Why are people debating the proposed car-free day in Colombo?

Evening traffic in Wellawatte, Colombo. Image via Flickr by Nazly. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Colombo Municipal Council recently announced that the city’s first-ever car-free day will be held on Sunday, July 14, 2019. The Council is partnering with the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Sri Lanka to organize the pilot event — and although many hail this environment-friendly initiative, others are debating it on social media.

Safety concerns

Many women, for instance, said that cars afford them much-needed protection from sexual harassment. Driving allows them to avoid having to walk on the streets or take public transportation.

Street harassment is a daily reality for most women in Sri Lanka. A 2015 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) study found that 90 per cent of women surveyed had experienced street harassment while taking public transportation. Of these incidents, 74 per cent were physical in nature and included unwanted touching.

In this vein, journalist Marianne David tweeted:

She later added:

Environmental benefits

The traffic in the Sri Lankan capital has worsened in recent times due to the increase of motorized vehicles — including three-wheelers — on its roads. According to official figures, the total number of vehicles rose by 67 per cent to 7.2 million in 2017, from 4.8 million in 2012. In 2017, with a population of 21 million, Sri Lanka had a vehicle to person ratio of 1:3.

Some netizens lauded the move:

The Dutch ambassador was also seen walking (or at least riding) the talk, as she traveled back from the press conference on her bicycle. According to the event organizers, people can show their support for “CarFreeCMB” by traveling on foot, bicycles, skateboards or other non-motorized means:

However, Twitter user Sanduni Hettigoda felt that the event was only scratching the surface of the issue:

Others questioned the efficacy of the initiative, as the car-free day applies to just a small portion of the city and affects only private vehicles:

In fact, Twitter user Shamika Kulasingham was unconvinced that the car-free day would actually effect long-term change:

For Radha Withanachchi, though, the issues of long-term environmental benefits and women's safety were inextricably combined:

Anupama Ranawana agreed:

Right now, the only “transformation” in sight is in the form of the Colombo Light Rail Transit System, which will be operational by 2021 and is expected to ease a lot of the present traffic woes in the Sri Lankan capital:

Changing sexual harassment culture is not as straightforward.

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