Notes on the Southern Expressway

I love good public transport, for a number of reasons that are more poetic than practical.┬áIt’s not an environmental thing or and economical thing, even though I feel good about myself when I pay only 15 rupees to get from Lunawa to Kollupitiya. Apart from the fact that I would hate to drive myself around (having to concentrate on the road would mean I wouldn’t be able to retreat into my dreamworld, or settle down with a book) I also really enjoy people-watching. I like that funny feeling of having my life momentarily collide with those of my fellow commuters. Sometimes they do interesting things, sometimes they’re extraordinarily nice, and sometimes they are unbelievably crabby, and always there is potential for a Story. This is why even being driven around isn’t quite as fun as taking the train or bus. I’m particularly fond of the train at home, partly because it is so convenient (6 minute walk from my house to the station!), partly because it runs parallel to the sea, and partly because there is no traffic. I also love living in Cambridge, with my $35 monthly pass getting me anywhere by train or bus. The bottom line is that I love public transport, even though my reasons are not based in logic.

My reaction to the new highway was, therefore, purely visceral. I hated it not as an economist or an environmentalist but as a dreamer who likes to travel autonomously and anonymously, along with a motley assortment of people bound together by nothing more than the fact that their travel choices cause their life paths to be quite literally aligned for a few brief moments. I like that feeling. And, obviously, that feeling is not an adequate reason to dislike Sri Lanka’s very first highway, which is admittedly rather beautiful (both in terms of its newness and its environment) compared with some of the more hideous American highways I have seen.

Today, however, I met an economist who explained to me why he too felt that the funds spent on the Colombo-Matara Expressway would have been better invested in a decent public transport system. I’ve wanted to know about this for a very long time, and I thought I would write a lengthy post ranting about the highway, but the reasons are quite simple.

1. The arguments for public transport we’ve all heard a hundred times hold true here – the rail track would be a third of the width of the road, causing less disruption to those displaced; the fact that it is people-intensive and requires less fuel to run means it’s environmentally friendly and can be more economically equitable. But it gets more interesting.

2. In Sri Lanka, the government collects about 80% of its tax revenue from indirect taxes – for example, the tax we would pay on rice or a loaf of bread indiscriminately targets the wealthy and the poor. However, only certain types of vehicles are allowed to traverse the highway (naturally). This means that all those who usually travel by bicycle, motorcycle, or three-wheeler can’t use this new piece of infrastructure that their tax rupees contributed to constructing. The few buses that are allowed to travel the length of the highway run the whole length from Colombo to Galle, and are subject to the toll, so are more expensive than the average bus-user can afford. Given these facts, most of the people who were displaced by the highway will never use it.

There are other reasons – but they are part of some research that this economist is conducting, and since he is planning to publish soon, so I won’t go into more detail right now. However, there must be something good about the new highway, right? Apart from the fact that it is undeniably beautiful and squeaky-clean and makes the fact that Sri Lanka really is a tiny country unnervingly apparent? Those who traverse it find it an undeniable blessing, so it might seem as if this post is terribly one-sided. If you’re interested in reading more, you’re in luck! I’m editing a blog series on the highway for MIT’s CoLab Radio, to be published in the first week of February, which will try to paint a picture of the effect of the Southern Expressway on the lives of a wide variety of people (and will try to be fair about it!). Watch this space :)

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