A lone traffic policeman at the centre of Purana Paltan intersection tries to control all sorts of vehicles reluctant to obey any traffic rules or the signals he is giving. Photo: Feroz Ahmed
The capital's messy traffic management system is left to be manually handled by around 3,000 policemen round the clock, making it increasingly difficult for them to enforce traffic rules.
With around 173 new motor vehicles hitting the city streets every day, traffic police are often found too exhausted to manage some vital intersections where violations of traffic rules are all too frequent, especially by buses and jaywalkers.
Worried, the traffic department says if new roads are not built and Bus Rapid Transit (a lane designated only for bus) or metro rails are not introduced, it will be impossible to control the city traffic.
But such infrastructures may not be a reality in the next two years, meaning the capital's traffic system is likely to worsen in the coming days.
“It is not possible to strictly enforce traffic rules even if we deploy 10,000 policemen unless new communication infrastructures are developed,” said a deputy commissioner (traffic division) of Dhaka Metropolitan Police.
“Besides, people do not follow the law. We can do very little when everyone breaks the rules at will,” he told The Daily Star, requesting anonymity.
Considering its population, Dhaka city must have 25 percent of its total area for roads, according to Prof Shamsul Hoque of Buet.
The roads must have at least two lanes and should be able to accommodate three types of vehicles -- passenger vehicles, ambulances and fire service vehicles -- side by side, added the former chief of Buet's Accident Research Institute.
But the capital has less than eight percent of its space for roads, and only 2.5 percent of those can accommodate those three types of vehicles side by side.
In all, the city has 2,500 kilometres of road, which is too little for some 7.79 lakh motor vehicles, mostly private cars. In addition, there are a few lakh illegal rickshaws and other slow-moving vehicles.
In 2009, the number of motor vehicles was 5.16 lakh.
The automatic traffic signal system was introduced in 2005 at about 70 points in efforts to ease the capital's trying tailback. But it petered out by 2008, as the maintenance and updating of the system's synchronisation proved difficult.
And as the number of vehicles shot up over the years, the automatic signal system eventually got replaced with manual control. The traffic department has already installed traffic boxes at all important intersections so that its personnel can work round the clock in three shifts.
“If a traffic policeman misses his breakfast before starting his day, he has no chance to eat in the next eight hours," said a sergeant at Farmgate. “He cannot even go to toilet unless he finds a temporary replacement on the spot. This makes us terribly worn out. I regret that I took up this job after graduation."
Experts say strict enforcement of traffic rules can yield some temporary relief from gridlock, but the job is almost impossible for the police as in many cases the rule breakers rule the system.
Firstly, vehicles carrying lawmakers and top government officials often come before the queue of vehicles at signals using the lanes meant for left turn only. Then they compel the cops to allow their vehicles to pass, halting the traffic flow of other roads.
Secondly, buses frequently stop to pick or drop passengers at intersections, which is strictly forbidden. Rickshaws ply the VIP roads that are off-limits to them; pedestrians cross roads whenever and wherever they like. And the walkways are fully or partially occupied by vendors, bikers, parked cars or construction materials.
Angered when his signals are not followed, a traffic policeman has a heated exchange of words with a bus driver. Photo: Feroz Ahmed
Moreover, maintenance work of a number of city roads in Mirpur, Tejgaon, Banani and Bangla Motor is going on. The work is vital, but it creates an acute gridlock in these areas. Every day, thousands of commuters get stuck on roads for hours and lose much of their working hours.
“It now takes me three hours to reach home at Shewrapara from my office at Banani [roughly six km],” said Mohammad Shahin, an engineer at a construction firm.
Ekramul Habib, a DMP deputy commissioner (traffic west), blamed frequent jaywalking and close timing of schools and offices for most traffic jams.
The remedy? Prof Shamsul Hoque, former chief of Accident Research Institute at Buet, suggests ensuring the use of footpath solely for the pedestrians to stop jaywalking.
He is also for banning roadside parking, particularly in front of markets, strictly prohibiting stopping of buses at intersections and replacing rickshaws and mini buses with bigger buses.
According to Shamsul, if a bus stops at an intersection, it blocks the traffic flow four times that on a straight road.
He suggested that the president and the prime minister use choppers to move within the city, as their movements leave huge impacts on the traffic.
“It is no longer a luxury; rather people will be happy and the government should proactively take such steps,” he noted.
As a long-term solution, experts recommend building more roads and other infrastructures like metro rail and mono rail systems.
To ease pressure on the capital, they say, some government offices and garment factories must be shifted to other cities.
Also, alternative roads must be built to divert the thousands of people who travel to other districts through the capital every day.
SM Salehuddin, former additional executive director of Dhaka Transport Coordination Board, said the automatic traffic control system must be reintroduced for efficient handling of the city's chaotic traffic.