According to the latest data, Dhaka's traffic has ground to a snail's pace. 12 years ago, the average speed per hour (on Dhaka roads) for motorised vehicles was 21 kmph (kilometres per hour). Today it is 5 kmph (it has reduced 76 percent). People are spending hours on end on the road, being stuck in the same place or moving ahead at an average of 5 kmph on average. Analysts estimate that Dhaka residents are wasting a cumulative of five million working hours per day. The economic cost of that lost time is equivalent to Tk 37,000 crore.
The Accident Research Institute (ARI) of BUET and Road Safety Foundation jointly organised a roundtable titled “Dhaka city traffic gridlock: Economic and Health Impact” recently. It brought together transport experts, academicians and city planners to discuss this hideous traffic situation in the country's largest city. For years we have been told that the construction of flyovers and the much hyped, much vaunted “metro rail” is going to largely do away with traffic gridlocks. Well, given that it takes more than five years to construct a flyover like the one stretching from Shantinagar to Mouchak at one end and Banglamotor at the other (and that too the wrong design), and the fact that we just started construction of metro rail after dilly-dallying with the idea for the last seven years, it is hardly surprising that these high-budget, mega projects have failed to deliver what was originally promised.
It will soon become possible to walk faster than a motor vehicle. With average vehicle speeds now down to 5 kmph, and with the pace at which new (or reconditioned) vehicles are coming on to Dhaka roads, experts believe the average vehicle speed will be down to 4 kmph by 2025! When we look at the reasons behind such horrific slow speeds on major roads in the city, we find a myriad of problems, most of which can be rectified if there is political will. For a city that has been going vertical for some decades now, we find a woeful lack of planning when it comes to underground parking. Cars have to be parked somewhere and they generally end up clogging one lane of the road. No amount of police fines will fix this problem. Then we have the dismal transport situation. According to a report in Prothom Alo published on March 25, there are 200 public transport companies that ply Dhaka roads and service its 16 million residents. The manner in which buses stop in the middle of the road at any time of the day or night to pick up and drop passengers adds to clogging up the traffic. There is no effort on the part of the traffic police or any authority for that matter to make sure buses only stop at bus stops. Then there is the case of thousands of unregistered rickshaws on our roads. There is only so much the police can do in terms of impounding. Lastly, there is the situation with footpaths which do not cater to pedestrians; they cater to hawkers, who pay speed money to local muscle and allegedly the police to ply their trade on sidewalks that are supposed to be walkways for pedestrians. With sidewalks under the control of hawkers, people walk on the streets, adding one more woe to the worsening case of traffic.
What is obvious even to a layman is that there is no way that transportation for a city the size of Dhaka can be left to private cars and buses. No major city in Asia operates on these principles. If we go to our neighbouring city Kolkata in India, we find that they've had an underground rail system for some decades now. This is hardly a new idea and it is the fastest way to move mass people from Point A to Point B (and there are no traffic lights or traffic congestion underground). Instead of wasting thousands of crores of Taka building flyovers which have been planned and executed over the years, we are failing to realise one basic fact. Mass people in the city do not own private cars. They are reliant on mass transport systems. Given our track record of promising the sun-and-the-moon, major mass transportation systems like the much-vaunted metro rail system have petered out over the last so many years.
So, what is to be done? What came out of the roundtable was this. The government has a plan for the city called RSTP prepared in 2015. The cost of implementing this master plan was estimated at Tk 160,000 crore. Experts believe this was not a well thought out plan, but that is an entirely different argument. While policymakers will undoubtedly disagree that their golden goose solutions for alleviating the traffic situation have been nothing more than pipe dreams, we wonder why they can't enforce laws (that already exist) to tackle some of the more basic problems that hinder movement on roads. The economic cost of an average 5 kmph speed on the roads has major economic costs for the economy. As pointed out by the chief of ARI, “about 50 to 70 percent of the losses can be avoided through proper actions...sixty percent of Tk 37,000 crore [half way between Tk 20,000 crore and Tk 50,000 crore] can be saved by those actions.”
Now, as we enter the 48th year of our independence, taking stock of our actions (or inaction for that matter) on major projects that could have had a positive impact on mass transportation, we find that there's nothing really to write home about. One must however thank the government for getting some things right. The introduction of ride sharing phone applications that allow people to hail motorcycles to zigzag through the disastrous traffic that is now synonymous with living in Dhaka city (with a steadily worsening air pollution condition to add charm to city living).
Many people are now leaving their cars in their respective garages and buying helmets to hop on to two-wheelers or simply buying two-wheelers themselves to get to their destinations at the designated time. Another good thing is that the average (often lethargic citizen) is walking a lot more, both on and off pavements to get from Point A to Point B, because walking sometimes gets one to his or her destination faster than a car or bus for that matter. At the end of the day, we Dhaka-ites make do with whatever we can because the people who are supposed to look after us have better things to do than take corrective actions to make our lives a wee bit easier!
Syed Mansur Hashim is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.