September 30, 2022
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    First-ever Car Free Day tomorrow:

    July 13, 2019

    Heavy traffic congestion is one of the biggest problems facing Colombo and its environs. It takes 90 minutes to two hours on average for a suburban commuter to come to Colombo by bus or car during rush hour on weekdays. The Light Rail Transit (LRT) has been touted as a solution to the traffic congestion, as it may compel most motorists to ditch the car.

    But the LRT will not be here for 5-6 years, during which time the traffic problem will get worse. There is every possibility that vehicles may crawl at just 3 km/h in Colombo during rush hour in just a couple of years. Worsening traffic also results in heavy air pollution. We have not reached the air pollution levels of New Delhi or Bangkok yet, but we are getting there.

    Various solutions have been tried the world over to reduce traffic congestion. London, for example, charges a congestion levy from all vehicles (except electric ones) entering the Central Business District (CBD). In April, London became the first city in the world to implement a 24-hour, seven day a week Ultra Low Emission Zone, inside which vehicles will have to meet tough emissions standards or face a charge.

    In many countries, vehicles carrying only the driver cannot enter the CBD of main cities. Many countries also encourage cycling, with special designated lanes. The other major programme is the “Car Free Day” which gives residents and visitors an idea of how “green” and healthy their city will be without all the traffic.

    Colombo was one of the few cities that bucked this trend – but not any longer as the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) is partnering with the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Sri Lanka to pilot and test Colombo’s first ever Car Free Day (CFD), a concept that began in Reykjavik (Iceland), La Rochelle (France) and Bath (UK) in 1994-1995. Most countries hold the World Car Free Day event on September 22 every year, but there is no set date and any country decide on another date, as Sri Lanka has done in this instance. Currently Bogota in Colombia holds the world's largest car-free weekday event covering the entire city. The first car-free day was held in February 2000 and became institutionalized through a public referendum. Car Free Days promote improvement of mass transit, cycling and walking, and the development of communities where jobs are closer to home and where shopping is within walking distance”. Studies have showed that for short trips in cities, one can reach more quickly using a bicycle rather than using a car. Today, more than 1,500 cities worldwide hold Car Free Days.

    The involvement of the Dutch Embassy in this new venture in Sri Lanka is not surprising, since the Netherlands has a very strong cycling culture and people in Amsterdam already cycle more often than they drive their cars. Many other cities around the world have followed the Netherlands in having cycling lanes. Special mention must be made of Joanne Doornewaard, Ambassador of the Netherlands to Sri Lanka and Colombo Mayor Rosy Senanayake for actively promoting this concept in Sri Lanka. The Traffic Police will be fully supportive of this venture.


    Thus Colombo’s first-ever ‘CarFreeCMB’ will take place tomorrow (July 14, Bastille Day) from 6 a.m. to 12 noon. While it should ideally have been held for a longer duration, this is the first time it is being held and logistical problems have to be studied and tackled. Next year, we hope to see a longer edition. In fact, this can even be held twice or thrice a year. Depending on its success, other cities such as Kandy and Kurunegala should come next. These cities also suffer from heavy traffic congestion.

    Participants can join in on foot, bicycle, skateboard - anything goes, as long as it is not motored, say the organisers who encourage the public to explore, exercise and play on the streets. The initiative aims to reduce the dependence on motor vehicles while promoting a healthier and more sustainable urban lifestyle.

    The city will open the following streets exclusively to pedestrians and cyclists tomorrow to facilitate this experience: Green Path up to the Public Library roundabout, part of Dr C.W.W. Kannangara Mawatha and Independence Avenue. Clear signage will direct Sunday morning motorists to alternative routes including Dharmapala Mawatha, Horton Place, C.W.W. Kannangara Mawatha, Stanley Wijesundera Mawatha and Bauddhaloka Mawatha. However, in a nod to signify the importance of public transport, arrangements have been made for bus routes to function as usual.

    CarFreeCMB is a free event, open to all, where participants can support local businesses by visiting stalls, listen to live music and browse for art and craft. Exercise, yoga and other fitness sessions will also take place alongside other activities at the event. Moreover, the open streets will be a plastic-free zone and offer healthy food and organic produce in keeping with the event’s sustainability theme. It will be a novel experience for Colombo residents, many of whom take the car or a tuk-tuk even to go to the next junction.

    In fact, the authorities should seriously consider the prospect of blocking off a few stretches of roads for motorized traffic permanently, as done in many other countries. These areas are then converted to pedestrian plazas where people can relax, converse with each other and even do a bit of shopping.

    Some of the recent budgetary and other measures taken by the Government may have impacted on car ownership patterns, as registrations of new private vehicles have gone down drastically over the last few months. This is a welcome trend, but there should be a corresponding increase in investments in public transport to discourage more people from literally joining the vehicle bandwagon. If clean, reliable, comfortable and punctual public transport is available 24/7 and can reach every nook corner, there will be less demand for private transport. However, three wheelers will have to be phased out eventually in favour of vehicles with four wheels, at least by 2040, when Sri Lanka envisages an end to the registration of fossil fuel powered motor vehicles. Although it is too early to say anything concrete, the ride hailing revolution too may have played a part in this trend of lower private vehicle registrations. It is now possible to hail a ride 24/7 with a smartphone app and go anywhere you want in Sri Lanka at affordable rates. You do not have to worry about driving, parking, refueling, servicing, lease payments and insurance. In many countries, the success of ride hailing and haring apps has resulted in a dramatic shift in car ownership patterns. Why bother owning an expensive car when you can have a car at your beck and call anytime of the day or night?

    Driverless car technology

    While driverless car technology is moving apace, it is the regulators who are falling behind as they are apprehensive of approving trials of a new technology. Yes, there has to be a paradigm shift in the way we drive and are driven to make autonomous vehicles a reality – vehicle to vehicle communications, vehicle to signboard/traffic light communication and the steps that should be followed if an autonomous vehicle is involved in an accident should all be considered. But regulators in some cities have taken a chance and given approval for the likes of Tesla and Waymo to pilot driverless cars.

    In many countries, motorists can also “subscribe” to a car, just like subscribing to a magazine, by paying a monthly fee and then upgrade to a newer model when that comes along. With the manufacturer taking care of everything else, all you do is pump fuel (or charge the electric batteries) and go. The biggest threat to the personal car could however be the advent of the fully autonomous car, which too can be hailed through an app. With plenty of driverless autonomous cars (yes, even flying cars) available round the clock, car ownership could simply become a thing of the past.

    Traffic too can be minimized and streamlined because people will only use such cars when they absolutely need them. Moreover, that might free up a good number of car parks which can then be repurposed as parks and pedestrian plazas. Again, we come full circle to the concept of a Car Free Day. The day when every day will be a Car Free Day cannot be far away.

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