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Advancing sustainable transportation infrastructure in Sri Lanka

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

An Interview with Prof. Amal S. Kumarage

In a candid and enlightening interview, Professor Amal S. Kumarage, a distinguished figure in the field of transport management and infrastructure, shared his insights on the state of sustainable transportation in Sri Lanka. With a wealth of experience spanning academia, government advisory roles, and international consultancy, Prof. Kumarage's perspective offers valuable lessons and a call for transformation in the country's approach to infrastructure development.

Professor Amal S. Kumarage - A Brief Profile

Prof. Amal S. Kumarage served as the Senior Professor of the Department of Transport & Logistics Management at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. His illustrious career includes serving as the President of the Sri Lanka Society of Transport & Logistics, Vice-President of the Eastern Asia Society for Transport Studies (EASTS), and Head of the Department of Transport & Logistics Management at the University of Moratuwa. His extensive expertise lies in various domains of transport, including transportation planning, public transport operations, road safety, and traffic engineering. He holds a Ph.D. in Transport Planning & Engineering from the University of Calgary and is a Chartered Engineer, Fellow, and former Chairman of the Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport. Prof. Kumarage's commitment to sustainable transport and infrastructure development is evident through his work in advising governments and contributions to academic research.

Can you provide an overview of your background and expertise in transport management, particularly in the context of sustainable infrastructure in Sri Lanka?

Prof. Amal S Kumarage: As engineers, I think even though this word “sustainability” was not so much in the jargon when we graduated. Good engineering practice was always seen ensuring economic cost-effectiveness, what impact it has on people and on the environment. So, any infrastructure, if it is well designed, should be looking after the interest all those things. In the area of transport, this has always been a concern, especially in recent years. Thus, sustainability needs to be revisited in infrastructure project planning an evaluation.

Sri Lanka has been considering the implementation of a Light Rail Transit (LRT) system. How do you believe the introduction of LRT will impact Sri Lanka's transportation landscape, both in terms of efficiency and sustainability?

Prof. Amal S Kumarage: First, let’s look at what is LRT. LRT is a very expensive, modern form of urban transport which is used in many cities. The cost of the proposed LRT to begin with is very high, around $141 million per Km. Colombo has seven corridors, and building LRT for all of them would be financially unsustainable. Moreover, its impact on reducing Sri Lanka's fuel imports is limited. We need to consider more cost-effective and sustainable public transport alternatives.

In your opinion, what are some of the positive steps that Sri Lanka has taken in the realm of sustainable transportation infrastructure? Are there any specific projects or initiatives that stand out?

Prof. Amal S Kumarage: If you look at government expenditure on transport infrastructure over the years, you can see that the majority has been on roads, particularly expressways. When you think of sustainable mobility, we must find out the modes that are most applicable to Sri Lanka. Promoting private vehicles and building expensive infrastructure, like expressways, when population density is high, is not economically or environmentally sustainable. Good public transport for Sri Lanka, begins with modernizing the buses and railways and not high-end infrastructure such as LRT which is financially unsustainable, at least for now.

As a leading expert in transport management, what innovative strategies or initiatives would you recommend to further enhance sustainable transportation practices in Sri Lanka? How can the government, private sector, and academia collaborate to drive sustainable transportation initiatives in Sri Lanka effectively?

Prof. Amal S Kumarage: Innovative strategies involve using digital technology to better utilize existing transport capacity. We should focus on using data and digital platforms to enhance the efficiency of our transportation system. This includes improving road capacity through better traffic management, digitalized, and modernized public transport. The project requires institutional collaboration and moving away from siloed working as is prevalent today.

Given your expertise, do you believe there is a pressing need for a dedicated policy framework focused on sustainable infrastructure in Sri Lanka? If so, what are the primary reasons driving this necessity?

Prof. Amal S Kumarage: We have a transport policy, but it has largely been ineffective. Policy must determine how we spend money, what laws we bring in, and what projects we undertake. Without effective policy implementation, a new policy framework is of little use. Policy should not be just a document on the shelf; it should guide our actions and investments. There are no instruments in place to be policy- led sector or for that matter, a country.

What role can academic institutions like the University of Moratuwa play in shaping and supporting the development and implementation of sustainable infrastructure policies in Sri Lanka? How can policymakers engage with industry experts and researchers to formulate and refine policies that cater to the country's unique transportation and sustainability needs?

Prof. Amal S Kumarage: The University of Moratuwa has the capacity to drive technological advancements in the transportation sector. However, the government must create an environment where research and expertise are valued and used effectively. Policymakers should actively engage with researchers and industry experts to develop policies and implement strategies that address Sri Lanka's specific transportation and sustainability challenges.

In your view, how can a sustainable infrastructure policy align with Sri Lanka's broader economic and environmental goals while fostering innovation and development in the transportation sector?

Prof. Amal S Kumarage: A sustainable infrastructure policy should focus on the efficient use of resources and the reduction of dependency on costly imports such as oil and vehicles that take up around 20-25% of imports. By embracing digital technology and focusing on sustainable public transport, we can align our transportation goals with economic and environmental objectives while fostering innovation in the sector.

In closing, what message or advice would you like to share with policymakers, professionals, and the public regarding the importance of sustainable transportation and infrastructure in Sri Lanka's development?

Prof. Amal S Kumarage: It is crucial to understand that sustainability should not be just a catchword. It should guide our decisions and actions in the transportation sector. We must focus on efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly solutions, and work collaboratively to achieve sustainable transportation and infrastructure in Sri Lanka.

The interview with Prof. Amal S Kumarage has shed light on the complex and critical issues surrounding sustainable transportation in Sri Lanka. It is evident that the nation faces substantial challenges and has room for improvement in its approach to infrastructure and transportation.

Prof. Kumarage's extensive experience and insights emphasize the need for a more comprehensive and effective policy framework. Policies should not merely serve as documents on shelves but should actively shape how Sri Lanka invests in, implements, and evaluates its transportation projects.

Moreover, the interview underscores the importance of embracing innovation and technology, especially in an era where digital solutions can play a pivotal role in optimizing the existing infrastructure and reducing the nation's dependence on costly fuel imports.

The message is clear: Sri Lanka needs a sustainable transportation approach that respects its unique population density and ecological diversity. Sustainability should not be a buzzword but a driving force behind decisions that focus on efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly solutions. To achieve these goals, collaboration among government, academia, and the private sector is essential.

The future of transportation in Sri Lanka is a challenge, but it's also an opportunity. By adopting sustainable and innovative practices, the nation can contribute to its economic and environmental goals while fostering development in the transportation sector. The key is to combine lessons from international successes with tailored solutions that suit Sri Lanka's distinctive needs and environment.

In closing, Prof. Kumarage's insights serve as a reminder that sustainable mobility is not just a choice but an imperative. Policymakers, professionals, and the public should heed the call for more effective policies, innovative strategies, and collaboration to drive Sri Lanka's journey toward a more sustainable transportation future.

Compiled by Shanika Gamage, Communications Consultant, ASI Sri Lanka

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article reflect the author’s views, and not the wider views of the Alliance for Sustainable Infrastructure.



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