Mass rapid transit for Dhaka: The last ray of hope
Twenty million people will live in Dhaka in 2030 if present growth trends continue. Unhindered informal/unplanned and formal/planned growth on its fragile ecology makes it one of the most vulnerable/unlivable cities on the planet in the face of climate change and other natural calamities. The present traffic scenario is connected with this explosive urban growth and has to be treated accordingly.
Successive governments have made attempts to improve the traffic situation. The past BNP government studied proposals for a network of Maglev trains and the present AL government is contemplating a light rail transit system. This is highly encouraging because a well designed Mass Transit System has the potential to reduce traffic congestion and also become the single most powerful tool to consolidate the trends of urban growth, become the key engine to create new satellite cities, renew blighted urban areas and dispersing the extremely dense city centre.
Since the end of the nineteenth century urban planners around the world have used light rail systems as the key component of mass transit networks to shape the urban growth of entire regions by the means of creating satellite townships. Trams, trolleys, street cars formed the back bone of public transport in almost all major cities. Satellite cities and suburbanization eased the lives of millions of citizens. In the US, after the World War II the Federal Government initiated one of the largest public works program to build the interstate highway system and regulated fuel process to encourage automobile manufacturers. Many light rail networks were forced to shut down in the face of stiff competition. A few cities such as New York and Chicago had to run the light rail system because of the shortage of parking space in the dense downtown areas. By the end of the 20th century the proliferation of the automobile has led to excessive dependence on non- renewable fossil fuels, air pollution, traffic congestion, and waste of space required for parking .Urban planners are now using Transit Oriented Development (or in other words how a well integrated transport system based on a rail network) to curb such problems in many cities all over the world.
Satellite cities are planned after carefully analyzing present and future land use patterns and density, ecosystems, utility and road infrastructure, presence of growth magnets such as industry, commerce, institutional facilities, other urban amenities, and travelling time from key urban nodes. A minimum density is required to make light rail feasible. Within a quarter mile radius of the transit station, high density mixed use/commercial growth is considered feasible and the quarter mile belt after this zone is considered a medium density zone, usually residential. This area spreading approximately half mile from the station is termed as the transit shed. In our country the informal networks of lighter public transport such as auto tempos, rickshaw vans have the potential to extend the transit shed much further. Parking lots and cycle stands are built adjacent to the stations so people can park and ride. This is a very powerful tool to reduce congestion in downtown.
Constructing and operating an extensive new underground or elevated rail network will be an extremely complex, expensive and time consuming in a flood prone earthquake zone as ours. This essay examines the potential of developing an integrated transport and urbanization scheme by upgrading the existing railway network and connecting it to a hierarchical network of new circular bus routes and more informal lighter modes of public transport for the greater Dhaka region.
As shown in Figure 1, the key railway junctions connecting the capital to the north and westbound cities must be shifted to Joydevpur and Bhairav. The southbound rail network has to be connected from Narayanganj to Chandpur via Munshiganj. The new light rail will connect Joydevpur and Bhairav with Comilla via Tongi, Cantonment, Banani, Tejgaon, Kamalapur, Narayanganj and Munshiganj. This single act can create the potential for growth of new urban centres and revitalize old ones in the entire region. Along this route new specialized urban centres can be planned for light industries, education, healthcare, housing etc. to relieve the pressure on existing such areas.
Barring the areas developed by the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (RAJUK) and some private developers, Dhaka has grown almost spontaneously along the key north-south roads. Typical informal urban growth forms the edges of the wetlands and rivers to the east west and south as a consequence of not having proper road access. If the road networks are improved these areas have the potential to densify further. Such development will depend upon the success of building new roads in the east west direction and connecting them to the existing road network.
Like all cities of similar socio-economic conditions, the key resource of Dhaka is the boundless energy and ingenuity of the people. The informal transport sector of light public transport such as autotempos of various sizes and rickshaw vans have kept the city and indeed the whole country alive and kicking. These are more efficient on the winding narrow streets of Dhaka. Figure 2 shows how an auto tempo route in conjunction with a circular bus route can bring an area of almost one square mile under such a multimodal network. If such a network is carefully planned, the need for rickshaws will decrease.
The diagram shown in Figure 3 shows an integrated transport scheme with circular bus routes connecting the rail network with the rest of the city. The existing railway stations and road intersections at Tongi, Airport, Cantonment, Banani, Tejgaon, Kamalapur and Naranyanganj must be expanded and rebuilt to function as multimodal exchange nodes. New such stations will have to be built at the intersections of the key roads and railway tracks at Mohakhali, Maghbazar, Panthapath and Rampura Road. The tracks must be elevated above the roads at these points and the stations will have to be built accordingly. The diagram also shows some new roads that will relieve overall traffic congestion. It also implies that if such a hierarchical network is introduced the congestion at the existing key transfer nodes such as Banani, Mohakhali, Farmgate, Gulistan and Maghbazar will become dispersed into the network of stations and bus stops and the need for all buses to ply to downtown.
Figure 4 shows a composite transport map of St. Louis, Missouri in the USA. The new metrolink system was rebuilt using the same tracks in the 1990's. The integration between the rail network which spreads out in the east west and the major bus lines running in the opposite direction forms the backbone of the system.
Effectively planned Transit Oriented Development is a product of meaningful collaboration between urban planners, transport and traffic engineers, policymakers, financers, contractors, the government and the
people. The transit stations become the natural nodes in the city where the people connect their movement with the city. Thoughtful urban design can seize this opportunity to shape the stations and the system to enhance the legibility, functional clarity, and experiential quality of the city.
The author, Asst. Professor, Department of Architecture, Ahsanullah University of Science & Technology, is an architect and urbanist trained in Bangladesh and the USA.
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