Just like previous years, home-bound passengers will have to go through the gruelling predicament of finding transport at an affordable price and then survive through the traffic to travel to their hometown from Dhaka city this Eid.
The construction of BRT-3 on the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway, the road expansion works of the Dhaka-Tangail-Rangpur highway, and the lower number of ferries on the Shimulia-Kathalbari route will be the leading cause of suffering.
Bangladesh has invested a hefty amount of money in the country's roads and highway infrastructure to improve the highways' condition. Additionally, Bangladesh has been involved in several regional initiatives and identified strategic transport routes, including Asian Highway, South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (Sasec) and BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) Initiative. These transport routes will allow Bangladesh to connect with regional and global supply chains and provide landlocked countries and territories access to seaports at Chattogram, Mongla and Payra.
The Business Standard spoke to transport expert professor M Shamsul Hoque about the quality of our highways and roadblocks to the initiatives.
Hundreds of thousands of people will have to suffer on the eve of the Eid due to the dilapidated Dhaka-Mymensingh highways and extension work on the Dhaka-Tangail-Rangpur route as well as in the Dhaka-Sylhet and Dhaka-Chattogram highways. Why do you think we do not get expected results from our development projects on the highways?
If we could increase the capacity of the highways, we would not have to do so much work. The intersections basically control the capacity of a highway. They are the hotspots for traffic congestion. We need to turn the intersections into interchanges like Kuril so the traffic can ply unhindered. But we did not do that. What we do [instead] is fatten the highways.
We need to improve the highways for the whole year around. But we see that the authorities become very active just before and after Eid to manage the situation.
People somehow manage to go home on Eid, but the quality of the journey deteriorates day by day. There is a massive chance that this time it will be worse; firstly, because a huge number of people are going home this Eid. Secondly, the number of small vehicles, private cars and motorcycles, is rising on the highways. A single bike will take as much time as a 52-seater bus to give tolls at the toll plazas.
The government should have barred private vehicles during the Eid holidays. The government has barred cargo vehicles during Eid holidays, which negatively impacted our economy, [so] why not private vehicles.
Now we will have to handle the situation manually. We will have to deploy more law enforcement agency members. We will have to see if the haat-bazaars on the side of the highways create any problems or not. The government will have to take initiatives so that motorcycles do not ply the highways. This will be the immediate method of crisis management.
Also, we will have to look into the sources of traffic jams on the highways for the whole year. The government ought to refrain from allowing people to establish haat-bazaars on the side of roads and highways.
Bangladesh has been constructing regional highways. But it is said that they are not meeting international standards. What do you think about it?
Yes. I think that we are not even near the international standard in constructing the international highways. Meeting the international standard does not mean that we have to widen lanes. The main point is to improve the operating condition of a highway.
The journey will have to be safe. Instead, what we are doing here is turning four-lane highways into eight-lanes ones. The emphasis is given on width. We have widened highways, and we are saying we have constructed international-standard highways.
Besides, our highways are not access-controlled. As a result, fast-moving, as well as slow-moving vehicles, are plying the same road. We will have to make sure that the road has access control. The automobiles of other countries will use our highways by giving us a surcharge. As a result, we will have to provide them with functional highways.
Another critical issue is the use of land on both sides of highways. Recently, the government urged the local administration to raise their tax. As a result, many local administrations permit establishing markets along the highways. The markets next to the highways always create bottlenecks because many cargo trucks occupy the highways due to the loading and unloading of goods.
The drivers will have to reduce the speed of their vehicles because of these bottlenecks. In some segments, the drivers will have to drive slowly, and in other segments, they will have to drive fast. So, it has become riskier. The driver should be able to drive his vehicle at a sustained speed all throughout the way safely.
In the absence of such operating conditions, highways are losing their essence.
What can be done to improve the condition of our highways?
If you want to call a highway an economic corridor, you will have to keep a high safeguard for land usage. The Roads and Highways Department is supposed to keep 20 metres of land on both sides of a highway free. No one can build any establishment on their own there. People will have to take permission to set up establishments on that land.
If we can implement it, it will reduce the parking activities and establishments like haat-bazaars on the side of the highways. If we can ensure setbacks on both sides of a road, the condition of a highway will automatically change.
There should be two types of speed limits on a high standard highway. In fact, there is an upper speed limit and a lower speed limit globally. The government has to ensure that a vehicle runs above the minimum speed.
The chain of command of the roads will have to be maintained. Nowadays as the village roads are connected with the national highways, slow-moving vehicles can easily come on the national highways. These kinds of vehicles are not supposed to run on national highways. We will have to stop giving lateral connections to these types of slow-moving vehicles randomly.
If you look, you will find that there are more than one hundred markets on the Dhaka-Chattogram Highway. And each market is a bottleneck of the highway. This is hampering the productivity of the national highway.
Will our highways have the capacity to take the pressure of international cargo trucks?
I will say that our roads will not be able to take the pressure of the international cargo trucks because we do not have any arterial roads. Still, we face the 30-kilometre tailback on our highways. It means that we do not have any spare capacity on our roads. If an accident happens or an unwanted maintenance issue arises, there is a massive queue on the roads.
Before opening up our highways for international cargo trucks, we have to see our own demands first. I often see news of enormous traffic jams at different points of the highway in the country. That means we cannot take the pressure of our own freight logistics. At this stage, we should not invite others into the same space. If we do that, we will create more pressure on our trade because we will have to take extra traffic pressure.
If we can make our toll plaza digitised and highways access controlled, then the productivity of the highways will automatically increase. We will not have to widen the roads.
But before doing that, we will have to sit with the stakeholders to improve the operational condition of the roads. We will have to concentrate on the land use and operating conditions.
We also have to get rid of intersections. Intersections are not supposed to be on the highways. Rather, we will have to construct more interchanges like Kuril. The definition of a highway is that no vehicle will have to stop in the middle. So building interchanges instead of widening the highways makes more sense.
We will see a win-win situation if we want to go with the scientific mindset. We will benefit from the regional connectivity. Our economy will reap the advantage.
Now our highways are not ready for international highways. It will make the situation worse. If international trucks ply our roads, the frequency of maintenance will rise. The condition of roads is already quite vulnerable.
After LDC (least developed country) graduation, we will lose many trade benefits. There is a vast scope to make up for the losses. If we can reduce the loss by developing the infrastructure, we will get a competitive edge in the global market.
Now is the time to reduce the transport cost and delays. If we get market access in the seven sisters through regional connectivity, we can trade with Nepal and Bhutan at a minimum cost. For this reason, we will have to build regional connectivity.