How is Dhaka’s metro rail doing so far?
The two stations on each end of the MRT-6 line, Motijheel and Uttara North, are both finally operational. We now have our first completed metro line, save for the Bijoy Sarani, Kawran Bazar, Shahbagh, and Dhaka University stations, which will soon be fully operational. So, where has this new addition to Dhaka's public transport infrastructure brought us?
Before the metro rail, small fleets of buses—owned by private individuals and some by the government—with no specific schedules or designated stands, represented our idea of public transportation. This idea has changed with the addition of the metro rail, arguably the best method of transportation the modern world has to offer.
Boarding a bus in Dhaka often requires physical strength and agility. Those who cannot cope with the rush of getting on and off buses are referred to as "slow passengers" by bus operators, including drivers, helpers, and conductors. Moreover, bus services often neglect women, the elderly, and individuals facing physical challenges. Instead of assisting these groups, the operators make an effort to prevent them from boarding, often using various excuses or tricks.
In line with the country's goal of inclusive development, the Dhaka metro rail ensures equal access to all, both the abled and the disabled. This equal access is a significant departure from our past public transport reality. On the metro, there is no hassle, no discrimination, and no one is left behind. People's privacy is respected, making for a reliable, safe, and comfortable commute, particularly for women. The metro can serve as the backbone for a more efficient Dhaka city. Once all five spines of this massive public transportation project are built, a significant transformation in Dhaka's public transportation is expected.
The tested and approved metro rail is a reliable and sustainable mode of transportation for the public, whose usage of it will free them from the hassle associated with other forms of transportation, while also helping to decongest the streets. This creates a win-win situation for commuters on every mode and is one of the primary merits of building metros. People will finally be able to reach their workplaces on time from distant areas, providing a unique opportunity for decentralisation.
However, we must consider one critical aspect: in order to maintain the metro's inclusivity and universality, the fare rate charged to commuters must be affordable for all. As the country's first metro project, the government has invested a substantial amount into it. I say "substantial" because, when we compare our costs to those of our neighbouring countries' for similar projects, the Dhaka metro rail expenses are significantly higher.
Ideally, the metro's fare rate should be so low that even for short distances, commuters never have to question why they should walk to the station, climb the stairs, purchase a ticket, and board the train when they can simply raise their hand in the middle of the road and board a bus for the same or a lower fare. When it comes to fare considerations, we should prioritise the lowest-income individuals, assessing how much they spend on getting to and from work via the metro, including the additional expenses of reaching and leaving the stations. In the grand scheme of things, people are less concerned with their comfort and more focused on the total amount of money they spend daily.
For future metro projects, a performance evaluation of the MRT-6 should be conducted. For instance, if authorities had hoped for a speed of 100 km/h, but only achieved 50 km/h on the speedometer, they should recognise that 50 km/h is the attainable speed. Moreover, once there is a station every kilometre or so, and with the metro's route having several curves and turns, the train will end up running at a speed much lower than its capacity.
In planning the future MRT lines, authorities should aim for a maximum speed of 70-80 km/h, which will lead to a lighter elevated track and significantly lower costs. Most countries are now gravitating towards lighter systems because of the lower development costs, resulting in significantly lower fare rates for commuters. This substantial reduction in fares is often referred to as "fatal attraction," and becomes the deciding factor for people choosing the metro over smaller transport vehicles on the roads.
Dhaka's current metro system lacks several advanced amenities. It relies on a driver-dependent model and employs age-old tram-like catenary systems with overhead wires. This creates visual intrusion and contributes to a tangled appearance of the city. In contrast, many of our neighbouring countries use a third-rail-centric system for electric supply, which is visually pleasing.
It is also surprising that the Dhaka metro rail lacks built-in Wi-Fi, despite having a consultant as innovative as JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency). This is a significant oversight and should be addressed in the months to come.
The most significant problem, though, may be that station landings are located in areas with narrow footpaths. This is a fundamental issue that cannot be undone. Before building a metro system, the first step should be to improve accessibility around it. Wider footpaths should be prioritised, followed by creating transfer facilities for the various small vehicles used by people coming to and departing from the stations. Our current approach appears to involve building the metro first and then placing the landings wherever the stations are situated. So far, we have seen construction being delayed due to issues with land acquisition for the landings on or around existing footpaths.This raises questions about what the consultants, to whom we pay thousands of crores, are doing. Transit-oriented development, with a $3 billion investment, is not solely about transport; it aims to make the city smart and life within it smoother. The current approach resembles that of a flyover project, rather than well-planned town development, especially since Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk) is missing as a partner in the project.
Another issue is the dividers below the metro structure separating two sides of the roads. These dividers are intended to deter pedestrians from crossing the roads recklessly. However, the two-and-a-half-feet tall dividers appear inviting to pedestrians, who cross the road from whichever point they wish. This may lead to slower traffic as vehicles on the roads try to accommodate pedestrians, reducing the efficiency of roads—underscoring that the Dhaka metro rail is being built without sufficient consideration for the roads below.
As the Dhaka metro rail is the first of its kind, and authorities are planning even larger investments for future parts of the megaproject, we need to learn from the mistakes made in this one and plan wisely. A third-party evaluation should be conducted as operations expand. Fares for commuters must not be the sole source of cost recovery. Non-operational revenue should be prioritised instead. Station areas should be redeveloped through land consolidation, and block development should be pursued. The landowners will remain the same, but development will be handed over to the metro authorities. When commercialisation and transportation are properly utilised, both landowners and the government, along with the people, will reap the benefits.
As told to Monorom Polok of The Daily Star
Dr Md Shamsul Hoque is a professor of civil engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET).
Views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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