Colombo’s traffic: Can solving the problem of schools help?


Travelling in Colombo is now a test of patience, traffic having reached an impossible level.

For motorists, disorderly flows of vehicles, people and animals make the roads a nightmare to navigate. Toxic fumes poison pedestrians and residents alike, leaving an unsightly haze visible from the city’s high-rise buildings. Travel forums for tourists include discussions on ‘rush hour in Colombo’ and ‘the best time to miss traffic’.

Even if one gets through the traffic, parking is almost as big a hassle. School vans permanently occupy some streets, while rows of trishaws hog other parking spaces. Traffic congestion imposes a variety of costs, some obvious, some hidden, on businesses and individuals. At the most basic level, increasing congestion means longer travel times for passengers and higher operating costs for vehicle operators.

University of Moratuwa civil engineering and transport expert Professor Amal S. Kumarage estimates that Sri Lanka incurs an economic loss of around Rs40 billion annually due to road traffic congestion and air pollution.

Solving the larger traffic problem requires a proper public transport system, but one of the most peculiar aspects of Colombo’s problem is school traffic. The world over, school traffic creates some problems, but for policymakers elsewhere school-related traffic congestion is confined to the overcrowding and blocking of streets on or near school property. The problem with Colombo is that school traffic extends from one end of the city to the other. During peak school hours, some areas of the city are impassable. The reasons peculiar to Colombo include a clustering of popular schools in central Colombo and adjacent areas, growth in student numbers over the years, and an increasing tendency for students to commute daily from outside the city to schools within the city.

Growth in school rolls within the city has far outgrown the capacity it was designed for, and excessive centralisation of economic activity around the Western province in general and the city in particular, which draws in large numbers of commuters. In 2001, the floating population was estimated to be 400,000; today, it is thought to be 1.5 million.


A century ago, colonial rulers encountered a similar problem with congestion in the city. The Housing and Town Improvement Ordinance No. 19 of 1915 was introduced to check “the uncontrolled and irregular building spread” in the city. “These regulations attempted to control the size, orientation, spacing, height and spatial arrangement of buildings to permit sufficient direct sunlight to the buildings and maximise ventilation. The chief features of the bill were its preventive and remedial measures. These were four-fold:
(1) No building was to be erected unless roads existed to serve them.
(2) No building was to exceed in height the width of the street on which it was situated.
(3) Rooms were to be provided with sufficient space, ventilation and light.
(4) Open spaces were to be provided in the rear of the buildings as a common channel of ventilation behind continuous rows of houses.

Following this, the Geddes plan of 1921 set the boundaries of the city and designed it to make it “The Garden City of the East”. The tree-lined streets (Bauddhaloka Mawatha) and the grid system of roads in Cinnamon Gardens are legacies of that plan. The Abercrombie Plan of 1948 noted the high concentration of economic, trade and port-related activities in the city and emphasised the decentralisation of the city’s activities to the suburban areas of Ragama, Homagama and Ratmalana as satellite towns. The plan included a ring road to link these towns and the shifting of central administrative functions to Ratmalana. This plan was not implemented and neither was anything else. Despite subsequent plans in 1978, 1985 and later, nothing was enforced. The city grew organically, in an increasingly unruly manner that paid no heed to infrastructure, land or even safety constraints. The most recent spate of building apartment complexes and hotels threatens to overwhelm the water, sanitation and waste disposal infrastructure, what some now term a ‘cancerous’ development. Development, but of a malignant kind, that can eventually choke and poison the city.

Can schools be one place to start fixing things?

It is absurd that people should have to send their children halfway across the country to attend school. To the author’s knowledge, school vans routinely travel from as far as Embiliptiya and Hikkaduwa. This is a colossal waste of fuel and bad for children who are giving up family time or extracurricular activities in exchange for commute time. Parents are lured into these insane commutes by another insane system: the perception that job, marriage and all future prospects are tied to the school one attends, regardless of the actual quality of education. Previously, parents aspired to send children to central colleges within their district that provided excellent facilities, education and the opportunity to enter university.

One of the aims of expanding the system of central colleges in 1943 (when 11 were established) was to check the shift of the rural population to urban areas. The colleges, modelled after Royal College with properly equipped with science labs, libraries, playgrounds, etc, catered to students within a six-mile radius. The number was expanded to 23, and by 1944, there were a total of 54, on the basis of one per electorate.

The schools had good teachers and the principals were selected on merit (by the Public Service Commission), making them immune to political pressure and enabling them to discharge their duties without fear or favour.

“The selection of teaching and other staff was done according to a pre-designed specific cadre. The all-round educational needs of the children were reckoned as the all-important factor, and more than not, the principal was consulted in the matter of appointments. Sometimes he was invited to serve on the selection board. There was also the assumption that teachers selected to central colleges had to be necessarily proficient in some extracurricular activity and be willing to assist in the afternoons at no extra remuneration” – CTM Fernando

The purpose of the Grade 5 scholarship exam was not to send even more children to schools in Colombo, but to gain admission to the closest central college. In its heyday, the quality of the products of the central colleges was not questioned, and that “all central colleges without exception served the purpose for which they were established is borne out by the fact that a vast majority of our professionals and other governmental and non-governmental executives are the products of these central colleges” (Fernando).

The decline of colleges was due to short-sighted politics. People were clamouring for more central colleges and the MPs responded by simply renaming small schools as “central colleges,” lacking the facilities and teaching staff. The politicisation of teacher selection meant appointments of central college principals were taken over by the ministry. “This new breed of politically appointed principals were often accommodated to ‘look after the duties of the principal’, as they lacked the requisite qualification and the experience, not to mention personality, to be one. When some of them lacked any competence in English, it was argued that English was not needed in the “Swabhasha system”.

Their knowledge of education and educational administration was woefully pathetic; but none dared to comment” (Fernando).


Can this system be recreated? Central colleges lack ‘cachet’, so we can never return to that and, depending on the politicians who destroyed an existing system, to recreate one is far too optimistic; but could affordable private schools, teaching in English, restore the system of education in the provinces?

If the government has no money to spend building schools, the logical step would be to allow the popular Colombo schools to build branches outstation. Several smaller ‘international’ schools such as Lyceum already have branches outstation. Initial funding could come from investors, either local or foreign, but on the basis that fees would be charged, which is the case at international schools. That parents pay heavily in ‘donations’ to get into popular schools is well known. Paying for extra tuition is widespread. Add to this the cost of paying for long distance school transport. If the right model can be found, paying proper fees for a decent education, close to home, would be an attractive option for parents and ease some of the chronic congestion in the city.

The government would need to implement proper planning regulations to check the growth of schools in congested areas while encouraging them to set up in key locations elsewhere. Perhaps the buildings and facilities of the old central colleges could be upgraded and rebranded to attract students from the area. Instead of the proposed purchase of Mi17 helicopters (apparently for use in UN missions), the government should spend this money on school infrastructure. Volunteer teachers from overseas and teacher training programmes could help fill in the gaps for teaching staff.

These are only suggestions, but policymakers need to start thinking outside the box; even dusting off colonial era plans would be an improvement.