Something quite interesting happened a few days ago. The Colombo Municipal Council partnered with the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to launch Sri Lanka’s first-ever car-free day. CarFreeCMB as the event would be called, would take place on the 14th of July from 6 am to 12 noon. During this time, certain streets in Colombo would be exclusively open to pedestrians and cyclists to travel to their heart’s content.
So the premise here is simple. Once a month, certain areas of Colombo and its suburbs would be open only to those traveling via non-motorized methods. So you can walk, cycle, skateboard, or even pogo jump your way through these streets. The aim here is to reduce the overall carbon footprint that stems from vehicle emission and to also promote a healthier lifestyle. But, the big question remains. Is CarFreeCMB actually a viable initiative?
Why introduce CarFreeCMB?
According to Joanne Doornewaard – The Ambassador of the Netherlands to Sri Lanka, “us Dutch are very well known for embracing cycling as the preferred method of transport in our cities, and we are seeing the results in our national figures for health and contentment – and in reduced rates for road accidents as well”.
But that’s not all though. In general, we’ve seen a shift on focus to be more health-conscious in whatever we do. Even in the IT industry, we’ve seen initiatives from the like of Google and Apple with Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing (respectively).
In Sri Lanka as well, we saw the SLASSCOM People Summit 2019 revolve around the theme of wellbeing at the workplace and how both employers and employees can live healthier lives. In short, the idea here is that society, in general, is moving towards being health-conscious.
Let’s talk about CarFreeCMB
At first glance, CarFreeCMB looks interesting. Families can cycle in these designated areas without fear of oncoming traffic. It essentially comes down to two factors. You have increased health benefts, and you have a reduced carbon footprint. Pretty simple, actually.
While some might argue that closing off certain roads may result in traffic on alternate routes, it applies only if CarFreeCMB takes place on weekdays and on busy roads. Thus far, the first initiative of CarFreeCMB took place on Sunday 14th June 6 am to 12 noon. As such, there’s less traffic on Sunday so it wasn’t too much of a hassle.
We’re not saying that CarFreeCMB is a bad idea. Rather, we very much like the idea of a car-free Colombo. But as the saying goes, “ideas are cheap, it’s the execution that matters.” So what methods can be used to promote initiatives such as CarFreeCMB?
What the Government can do
This is where things are bound to get interesting. First and foremost, if CarFreeCMB is about promoting cycling, the obvious first step would be to have a dedicated cyclists’ lane on all major roads. Now that in itself is easier said than done. It would involve demarcating a section of the road for cyclists to use.
We’ve seen a similar initiative carried out with a dedicated bus lane that is active for certain times of the day. But once again, it hasn’t been successfully implemented. We still see busses swerving in and out of lanes during rush hours. The same thing could possibly pop up if and when cycling lanes are introduced.
Once a cyclist’s lane has been set up, the next step can be to have actual bicycles for people to ride. Countries such as China, France, Spain, and Canada have taken initiatives to launch bicycle sharing programs. These programs allow people to see bicycles closeby and people can even reserve their own bicycle via smartphone apps
You can also have a Bike Pass. Akin to how a travel card or transit passwords with busses, this Bike pass would need to be purchased. Once purchased, the pass would have a certain credit limit in it. Each time the user rents a bike, an amount would be charged from them. Once the credit limit is reached, the user would have to top up the card if they wish to continue using it.
As a method of safety and as a precaution, the bikes could also have GPS tags on them so that the bike provider can track the location of the bike and the rider. Similar to how UberMoto and PickMe Bike give the rider a helmet, the same can be done when the user rents out a bike. In extreme cases, a camera can be attached to the bike to record footage of travel in the event of an accident or if the user is going to areas not safe for travel.
Another thing that the Government can focus on is raising awareness of electric vehicles, specifically, electric bikes. Because bikes are not as cumbersome as cars or SUVs, they would be easier to handle in areas with high population density. But there are some legal technicalities that would have to be dealt with first.
In the UK, for example, you need to be over the age of 14 to ride an electric bike. On the plus side though, you don’t need a license for one. Neither do you have to register it or pay a vehicle tax?
On the other hand, if the power output on the motor is greater than 250W or it assists you when you’re riding more than 15.5mp/h (24.9 mph), you will need to have the bike registered, insured and taxed as a motor vehicle. This, in turn, means you would need a driving license and wearing a motorcycle helmet is mandatory.
While raising awareness of electric vehicles, investing in infrastructure for charging points across the country is another step that the Government can take. These charging stations can share the same resources as existing fuel stations to save money on locations.
What about public transport?
A key element that that needs to be addressed here is public transport. It’s vital to upgrade public transport if we are to actually promote a car-free Colombo. Why? Because a modernized public transport system would mean everybody can use it as a viable option. Hence less reason to actually use a car on a daily basis.
As we saw in the 2019 Sri Lankan Budget, a lot was promised by the Government with regards to improving public transport. Just to refresh your memory, the Government proposed an investment of Rs. 1,300 million in setting up a Bus Operation Control Centre and multimodal passenger terminals. The aim here is to improve the efficiency of both SLTB and private bus services. So far we’ve only seen what the Japanese funded Kottawa-Makumbura multimodal transport centre looks like. Here’s hoping to see further progress with the project.
There was also the proposal of including a concessionary loan for electric tuks and small cars. The Government would bear 75% of the interest of this loan and requires the existing tuk is disposed of.
Then there’s the Light Rail Transit (LRT) project. Recently, the government announced the “launch” of the $ 2.2 billion LRT project. Although originally was supposed to commence last year, it’s now set to kick off in 2020. The first line aims to connect Malabe and Fort.
Right now, there are quite a lot of these promises out there. You have the Railways department that wants to launch smart tickets this year. You have the Policy Development Office of the Prime Minister announcing 89 Wi-Fi zones at railway stations. Initiatives like these would no doubt benefit the society at large. We just hope they see the light of day in time for the people to actually benefit from them.
What companies can do
This is entirely up to what companies feel comfortable doing. But for the most part, its important to encourage aspects around health and wellbeing and going green attitudes in the work environment. In the case of cycling, it could be where the necessary facilities and infrastructure such as washrooms for people who want to take up cycling are set up in place.
Encouraging such a culture would play a key role in making a car-free approach more feasible. But certain corporates could perhaps take a step forward in this regard. For example, if an employee is entitled to a company vehicle, providing them with electric vehicles may be a viable option. Courier services can invest in electric bikes with high capacity batteries. This would ensure that the vehicles can go the maximum range they can without needing a charge.
What you can do
An important point to understand is that if an initiative like CarFreeCMB is to increase awareness about cycling and healthy living, you don’t need to wait for them to launch such initiatives. You need to take the initiative yourself. It doesn’t have to be a revolutionary mind-blowing paradigm shift. You can cycle to work, or even invest in an electric bike for that matter.
Depending on how far out of the box you’re willing to go, you can even utilize services such as Washapp to take care of your laundry and office wear if you’re too tired after cycling back home.
But if you’re not up for cycling, apps like Runtastic, Strava, and Google Fit allow you to set up simple activity goals for yourself. There’s technology available at your fingertips that can help you live a healthier and active life.
Carpooling is another alternative. Rather than everyone using their vehicles, you can get together with a bunch of office mates and use one vehicle. It’s a lot more fun and you can even listen to your favorite tunes while traveling via a handy Bluetooth speaker.
Harassment is also part of the problem
Believe it or not, culture plays an important role in initiatives such as CarFreeCMB. Why? Because, as much as we don’t want to admit or talk about it, harassment plays a part in why CarFreeCMB won’t be welcome with everyone.
One only needs to take a look at Twitter where people voiced their opinions about why they would prefer to not take part in CarFreeCMB. On the other hand, a considerable amount of people also voiced their views stating that regardless of what views the harassers are of, the public should be encouraged to take part in CarFreeCMB and even cycling as a whole.
Platforms such as Yeheli by Dialog and 2six4 by Women in Need, for example, looks to provide a service for women’s physical and emotional wellbeing. It also gives them a space to talk about issues pertaining to misogyny and even harassment. But the truth of the matter is, while these platforms may indeed be useful, if everyone simply respected each other regardless of gender, age or race, the world would indeed be a much better place.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world like that. While there are efforts underway to curb harassment, we need to pay a lot more attention to it and take action against harassment wherever possible. If you see someone being harassed, speak up, yell and make a scene. It may sound obvious. But it’s through actions like this that we can put an end to all the plague.
So is CarFreeCMB viable?
Well, that’s a mixed bag of answers. The sweet side is, CarFreeCMB is all about saving the environment and raising awareness about cycling. With the proper infrastructure in place, there’s no reason that cycling can’t be a sustainable, cost-effective method of travel. The sour bit here is that when the initiative is launched, it has to be maintained.
Having pretty faces riding bicycles and smiling for the camera isn’t really going to get us anywhere. If CarFreeCMB is to be a long term thing, then it must be followed through with commitment and a set goal. Demarcating certain areas in Colombo or its suburbs will work for so long, but that’s just the beginning.
But for a true car-free future, the responsibility falls on all of us. It’s not just the authorities or the corporates. Will CarFreeCMB manage to make a sustainable impact on our society? We certainly hope so. At the very least, we hope the conversation continues.