Dhaka traffic: The common sense approach

by Rumi Ahmed and Jyoti Rahman

Published in the Daily Star on 7 January 2010.

We need massive funds to build power plants. Instead of waiting for donors’ funds, let’s use our common sense to fix the traffic problem. Instead of paying consultants for recommending expensive constructions, let’s listen to experts with local knowledge.

ROAMING the city’s streets in the back seat of one’s own chauffeured automobile has been a passion of Dhaka’s moneyed classes from the colonial days. Historians argue whether the first motor vehicle in the city was owned by the Nawab family or the British sahibs. But owning a car has been a substantial status symbol in our society for a century now, with memories of dust storms on the city’s dirt roads created by those early vehicles passed down through generations.

Throughout the transition to the new nationhood, the club of motor-car owners in Dhaka was very exclusive. Even in the 1970s, a 1955 Volkswagen, 1961 Hillman, or 1958 Datsun was the ultimate symbol of social rank. In the more recent decades, thanks to garments magnates, government officials and professionals who seem to spend well beyond their formal income, UN peace mission veterans, and remittance from the expatriates, the exclusiveness of the auto owners’ club has been diluted. But Dhaka’s bourgeoisie still dream of riding in the back seat of that chauffeured car, creating a dust storm. And in this they are supported by a rather curious corporate culture in Dhaka, whereby the further up an executive is in the hierarchy the more cars he gets for personal use.

In 2008 alone, about 14,000 cars and another 5,000 personal passenger vehicles (jeeps and SUVs) were registered in Dhaka. The number of privately owned and operated motor vehicles registered in the five years to 2008 was double that of the previous five year period. Over the same period, the number of buses and minibuses registered fell slightly, and the registration of taxis and auto-rickshaws collapsed.

As a result, Dhaka now seems to be buried under a menacing heap of automobiles. Dhaka roads are not roads anymore, they are parking lots. People spend more time during the day sitting in their automobiles than anywhere else.

This is not sustainable. Somehow, the reliance on private automobile needs to be reduced. The corporate culture of rewarding people with cars, and the social culture of cars being status symbols, need to be discouraged.

How can this happen when Dhaka does not have a decent public transport system?

Discussions on public transport systems tend to be dominated by subway systems, electric commuter rails, and expressways. But there are great dangers in the whole traffic management agenda being dominated by these mega projects. Irrespective of their affiliation, politicians like these projects as visible signs of “development,” while bureaucrats and consultants like the gravy trains that accompany them. And while the public is fed the dreams of these grand projects, hard questions are either unasked or unanswered. For example, in an energy-starved nation, where will the electricity come from to run these trains? A recent study found that only 8% of the city’s residents will use a fully functional mega expensive subway system.

This is not to say infrastructure development has no role. Of course it does. Trains may well be part of a long-term strategy, but let’s not pin everything on massive transport infrastructure projects. Instead, let’s focus on “here and now” solutions, such as encouraging big buses and walking. School buses can transport school children and teachers. The government can hire buses for public servants. Business houses can transport everyone from the CEO to the peon in buses. Instead of spending crores and worsening traffic jam by trying to build flyovers, let’s make the footpaths functional so that people can walk to work. Let’s discourage peak hour driving by charging for peak hour road use, banning passenger vehicles in certain areas for certain times and charging heavily for parking on the city corporation’s roadside spaces. Let’s assign bus lanes and make bicycle lanes on the major roads. And let’s enforce the traffic rules.

These won’t cost much money at all, and unlike many other necessary reforms they are not politically difficult to achieve. All that is needed is an innovative approach to the issue, and a willingness to experiment. This government was elected with a mandate for change. It is uniquely placed in our history in terms of strength and political capital. Can this government resist the temptation of mega money of mega projects, and focus on these real solutions?

We need massive funds to build power plants. Instead of waiting for donors’ funds, let’s use our common sense to fix the traffic problem. Instead of paying consultants for recommending expensive constructions, let’s listen to experts with local knowledge. Big cities in our neighbouring countries, sharing similar socio-economic conditions, have succeeded in using these approaches. Why can’t we?

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