It is easily conceivable that BBC would run a special feature titled “Dhaka: The City That Once Was” in 2071 as it celebrates 100 years of Bangladesh's independence. Dhaka's liveability, or lack thereof, is already a subject of much interest. But how do we avoid that near-certain predicament 50 years down the road? What can we do today?
Private cars occupy more than 60 percent of road space in Dhaka, carrying less than 6-8 percent of commuters. Conversely, public transportation takes up about 7 percent of road space. Vehicles currently move at a sluggish pace of 7 kmph on average and are estimated to reach walking speed at 4 kmph by 2035. Over 3.2 million work hours are lost daily due to traffic congestion—amounting to an economic loss of USD 3.75 billion per year according to World Bank. Though several flyovers have been built and more are on the way, these mostly cater to 6-8 percent of commuters. There are Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) projects planned to decongest Dhaka, such as the Metro Rail Project, estimated to move 60,000 people every hour. At best, these measures can keep the problem temporarily at bay. Public projects are often intricately tied up in vested interests. Urban planning and transportation are no exception.
Globally, there are numerous interventions to deal with transportation issues and improve liveability of cities, such as Hyperloop One. Hyperloop One, expected to be ready for use by 2021, is essentially a high-speed mass transit system similar to modern maglev trains, both using magnets for propulsion. Hyperloop One, however, is expected to be significantly faster, energy-efficient, environmentally friendly with lower costs of construction and maintenance compared to modern high-speed trains by some estimates. At an estimated cost of USD 7 billion for a 100-mile long track, Hyperloop One could potentially connect Dhaka to Chittagong in 23 minutes.
Considering the problems that Dhaka faces, the local interventions (either proposed or currently underway), and global efforts in the realm of urban planning, we built three scenarios for Dhaka for 2071, with a focus on transportation and liveability. These scenarios are stories of the future, rooted in the needs of tomorrow and unbridled by the limitations of today, written in 2071.
“Dystopia”, explores a catastrophic future state building on current trends in development. Unplanned growth continues as Dhaka Structural Plan (DSP) is not fully implemented amidst allegations of corruption, ongoing projects such as the MRT project were postponed until further notice, and climate change exacerbations started a massive exodus of people from coastal regions to Dhaka.
“Dhaka-fiction” envisions relocation of the capital to a purposely built modern city. Dhaka's population grew to 35 million by 2035. The government moved the capital 40 miles north of Dhaka after a democratic referendum. The top 20 percent income group were incentivised through tax breaks to relocate to the new capital. After circular Hyperloop became a reality in 2025, Dhaka became the 12th city in the world to build a city-wide network of Hyperloop resulting in a rapid decrease in the number of cars as well as reduction in traffic congestion (average speed of traffic increased to 50 kmph).
And finally, “Dhaka Urban Network (DUNE)” ventures into the realm of specialised clusters surrounding Dhaka and imagines the use of Hyperloop for limited purposes. DUNE consists of a network of small urban centres around the area previously known as Dhaka Metropolitan, now known as the Core in 2071. Distributed relocation of homes, schools, healthcare facilities, superstores etc. to the urban centres reduced population in the Core. Six MRT lines spiral the Core. River and public bus accelerate movement within the Core. Industrial parks outside Dhaka are connected to Payra and other deep-sea ports via Hyperloops. From Dhaka a Hyperloop line to Payra costs USD 15 billion and one to Chittagong USD 11 billion. The USD 27 billion is equal to the value of economic loss due to traffic congestion in Dhaka in seven years.
Dystopia may seem very pessimistic. We believe the dark undertones are not a result of malicious machinations but rather myopia and inertia. The current patchwork and incremental approach to planning only increases Dhaka's vulnerability to natural and social catastrophes. Dhaka-fiction has a dreamy futuristic flavour to it, but the entire purpose of this scenario is that in 2100 Dhaka-fiction may look like the most logical (least fictional) and highly probable scenario in hindsight. DUNE appears to be an excellent scenario on the surface), but requires an unprecedented focus on planning, coordination and implementation by numerous stakeholders.
We do not recommend any of the scenarios, but wish to emphasise on the need for simulating how the problems of today might translate into the realities of tomorrow. Many organisations, like the World Economic Forum, use scenario-based approaches to plan for the problems of tomorrow. While many of the ideas and scenarios might seem too far-fetched, there are examples of projects such as “Ecotopia 2121” that envision cities 100 years from now. It is never too late to think differently.
Pial Islam is Managing Partner at pi STRATEGY, a management consulting firm that specialises in helping clients transform ambiguity into opportunity. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The author acknowledges the contributions of Anik Chowdhury and Suvro Shahriar of pi STRATEGY for this article.