Colombo Telegraph

The Western Province Megapolis: A Project Without Clear Directions Or Objectives

By DNR Samaranayaka

DNR Samaranayaka

An urban development plan for the Western Province of Sri Lanka is being undertaken by the newly established Western Province Megapolis department. It is designed according to the features and characteristics of a Megapolis with the Colombo metropolitan region as the core of the Megalopolis. The area under this project is stretching in the shape of a neckless from Negombo in the North and Hikkaduwa in the south, and extending to about 30 kilometres to the east from the core area of the project. This project is a modified and enlarged version of the plan prepared by a group of Singaporean consultants under the Western Province Megapolis Structure plan in 2004, which is also known as the ‘CESMA’ plan.

A Megapolis is normally referred to a contiguous urban corridor covering a large urban space. It usually evolves overtime through expansion and amalgamation of individual metropolitan regions. One of the key features that facilitate the formation of a Megapolis is the strict application of planning regulations, and the orderly distribution of urban space among economic, social, recreational, business, residential, administrative and other urban activities. A Megapolis also has a fair distribution of original landscape, including open spaces, water bodies, streams and forest reservations. The urban centres within the Megapolis are connected with very efficient and fast transport systems, employing the ‘state of art’ or ‘smart’ technology, which is the highest level of technology that exists at any particular time. This technology is also applied to all types of functions and services found within a Megapolis to make such services more efficient, less costly and easy to use.

The most familiar urban corridor of this nature is found in the Eastern United States; it extends over 800 kilometres from southern New Hampshire to southern Virginia, covering about 130,000 square kilometres, equivalent to about 1% of the total landscape of the United States or about twice the size of Sri Lanka. In 2012, it had a population of 46 million, accounting about 17% of the total US population, and a density of 350 persons per square kilometre. This area contributes to 45% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), indicating a high concentration of economic activities relative to the rest of the United States.

The Western Province Megapolis project

The urban landscape of the Colombo metropolitan region is currently made up of a variety of urban functions, including commercial, financial, industrial, and administrative; services such as health and medical, sports and recreational; and other activities such as those related to tourism, education and administration. High-rise apartments are another important addition to the city in the last decade, and its prominence is clearly demonstrated by the growth of multi- story buildings in more affluent part of the city. Furthermore, close to a million people live within the Colombo Metropolitan region, and they belong to low, middle and upper income groups. There is also a sizeable number of shanty dwellers within this region. Some areas have a high concentration of upper income groups and some are largely populated by low income groups. In most other areas households consist of mixed income groups. The day time population within Colombo Metropolitan region could swell close to 2 million on any working day. The Colombo district had a population density of 3,463 in 2014 compared with the density of 2,357 for the entire province.

The Colombo and its suburbs have been experiencing vary complex urban issues and problems for more than a decade; however, very little had been done by former administrations to address these issues through land use planning or planning regulations to avoid ad hoc and haphazard urbanization process. The Colombo Municipal council has been the institution responsible for planning within the city for many decades; however, its responsibilities were not guided by a proper land use plan. As a result, commercial, retail, industrial and business activities came up in an ad hoc manner, creating a very complex urban landscape with different activities grouped together. The lack of proper planning is also evident from the linear or horizontal expansion of urbanization within the metropolitan region. The result of this expansion is ‘urban sprawl’, which has grown in Colombo metropolitan region over the years. Although the current trend is on vertical expansion, it is also creating even further problems due the majority of buildings are being located in areas where congestion is already a serious problem.

The need for a comprehensive plan to address the problems that exist within the Colombo metropolitan region and its surrounding areas is widely recognized. Such a plan is needed not only to address the growing urban problems, but also to modernize the city to attract investments, tourism and to reduce economic costs incurred by the country. A major issue of widespread traffic congestion is the wasteful consumption of fuel, which, according to estimates, accounts for 30% to 50% within the Colombo metropolitan region. A traffic congestion is not uncommon in any city, but if it occurs regularly and continues for a long period, then it is a problem that needs to be addressed. Although the additional cost of fuel consumption is incurred by the motor vehicle user, the foreign exchange costs of additional imports applies across the nation. In addition, loss of labour hours and environmental pollution are also equally significant issues.

A major concern of the proposed Megapolis is the lack of clear directions or any specific project targets. As a result, the proposed Megapolis action plan is likely to disturb the existing urban structure within the metropolitan region, and create more complexities than it solves. Already resettlements of shanty dwellers, from their current places of living, have been started and such actions have sparked serious objections from political and community groups. The shifting of most of the administrative buildings to outer Colombo region is also another feature that could disturb the existing urban structure. A capital city must have all forms of activities, and it is not a smart move to restrict some activities within the core area and remove others to suburbans; it will not only inconvenience the people but also the new activities that will replace them could create even further problems. There is, however, a need to relocate some of the administrative buildings frequented by people such as the Immigration department. It is located in a highly congested area, in Colombo 10, in a building which does not have even the basic facilities for thousands of people that come there on any working day.

Policy inconsistencies

At present, the details about the Megapolis plan remain unknown. The media releases are the only source of information available to the general public about this project, which is going to take 15 years to complete at a cost of about US$ 43 billion. Although about 65 professionals are involved in this project, the project leaders have not taken any initiative to let the public know about the details of the policy package that is under consideration. It has also not sought the views of professionals from relevant fields to determine the effectiveness of the policies that are in the Megapolis project. Certain policies released by the Megapolis, as possible solutions to tackle the traffic congestion, appear to show some inconsistencies; furthermore, they also show the lack of understanding of the issues that are the core of the problem. Among these proposals are three that attracted the attention of the writer. The first is a proposal to introduce scattered work hours, the second is to introduce cycles as a means of transport and the third is to open inland waterways for public transport.

The scattered work hours as a means of reducing traffic congestion is practised very successfully in many countries in the world. Unfortunately, the implementation of this as a policy of Megapolis is not only difficult, but it could also lead to further aggravation of congestion. About 70% of the employed within the Colombo metropolitan region lives outside this region. They usually leave home two to three hours before the office time as most of them use public transport, but some cannot still arrive in office at the office opening time. In almost all the countries where the scattered work hours is practiced have better roads, excellent public transport systems, and parking facilities to ‘park and travel’ option, which many people use instead of their own vehicles. If the scattered work hour’s policy is introduced, it will further exert pressure on an already very complex problem. Currently, a significant number of people travel to work early in the morning and a similar number travel home in the evenings. If this policy is, introduced, congestion can spread in both directions, further aggravating the problem.

Cycling as a means of transport is also fairly common in countries with temperate climates. However, in summer the number using cycles is drastically reduced due to hot conditions. The reason that it is not going to be a popular means of transport in Colombo is that using cycles to work is difficult in hot humid conditions as well as during the periods of heavy monsoon rains, which usually last for several months. Except for those who are holding low paying jobs, cycling to work is not popular among others. This is the reason that not too many cycles are on the road during office hours. Unlike in other countries, there are no cycle lanes in Colombo or any other city. Moreover, wearing a helmet is compulsory in most other countries as a safety measure since cyclist are very prone to accidents. Such a policy is not practical in Colombo in hot and humid conditions. When announcing this proposal, the possibility of increasing productivity was mentioned as an added benefit; however, the writer sees the possibility of a reduction, and not any productivity gains.

The third policy suggested by the Megapolis is the use of waterways as a means to ease traffic congestion. This again is a fairly popular travel mode in many countries, including Asia. However, it offers very limited opportunities in Sri Lanka since the total length of waterways in this region is about 40 kilometres, and some of these waterways run very short distances. Moreover, these waterways are only suitable for small vessels carrying very limited number of passengers. It is not a policy that has any impact even in the areas where such waterways can be found.

Lack of project targets

With a $43 billion budget, the Western Province Megapolis could be the largest project that Sri Lanka will be undertaking over the next fifteen years. Until now, the largest project was the accelerated Mahaweli Development. This project took ten years and completed in 1992 at cost of Rs 8.45 billion (US$ 263 million). The project made a significant contribution to agriculture, power generation, improvement and expansion of road networks, and various other physical infrastructure facilities such as dams, irrigation canals (which helped to bring about 200,000 hectares under paddy and other crops), town ships, schools and community centres. This project also helped to increase food supply, household incomes and rural employment. Although, the project was not a complete success, the achievements by the project were very close to the targets established by the project at the inception.

The Megapolis project has not revealed any specific project objectives or targets or benchmarks. Targets are those outcomes expected from the implementation of the project and benchmarks are the indicators that can be used to determine the progress of the project at any given point of time during the implementation. However, in the press release issued by the government on 6th December 2015, the following are the two key objectives of this project:

  • Transfer informal urban development into formal urban development and thereby increase the happiness of the people, and
  • Beautification of towns as well as boosting the living standards of the people will be done through this development plan.

Anyone with iota of intelligence will realize that these are absurd objectives; they have no relevance to the problems that the Megapolis has been designed to achieve. The first objective suggests a direct link between formal and informal development, but it fails explain the characteristics of informal or formal development or the process that transforms urbanization from formal to informal. It also assumes that establishing a formal urban development makes people happy. Unfortunately, no matter what this project will achieve, it will not have any impact on happiness. Happiness or sadness are phases that people go through due to various reasons and urban issues are certainly not one of them.

The only country that has happiness of the people as a national goal is Bhutan, which is a country with less than 1 million people and a land area of about three fourth of the size of Sri Lanka. It aims to achieve this goal through policies such as balanced growth, proper management of resources, and equity in income distribution. Towards this goal, Bhutan has committed to maintain 60% of land under forest cover.

Beautification of the Colombo Metropolitan region is not a bad objective if the country can afford a large some of national income to maintain the cities at the same level of beauty and cleanness for ever. The spending on beautification can never be collected from the people because it is a public good and nobody pays for it. Furthermore, it is an absurd preposition to suggest that there is a correlation between beautification and living standards. These two objectives indicate the total ignorance of the planners involved in the implementation of this project.

Although the Megapolis team wants to implement this project to achieve these two objectives, the most rational minded observers expect outcomes which can be seen and assessed as achievements of the project. These include a drastic reduction in congestion and delays in travel time, an increase in efficiency in transport systems, an introduction of new modes of transport systems to support the existing services, a well-coordinated urban system connecting urban centres within this region, a significant increase in economic activities, and a reduction in private vehicle use within this region.

Predicted outcomes

The Minister of the Megapolis has already announced that the per capita income of the population will increase to US$12,000 in 2030, the year that this project is to be completed, compared with US$ 4000 at the moment. Even if the country achieves a per capita income of US$ 12,000 in 2030, it may not be any different to the average level of income to US$ 4,000 today. Unless the exchange rate remains fairly stable, the per capita income in real terms will not be much different in 2030 to the per capita income to day. He has also made a forecast of US$ 30 billion investment arising from this project. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that he could substantiated such claims.

Another prediction has been made by the Prime Minister, Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe. He says once the project is completed, Colombo will be comparable with London, Dubai, Singapore or Tokyo. This prediction by a person who travels extensively throughout the world is certainly laughable. Since the project is yet to take off the ground, these predictions have no basis and are simply unattainable even after the project is completed. Unfortunately, the politicians think that the average citizen is an idiot to believe such claims.

Some priorities of urban development

The proposed Megapolis appeared to be a totally disjointed project since the policies that are considered by this project has no particular relevance to the problems that need to be addressed. Instead of designing a very complex long term project, the government should first consider other alternatives such as applying urban planning strategies to improve the existing urban structure. It is also important to first identify the factors that underlie the problem.

Take the traffic congestion, for example. It is contributed by a number of factors, including (a) high population density, (b) narrow two lane roads with only a few exceptions, (c) rising ownership of vehicles, (d) standing vehicles on the road due to lack of parking facilities, (e) lack of alternative transport modes (f) location of large number of schools with high demand in the metropolitan region (g) outdated and overcrowded public transport system (h) lack of extensive coverage of the railway system (i) rising demands for school enrolments from students/parents from outstations due to inadequate educational facilities in those regions, (j) linear growth of urbanization process along major and minor transport networks, leading to urban sprawl (k) lack of clear policy on granting building permits within the metropolitan region, (l) lack of road reservations for road expansion (m) rapid growth of settlements in suburban areas and the resultant increase in mobility between the city and suburbs and (n) parking of school vans in all by roads throughout the city from 8.0 am to 3.0 pm. These are some of the issues that need to take into consideration if a solution is to be found. The key problem is, however, the failure to adopt urban planning regulations in the past and continued to do so to the present. These factors that lead to urban problems are highly inter related.

Some of these problems cannot be dealt within a short time; they require comprehensive analysis to understand the issues connected with these problems and to find feasible solutions. However, a large number of problems can be addressed by applying proper planning regulations and solutions. Among these regulations, the most important ones that directly have an impact on existing congestion are; (a) no parking policy on roads within the city limits between 6am and 9 am in the morning and between 2.0 pm and 8.0 pm in the evenings, (b) removal of administrative buildings that frequented by the general public to outer urban regions, and (c) change of the existing policy on the issue of building permits. The current policy of issuing building permits had been there since the formation of the Municipal council. Unfortunately, it does not take into account whether the particular building is suitable for that location and its environment or whether it provides parking facilities to customers. In the absence of these considerations, the granting of building permits is an important factor in generating traffic congestion.

Apart from these, a specific focus is needed on policies that are useful in addressing the problems and issues of urbanization in the short and medium terms. Some of these policies are the introduction of (a) a comfortable urban rail system that runs from Gampaha to say Kalutara, in both directions, during office hours (b) an office transport system that operates in the morning and in the evening (e) a semi luxury bus transport system that operates within the metropolitan region and linking important towns at regular intervals and (f) a comfortable train service, in addition to the existing services, for those who could pay higher fare system to travel. The modernization of the existing Kelani valley railway line and expanding it to cover fast growing suburbs is also an important strategy that could increase the use of the railway frequently.

The possibility of shifting the Colombo railway station to any other location or operating trains without a final destination like Colombo is also needs serious consideration. As it is, all trains operating in Sri Lanka end up in Colombo since it is the final destination. It may be possible to use Colombo as another station, stopping there just to pick up passengers. It could significantly improve efficiency in the train service.

The removal of existing fixed fare system is another policy that needs consideration, and it will allow competition among travel operators. Under the existing fare system, the same price per sector applies to both busses operated by the public sector as well the private sector. The revenue under such a system is determined by the volume of passengers. A flexible system could significantly improve the quality of the service and charge a price accordingly. Under the existing system, there is no incentive for the operators to improve the service. The existing bus service at present is slightly above a service offered in a city like Bombay. The fixed system is also one of the reasons for private buses to wait for a long period at bus halts until the bus is fully loaded.

The purpose of listing these suggestions is to draw attention of the team working on the Megapolis project to explore alternative interventions to address the existing urban issues. Given the emerging budgetary and foreign exchange issues of the country, the allocated budget for the Megapolis is far beyond the ability of the country to earmark to a single project without drastically affecting the overall economic development. What is more relevant at this stage is to limit the plan only to address traffic congestion. Once this objective is achieved, the urban economy can take its own course. There is no model of Megapolis that can be used to replicate in other places. Since urbanization process evolves overtime, the best planning process is to accommodate changes into the existing urban structure in a planned manner.

*The Writer is an economist and has postgraduate qualifications in urban planning. He was a member of the CESMA team (2002-2004) and also the economist of the Colombo Metropolitan Structure Plan (1998). He can be reached via tilaks@iprimus.com.au.

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