During the Durga Puja vacation, Dhaka city wore a different look. The everyday traffic snarls had almost vanished and the streets were spectacularly empty. The reason was simple: during the vacation, educational institutions, mainly the schools, were closed.
On weekdays, mornings and noons often turn into nightmares for commuters when cars crawl along bumper-to-bumper on the Satmasjid Road in Dhanmondi, as students of the upper-class neighbourhood prefer to go to their schools and colleges in personal vehicles.
For all latest news, follow The Business Standard's Google Channel
The traffic congestion of the Dhanmondi area then spills over onto Mirpur Road — one of the major roads.
But take school traffic out of the equation and the city and its commuters can breathe again. Schools, however, cannot remain closed forever. That leaves school buses as a rational means of dealing with congestion.
How school commute creates traffic jam
Transportation experts say nearly one-fifth of the traffic congestion in the capital is because of the use of personal cars by school-going students.
They said that according to government documents, including Detailed Area Plan (DAP) and Revised Strategic Transport Plan (RSTP), close to two crores of trips are made every day in Dhaka city alone. The trips include school trips, office trips, medical and services trips, and business trips.
"17-18% of those are school trips or educational institution-related trips," said Professor Hadiuzzaman of the Department of Civil Engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet).
School-related trips are creating traffic congestion on major roads like Mirpur Road, Airport Road and Pragati Sarani of the city, he added.
Measures taken but failed
In 2009, the government took initiatives to reduce school-induced traffic congestion in the city by introducing school buses.
The Ministry of Education and the authorities of different schools and colleges in the city held a meeting to solve the problem in November of that year. The authorities agreed to introduce bus services for their students, but the idea did not pan out.
Former education minister Nurul Islam Nahid said that he had sat and discussed with stakeholders — principals of schools and colleges and guardians' representatives — to find a way to reduce traffic congestion caused by personal vehicles.
"We realised that if schools buy their own buses, there will be a problem as they will park the buses on the roads and create more traffic jams. Where will they park the buses all day long?" said Nahid.
Then he devised a new plan. He spoke to the Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation (BRTC) to provide buses to pick up and drop off students to different schools. And during school hours, the buses would carry passengers as usual.
"But the guardians opposed the initiative," said Nahid. "Because they wanted to use their own vehicles."
Former Viqarunnisa Noon School and College principal Kamrun Nahar said that when she was the principal, she wanted to take initiatives for school buses but some of the guardians did not show any interest.
The number of students at the school stands at around 27,000, with the Bailey Road branch alone having more than 10,000 students.
"A handful of guardians do not want the school to take the initiative to use buses instead of private cars," said Kamrun, who has spearheaded Viqarunnisa for more than two years.
However, she said that introducing school buses would benefit a large number of students. Some guardians, though, might raise questions and allegations of fund misappropriation, she added.
Mohammadpur, which is commonly known as a school zone, has high traffic concentration. Greenherald International School, St. Joseph Higher Secondary School and Mohammadpur Preparatory School and College on Asad Avenue, along with Mohammadpur Government School and Dhaka Residential Model College lead to high traffic in the area, according to traffic police sources.
"In the morning, the traffic snarls lead up to Dhanmondi," said Monibur Rahman, additional police commissioner (Traffic) of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP). "The vehicles on Mirpur Road face challenges at the time because of the traffic congestion."
In other areas, such as Bir Uttam Ziaur Rahman Road, there is a facility to park some vehicles inside the BAF Shaheen School, but most cars remain outside. The Holy Cross Girls High School and Government Science College in the Farmgate area also causes traffic congestion; while Viqarunnisa causes congestion at the Bailey Road, Officers Club and Moghbazar areas.
BRTC's initiatives and result
On 15 January 2010, BRTC launched a bus service for school-going students from Pallabi to Azimpur. Former communications minister Syed Abul Hossain inaugurated a fleet of 14 buses for students in the first phase.
The then BRTC chairman Major (retd) MM Iqbal said that it was just the beginning and if things went well, he would dedicate more than 100 buses to the fleet.
Current BRTC Chairman Tazul Islam told The Business Standard that now only three buses are operating for Dhaka's schools. There were six school buses, but three stopped operating in 2018.
He said that he does not know why the three school buses stopped operating, adding that the current routes include Kallyanpur to Azimpur, Airport to MES to Ramiz Uddin school, and one from Mohammadpur bus depot. However, the Mohammadpur bus depot manager said the school bus had stopped operating in 2020.
Tazul Islam said some new buses will arrive next year, and the corporation will provide some buses for these routes. He added that a total of 10 school buses operate in Chattogram city now.
On 11 May 2010, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina directed the relevant authorities to introduce BRTC bus service for the city's educational institutions, especially for schools. Again in 2015, she ordered the introduction of school buses to reduce the traffic congestion in the city. But such initiatives have yet to take effect.
"If BRTC buses move around the city every day and take passengers from the schools and colleges at a certain time, from morning to evening, then students and teachers will not feel it necessary to use their private cars," she had said at an event at the time.
In 2022, the Dhaka North City Corporation decided to launch a student bus service for four English-medium schools in its jurisdiction under a pilot project.
"We see guardians using their private cars for taking their children to school, which increases the number of vehicles on roads. The school bus service will help reduce traffic congestion, as well as environmental pollution," Mayor Atiqul Islam had said at a seminar.
"If school buses are introduced, the use of private cars will reduce drastically. Besides, students who will come together in a school bus, will get the opportunity to develop friendships. Our social bondings will be strengthened," the mayor said.
The service was supposed to start in May of this year, but has yet to kick off.
What is the solution?
Transportation expert Professor Hadiuzzaman says the school bus initiative alone will not work in Dhaka city because it does not have a well-defined catchment area for the education system.
The solution is for students to study in the school or college available in their respective neighbourhoods.
To do that, the government will have to improve the quality of education in their respective areas.
"If you are a resident of Uttara, you will have to study in a school or college in Uttara," Hadiuzzaman said. "Only then can a bus pick you up on time."
He suggested that the government improve the education quality for each and every catchment area first. And catchment-based schools should be within one kilometre.
"Why should only 10 schools in Dhaka city be the best?" asked Hadiuzzaman.
There are two policies: one is to improve the quality of the education system in all schools and another is to limit enrolling only to schools in your catchment area.
"If you cannot implement the catchment-based schooling system, you cannot cope by providing buses. Do you know how many buses that would require?" asked Hadiuzzaman.