The more money we pour into Dhaka's transportation system, the worse the traffic situation becomes. The Business Standard recently sat with Dr Md Shamsul Hoque of the civil engineering department at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) to understand how both our policy framework and mega infrastructure projects contribute to make the situation worse.
What have been your recent experiences of Dhaka traffic?
Recently I was travelling from Uttara to Farmgate. I could not travel 13 kilometres in two hours.
In the last 10 years, traffic speeds have seen a steady decline. Regardless of the investments made for development, it [traffic speed] is not going up. There are definitely reasons behind this.
The number of vehicles is increasing. We are providing registrations to anybody who is coming in for one, without conducting any sort of calculations.
There has been an increase in the density of private cars. Two-storey buildings are turning into 20-storey ones – generating more traffic in the process. The capacity is not being matched in a scientific way.
There used to be four-storey buildings in Azimpur, now there are 20-storey ones. Both Mouchak and Azimpur have been hotspots for chronic congestion for a long time. In such areas, without increasing the capacity of the roads, we increased the size of the buildings. But before doing something like this, you need to take the road capacity into consideration.
The capacity of our roads is limited. When such is the situation we are increasing the density [number] of vehicles. The floodgates of cars have been opened. Furthermore, recently the number of bikes has increased exponentially. At the same time, the government halved the registration charges for bikes without understanding the consequences first, and this move, in turn, increased the pressure on the roads.
Small vehicles create chaos, they take up a lot of space; they have neither enough space to move nor do they have enough space to stop. The motorcycles are being parked on footpaths and on the side of roads, further decreasing the capacity of roads.
We have also mistakenly built some flyovers. Flyovers are not prescribed to deal with peak hour traffic anymore. The idea that flyovers can reduce rush hour traffic is an outdated idea from the 1960s.
We have inadvertently increased traffic congestion because after descending from a flyover, vehicles pass through a crossing. Vehicles are coming both from above and below into the crossing, but we did not increase the capacity of the crossing. So it can be said that we have invested and planned to increase traffic congestion.
Besides, the number of rickshaws is also on the rise. People have set up shops on footpaths and are conducting illegal activities. But no one is looking into this issue. Moreover, there is no control over illegal parking. Public transports are also operating in a very undisciplined manner.
We have also built U-loops which are counterproductive. There are multiple roundabouts in the city, which act somewhat similar to U-loops. Some U-loops in Shahbag and Gulshan were closed off because they were counterproductive during the peak time and did not ease the gridlock. They do not even know where a U-loop is applicable.
This could be applicable to Purbachal because it works best where there is little traffic. U-loops backfire when there is too much traffic.
The proven way to increase the operational capacity is to make public transport disciplined and discourage small cars.
The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has asked the commerce ministry to submit a detailed report on whether the 0-1,600cc single slab for automobiles could be split up into three categories so that more middle-class people can afford small cars. Is this logical in our context?
A certain level of maturity and understanding of the transportation dynamic is necessary to run a megacity. Those who are incentivising motorcycle production and import of private cars are failing to understand the true cost of doing so.
Different ministries are taking such decisions to appear charismatic. So at the end of the year, they can boast about how big of a contribution they have made to the economy. In developed countries, the mayor steps in such cases.
In most metropolitans, there are separate governments to deal with the intricacies of operating a megacity. For example, in India, there is a separate government for the capital Delhi.
The commerce ministry is taking motorcycle liberalisation policies, halving registration fees and easing car imports. And the government is also giving secretaries soft loans and encouraging them to buy cars whereas they should have practised austerity.
The Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) Mayor Atiqul Islam recently suggested allowing carsto to alternatively ply the streets, based on even and odd numbered registration plates. Is this possible in Dhaka?
This suggestion was made without a clear understanding of the concept. You need to know first where such methods have been implemented and how successful such measures have been.
Dhaka is not just Manik Mia Avenue and Shahbag. If you go to Beribadh, there are no odd or even numbered vehicles. There are no numbers at all.
The mayor's office cannot even reclaim the footpath in front of their office. How are they going to implement this odd-even rule?
The last mayor worked so hard to shift the truck stand, but now it is back in the same place. Because the root cause of the problem has not been solved. Because trucks are necessary to city life. We need long term solutions, not short term ones.
The mayor needs to clean up the footpaths first. Are the footpaths pedestrian-friendly all year round? The tiles there have been installed for the blind. But now bikes ply the footpaths and vendors are occupying them.
We have recently seen an upsurge in Dhaka traffic after reopening of schools. Why can we not popularise school buses in Bangladesh?
In Bangladesh, schools have been set up in an unplanned manner. In other countries when you set up a neighbourhood, there must be a space for a school. And children from only that neighbourhood can study there. All children can walk to their school and children from all social strata can attend their local schools. Buses are provided for children who live 15-20 minutes away.
In Bangladesh, one student comes to school from Uttara, while another attends the same school from Naraynganj. How do you solve this issue? Without introducing school zoning, school buses will not be sustainable.
Will metro rail stations add to Dhaka's traffic woes?
These stations will be traffic bottlenecks. When a bus takes on or unloads passengers, it blocks up a lane anyway. Then rickshaws and other vehicles also flock to these places in search of passengers, further shrinking the road.
Metro rail stations will draw huge crowds. 500 people will descend at one time. Rickshaws and other ride providers will just stay there in search of passengers. In Pakistan, they have given the feeder roads [a road that serves as a traffic feeder to a more important road] to their metro authority to set up shuttle services. This will increase the core ridership. In one ticket they can go from their home to their destination with a shuttle providing pick up and drop off facilities.
Public transports never stop while vehicles like rickshaws sit around a lot. So if we can introduce a public microbus shuttle service for the metro rail it will not sit around. That is why public transports are so highly rated all over the world.
Nasif Tanjim transcribed the interview.