Disentangling Dhaka traffic
With a huge number of all types of vehicles gridlocked near a railgate or road intersection, sometimes even for 30 minutes at a stretch, Dhaka city's traffic congestion problem has assumed alarming proportions. A drive from Kamalapur to Mirpur or Uttara to New Market is a painful experience. The journey from home to office or business centre takes away vital hours from work. Other than being late for office or scheduled appointment, the loss of effective man hours is a colossal drain on the resources of the country.
The influx of about 40,000 vehicles that hit the road every year and the huge increase in the number of rickshaws, many of which are allegedly unlicensed, have added to traffic congestion. In the absence of a separate lane for rickshaws on most of the roads, they occupy the whole road space and hamper the movement of mechanised vehicles, which can, at best, move at 15 to 20 km per hour.
Wide and long roads and the vehicles that move on them herald economic growth. Former US President John F. Kennedy had said: "It's not wealth that built our roads, but the roads that built the wealth." Leaders in our country, it appears, thought the other way round, judging from the dilapidated state of the roads and by-lanes connecting the city roads.
With the axiom that the tonnage on city roads, especially an industrial city, grows twice as fast as the economy, the traffic growth has risen at least 10% in each of the past 15 years. The total number of vehicles on the city roads is 7.5 lakhs, at least five times more than what it was in 1990. The weight of freight moved over the city roads in recent times has jumped at least 50 times in this period, and the number of passengers has leapfrogged to 70 times.
With the maintenance aspect of highways and arterial roads blithely ignored, roads with innumerable potholes, clouds of dust, accumulated water in the ditches and smoke blowing over the commuter's face as junk vehicles pass by are features symbolic of the squalid state of the city roads in summer and winter. With the onset of rainy season, most of these roads are either canals or mini-reservoirs of water.
The major cause of congestion and accidents is lack of guidelines for land use in the city. Transportation planning in big cities is done through appraisal of travel demand management that aims at reducing trips in congested parts of the city. The mushrooming growth of shopping malls, residential apartments, schools, colleges, private universities and clinics has aggravated the problem to a large extent. The haphazard growth of the city with no 'Master Plan' has given rise to chronic congestion. The only solution to the chronic traffic jams is building subways under the existing roads or sky rails above the roads, which seems to be a distant dream till now.
The appalling condition of the roads is caused by the rapid deterioration of the road top or the macadam, which is poorly built. According to a World Bank study, none of these roads, not to speak of the lanes and by-lanes, has internationally accepted quality of structural and pavement formation.
Other than the deaths on the roads and drain on the economy to the tune of Tk.20,000 per year, the cost of vehicular damage because of poor road construction is pushing up transportation costs for goods and passengers to limits hardly affordable for the common man.
Dhaka is unquestionably a commercial hub now. The large scale growth of business is changing Dhaka, but with no improvement in road condition. In consequence, business suffers and the economy bleeds. When the rest of the world has taken steps to speed up road construction activities by upgrading technology, we are still clinging to primitive ones.
In the last few years, traffic jams have taken a turn for the worse, with 7.5 lakh vehicles of different categories plying on the city's scarce road space that now stands at 8% as against the requirement of 25%. Sources in traffic management indicate that 30% of this scant road space remains occupied by parked vehicles and hawkers. Except two major roads -- Airport Road and Mirpur Road -- all thoroughfares in the city are accessible to all types of vehicles at all hours of the day and night.
The proposal for building metros or subways or sky rails is still in the embryonic stage and there is hardly any possibility that these will come up in the next ten years, even if there is political will to implement it. But we have to redress the problems of the people of all categories and vocations, ease traffic congestion and usher in easy movement by introducing some measures that can yield viable results.
The most imperative need is to reduce the number of transports, especially smaller vehicles that occupy more road space but carry fewer passengers. And the next important task for the government on fast track implementation process would be introduction of commuter trains which will run at quick intervals from nearby townships in the morning and evening rush hours.
With improved communication, trade and commerce will flourish in satellite towns, which will create jobs and encourage migration of people from Dhaka city to neighbouring townships. At the same time, this measure will relieve pressure on the highways, and allow people coming to Dhaka on daily basis to move from road travel to train travel. These fast moving commuter trains with stoppages at Uttara, Banani and Maghbazar will reduce congestion on the main Dhaka-Tongi highway appreciably.
In an effort to reduce road congestion to the maximum possible extent in the present situation, the measures listed below need to be tackled on priority basis:
(i) Travel Demand Management: Many developed countries have resorted to travel demand management in order to curb traffic congestion. This important tool aims at reducing the impact of traffic by influencing people's travel behaviour. TDM can be achieved through growth management, road pricing, auto-restricted zones, parking management, car pooling, alternative work hours, flexible time, and compressed work-week;
(ii) Travel Management Issue: Road junctions in the city are not properly planned. Roads were constructed with hardly any thought about the size and number of vehicles that would be plying on them years later. Experts opine that steps like street widening, intersection widening, building of flyovers at every intersection, one way routes, grade separation, bus bays, and parking control can improve the situation to a great extent.
In Dhaka city, there is no parking policy in force. 95% of the commercial buildings in Motijheel, the hub of the city, hardly have parking facilities. Parking spaces allotted in Gulistan, Fulbaria, Motijheel and New Market areas are now being used for other purposes by politically influential persons. New shopping complexes are coming up with no provision of parking facilities.
The fact is that, while formulating rules for curbing chaos and unbearable traffic situation in Dhaka city, encroachment on public space has neither figured in policy planning nor engaged the attention of the concerned authorities because the encroachers, who are politically very powerful, cannot be removed.
The writer is a columnist of The Daily Star. E-mail: [email protected]