close to home, would be an attractive option for parents and ease some of the chronic congestion in the city.

The government would need to implement proper planning regulations to check the growth of schools in congested areas while encouraging them to set up in key locations elsewhere. Perhaps the buildings and facilities of the old central colleges could be upgraded and rebranded to attract students from the area. Instead of the proposed purchase of Mi17 helicopters (apparently for use in UN missions), the government should spend this money on school infrastructure. Volunteer teachers from overseas and teacher training programmes could help fill in the gaps for teaching staff.

These are only suggestions, but policymakers need to start thinking outside the box; even dusting off colonial era plans would be an improvement.

Assessing Colombo’s urban redevelopment projects

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

There has been some controversy about the urban redevelopment that took place at break-neck speed in Colombo under previous regime. Visitors and casual observers were struck by the changes to the city; Colombo was looking a lot cleaner and smarter.

The criticism has focused on the human aspects: the plight of evicted residents, the loss of a certain way of life or the change in the character of the city. Little attempt seems to have been made to assess the financial costs and benefits, chiefly because the full costs remain unknown.

The World Bank funded a part of the project and has borne the brunt of the criticism, but many of the projects were carried out independently by the UDA, the military and other state agencies.

The World Bank provided a loan of US$213m of which US$148m was allocated to finance flood and drainage management, US$ 51m for infrastructure rehabilitation (mainly streets and drainage) and US$10m for implementation support.

According to the project brief, the World Bank funding is in two components; the first addresses the problem of urban flooding, which regularly affects economic activities of Colombo. The second aims to support local authorities to rehabilitate and manage their drainage infrastructure and improve the systematic collection of solid waste. 

What the World Bank has been funding is basic infrastructure, something that was sorely lacking. Some observers have conflated this with the high profile redevelopments such as The Dutch Hospital, Colombo Racecourse, Floating Market, and Independence Arcade which seem to have been done independently by various state agencies. The confusion is understandable, given the lack of information.

The most controversial projects involving the rehousing of the urban poor seem to have been carried out mainly by state agencies, with the World Bank involvement being limited to one project at St Sebastian's Canal.

For a proper assessment citizens should know all the facts but the costs of the projects were deliberately shrouded in secrecy. In the interests of transparency the Government should collate and publish the total cost of the regeneration projects and the means by which they were financed. Since some of the projects are largely commercial in nature it is also necessary to know the income earned and the costs of operation.

Pending the availability of hard financial data, we can look at some of the broad philosophical arguments for urban regeneration.

There are many positive things that can come from urban renewal, depending on what drives the programme. The earliest projects were carried out in Victorian London to provide social housing to the poor, replacing the terrible slums that they lived in. A similar justification was used in the case of some of Colombo's new projects but one must note two critical points: the terrible conditions in London at the time, and the underlying purpose of the exercise : to improve the lives of the poor by providing cheap housing for the poor.

In Colombo the impetus seems to be more modern, one of stimulating economic growth through urban regeneration. This is something that has also worked (with varying degrees of success) in many different places but success is dependent on the right policy and governance framework.

If the economy booms, consistently over a few years people will have money to spend and there will be demand for land: for shops, for business premises, for entertainment.

When the demand materialises it makes sense to redevelop older or decaying parts of the city, to improve land usage or ease congestion. If the economy were booming then the Town and Urban Councils would be flush with cash (from trade based taxes) and there would be less need to borrow money to redevelop. It would also be possible to get the private sector involved in the redevelopment process, minimising the need for debt funding.

Urban regeneration needs to go hand in hand with the right policy and good governance because this is what ultimately drives growth. Ideally these should precede the regeneration effort and will help overall growth and the building of confidence. Getting this right policy costs little money but requires enlightened leadership. Once in place, growth will take place overall and attention may be turned towards the more neglected or decaying parts of the city.

Unfortunately what appears to have happened is debt funded beautification for which there is scant demand. According to news reports the floating market in Pettah is deserted. The Racecourse and Independence Arcade fare somewhat better, but store owners have complained that traffic is limited. It is a nice place to wander around in but few people actually seem to buy anything, as indicated by a recent news report that the Ceylon Tea Board shop at the Racecourse is running at a monthly loss of Rs.1m.

The problem seems partly to be in the mix of the shops in the malls. The shops were not allocated on general commercial principles or through a transparent process. Most crucially the malls seem to lack a proper ‘anchor’ tenant. Typical shopping malls incorporate one or more anchor stores and a variety of smaller stores, an anchor tenant being the largest retail outlet in the mall, chosen on the basis of its potential to attract customers to the shopping centre in general.

Naturally, these are commercial decisions and are best taken by businesses, not the Government.

What the Government should have done with these prime locations is to have tendered for proposals for redevelopment and handed over the entire project to a commercial developer. The property would have been developed, the treasury would have earned some revenue, the Government would be less burdened with debt and citizens need not be concerned with the commercial risks and rewards of the restaurant and retail trade.

What was the final cost to the taxpayer and could the money could have been better spent elsewhere? These are fundamentals question which must be answered and it is imperative that all the relevant information be made public as soon as possible.

The townsmen and visitors may be delighted by the external appearance of the city, but let us just hope that we are not walking on streets paved with gold, as in the folk tale of Dick Whittington.