Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Association President says Bus lanes are good but more needs to be done

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By 2017-09-18

By Rathindra Kuruwita

Government has taken steps to implement a priority bus lane system in a bid to increase the efficiency of the public transport system. Ceylon Today spoke to the President of the Lanka Private Bus Owners' Association (LPBOA) Gemunu Wijeratne for his opinion on bus lanes and other pressing issues, faced by the private bus operators in the country.

? Government is now implementing a bus priority lane on a number of roads in Colombo and states that because of this the average travel times of buses have improved by 25 per cent. How do you view this initiative and what should the Government do to improve this in the future?

A: We are extremely happy about it, why shouldn't we? Because I am the organization that first stated that we need a bus lane. Now it's being implemented and I am quite satisfied. But unfortunately the implementation of this proposal was delayed for two years. But I feel that it is better late than never because this was of vital importance for everyone and a number of groups were behind this.

The Prime Minister once told me that the bus transport system is extremely unsatisfactory and that we must give proposals to increase the efficiency and the quality of the bus service. The Government also has planned to bring in a large number of low floor luxury buses to make the commute much more comfortable to the passenger and I said without a priority bus lane, there would be no point in having low floor luxury buses. The Prime Minister's office after taking the initial steps called for a meeting with all stakeholders which included the LPBOA, the Ministry of Transport, Road Development Authority, Colombo Municipal Council, Police, Western Province Transport Authority and the Moratuwa University to this meeting, which laid the groundwork for implementing the priority bus lane system.

Ministry of Megapolis has taken measures to implement the pilot project, from Rajagiriya, where it has been carried out successfully, from where it has expanded to several other places, including Slave Island.

I think to realize the overall objective of the project, a number of other things have to be done, apart from having the bus lane.

A team of Korean experts arrived in the country to assist us, and their opinion was, that, we have the bus lane next to the centre island, with a narrow strip of island between roads. However, the Government has decided to place the bus lane to the left of the road, near the pavement. I think that we can work this out, and we need to do a lot more, which goes beyond having a bus lane.

? You said that to make this initiative a success the Government needs to do more. What else should the Government do in your opinion?

A: On Galle Road this operation runs smoothly because the road is wide and the Marine drive also runs parallel to it. However, we have to admit that on other roads this bus lane has led to an increase in traffic congestion. For example we can see this in the Battaramulla - Rajagiriya area, even the byroads are congested because of this. We also said that this road should also be open to school buses and those that transport office staff. If we are also going to have low floor buses in this lane we must create steps which can be used by passengers to climb onto the bus. The bus priority lane also should be painted in a different colour. Another suggestion is to increase the time period during which the bus lanes are operational. Right now it's operational from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.

and we have asked the Government to extend it to 10 a.m. There should also be a bus lane on the other side of the road, as currently the priority lane is only towards Colombo. Buses need to go into Colombo quickly, but there is also a need to be able to come out of Colombo speedily as well.

The quality of the roads should also be improved. The other thing is to increase the number of quality buses so that people who currently travel in cars will also be induced to travel in a bus. Then we also need to have parking space for cars so that people can park their vehicles at a certain point and use the bus service, the park and ride system.

? You have been stressing on the importance of having low floor buses so that the commuters can enjoy a comfortable journey. What has been the progress on this?

A: We have spoken to two companies to rent some buses to operate in the areas where there is a priority bus lane. We will rent 20 buses and we plan to put low floor electric buses on these routes. This is a high cost endeavour and we have asked the Ministry of Finance to provide tax concessions for this considering the strategic importance of this. We have also spoken with the World Bank to see if there are more ways to reduce the cost we have to bear for a bus.

Having low floor electric buses will have great benefits to the country. With the reduced emissions I think we can easily ensure that Colombo will be a green city. Pollution is a serious issue for all and we need to take steps to combat it. Also, if we are able to provide a consistent and comfortable bus service little by little those who use their private cars will start using buses, and it will help in great measure in combating traffic congestion.

We will also start this bus service in all major cities from 8 p.m. to midnight. We can't cover costs by running only in the morning, thus we want to operate in the evening and in the night as well. This will not only increase the income but it will also address one of the main concerns of commuters - the lack of buses in the night. As on many routes, even in the cities, there are no buses after 8 p.m., a great inconvenience to commuters. When we start operating in the night, this issue will get resolved.

? One of the main criticisms levelled at the private bus industry is the lack of discipline of the drivers and the conductors and that commuters are at the receiving end of rudeness. Is there any way of addressing this issue?

A: We need to change the system completely. We say the annual bus fare increase must stop, instead use the number of kilometres as the benchmark for prices. The problem is with the system, I don't think that our investment and the behaviour of the workers are the main problem. Without a change in the system nothing can be changed.

The system is that the National Transport Commission gives long distance buses the route permits, meanwhile, Provincial Councils give permits to short distance buses. This needs to change and we need to get rid of the concept of route permits. We need to get all private buses under one controlling body, in a way like the Sri Lanka Transport Board. This board will allocate buses depending on the need of an area. This way we can also ensure that all buses get an equal opportunity to operate on the more profitable routes.

This will also get rid of the resentment between short and long distance bus operators; because one day your bus can operate between Kandy and Colombo, and the next day it can be sent on the Battaramulla - Dehiwala route. This is how the SLTB operates as well.

? You have been a critic of the route permit system saying it breeds corruption. However, the system you propose can also quickly become corrupt. How do you plan to keep corruption and manipulation to a minimum in the system you propose?

A: See, the main reason why we have such a big problem is that the route permit system creates a mafia. For example, some people spend Rs 25 million to get a route permit to operate in the Expressways. Some long distance route permits fetch similar prices, thus as you see, there is a big problem here. Once you get rid of the route permit system you remove the reason for the existence of a big parasitic system.

? We have spoken about several important factors to develop public transport in Sri Lanka. Is there anything else you want to talk about on this matter?

A: The Government must also focus on increasing taxes on trishaws, to develop public transport. There are more than enough trishaws in Sri Lanka, some estimates say close to one million. Motorcycles must also be limited. It is not judicious to give them tax concessions if the Government is serious about developing the public transport sector. The Government can assign small buses to operate in the rural routes which are not heavily populated.

Another thing is the new traffic fines that will be operational in the near future. We have also proposed that the Government must bring new equipment, install road signs and widen the roads before this system is implemented. Just as the fines are increased these other developments must also take place.

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