Editor's Note: The following article comes from Abeda Sultana, a journalist working with KGOU in October. Her reflection on transportation issues in her home city presents a view of life in a growing area of the world.
More than 20 million people live in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. As a consequence, Dhaka city’s traffic congestion problem has grown to alarming proportions, and it is one of the most challenging issues.
Studies show that on an average day, vehicles are stopped for about six hours in total for trains, traffic signals at intersections and just because of congestion, too many vehicles trying to move on too few roads.
The traffic management systems of Bangladesh are those that were adopted in the 1980s when the country’s population was only 87 million, and now is more than 160 million.
New methods of traffic management are not being updated to accommodate the population growth, and as a result, the growing traffic jams are making the lives of normal people more difficult.
Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology's Department of Civil Engineering says the traffic congestion costs Bangladesh citizens $3 billion a year and Dhaka losses more than 8 million work hours each day.
The causes of traffic congestion in Dhaka are many. Starting from the city center, the skeleton, the structure and the lay-out of Dhaka’s roads are not well-planned and well-directed, and the population overwhelms the capacity of the road system.
While the Bangladesh government mandates 25 percent of all roads to be paved, Dhaka has only 7.5 percent.
Even more, 30 percent of the paved roads have additional obstructions to traffic: hawkers, salesmen, construction materials, waste containers and road-side stands that are on the pavement rather than on the shoulder of the road. As a result, vehicles have even fewer lanes to use.
Dhaka has several types of vehicles: public buses, taxis, microbuses, private vehicles, motorcycles, rickshaws and more. The increasing population increases the demand for more vehicles on the streets, and the result is both motorized and non-motorized vehicles occupy the same streets at the same time.
Rickshaws are a common reason for traffic jams. The number of rickshaws is very high and they don’t follow any traffic laws.
However, the rickshaws cannot be eliminated because they are both inexpensive and the greenest vehicle on the street. But their slow speed creates chaos and congestion.
The public transport system in Dhaka is not adequate or properly-routed. The three major bus stations, Sayedabad, Gabtoli and Mohakhali do not have sufficient capacity to accommodate all the buses coming in from other districts, nor enough buses to handle all the people who want to use the buses for transportation.
As a result, mini-buses, microbuses and private vehicles that can only carry a few passengers at a time add to the traffic congestion.
Limited parking arrangements are another major cause of excessive traffic in Dhaka. It has become a regular practice to park cars on roads because businesses and apartments do not construct designated parking areas.
In addition to the sources of traffic congestion, the actual condition of the roads contributes to the transportation difficulties.
In most cases roads are winding and twisting, which results in a larger number of intersections.
Lack of proper maintenance means drivers are likely to stop or swerve unexpectedly to avoid bad sections of the road. During the rainy season, the situation becomes more critical because the roads are sometimes under water due to heavy rainfall.
Traffic studies show that every day Bangladesh has 74 trains traveling to and from Dhaka. On average, it takes five minutes for a train to pass by each traffic crossing.
Although the problem of traffic congestion is universal, its solution is highly geocentric. As an emerging country, Bangladesh cannot use some remedies like the United States or Europe because of other higher priority areas of development. Dhaka has very limited infrastructure with shortages of electricity, gas and water.
Still, the Bangladesh government says it is trying to prepare some strategic plans and policies to improve the transportation system of Dhaka and elsewhere, but as yet, those plans are said to be still in development and not fully presented to citizens. But the result is that the citizens face traffic congestion every day and do not know when it will get better.
Clearly, there is no short cut to implement large projects quickly. Each project is complicated, studies must be done, funding arrangements must be made and other formalities are required. Quick solutions may lead to projects that do not reduce the problem and are the best value.
The government says there are no short to medium term plans under consideration to alleviate the traffic congestion using the current roads and improving the public transit system.
Various experts suggest the government should begin a number of low-cost, short-to-medium term actions, mostly by using government resources, which will reduce approximate 30 percent of the traffic congestion and will indicate the right direction for appropriate long term solutions.
To solve and reduce traffic jams, several steps could be taken by the Bangladesh Road and Transport Authority (BRTA), the government agency that oversees public transportation.
The first step is to increase the number of buses and improve the mass transport system.
Next, BRTA should provide drivers training. Currently, a resident of Dhaka just pays the fee and gets the driver’s license with no training involved.
BRTA should also provide safety inspections for mass transit buses, and proper steps should be taken in case of safety violations.
BRTA should also take some responsibility to control the increasing number of rickshaws by imposing registration fees and legal documentation.
The various agencies that govern the roads should establish different lanes for different types of vehicles, and a financial penalty for violators. This includes the Metropolitan Police, the Home Ministry and the Communication Ministry.
The Dhaka Metropolitan Police should enforce the laws to avoid certain congestion-causing habits such as improper passing, using the wrong side of the road to avoid traffic jams and disobeying traffic signals.
Dhaka traffic problems could be reduced with a “Mobile Court” system, where the members of the legal system, judges and lawyers, could move quickly to the site of an offense and deliver a verdict in a short amount of time.
This might not only mitigate traffic jam in short run, but in the long run could change the attitudes of drivers and society in general.
The country's first-ever bus route franchise (BRF) with a digital ticketing system was first authorized between the suburbs of Uttara and Azimpur on April 14, 2011. It should make bus travel more predictable and save time for the passengers. This type of service could be expanded to more areas of Dhaka.
In Dhaka, bus stops are officially designated for buses and other public transportation to pick up or drop off passengers.
Many times, these official bus stops are ignored by the bus drivers, sometimes at the urging of the passengers who want to be dropped off or picked up in the middle of the road. Bus stops should be well developed and the laws enforced by the traffic police.
Public transportation also includes the rickshaw, which are loved and hated in Dhaka. They are cheap and available, but they tie up traffic, carrying a single 1 person at a time.
They are also slower than motorized traffic.
Elimination of the rickshaw probably is not possible in the medium range, so the choice is to better organize them, by providing specific routes and restrictions to certain lanes of the highway.
But there are not enough traffic police in Dhaka, nor are they respected by the citizens.
The Dhaka Metropolitan Police should increase the number of traffic police, provide adequate training to increase their efficiency and professionalism. That would then also earn the respect from the citizens.
In many places in Dhaka, but particularly in the New Market and Gulisthan areas, the paved roads are used by cart vendors (called hawkers in Bangladesh), and even some illegal structures, which limit vehicles coming and going.
Again, the city needs a comprehensive traffic plan that outlaws the blocking of paved roads, and the laws need to be enforced.
The most expensive ideas include major improvements in the infrastructure: new roads, more paved roads, more overpasses (called flyovers in Bangladesh), and the development of a subway system for Dhaka.
But the largest project that also has public support is the decentralization of Dhaka: moving places of work, retail, and public services like education, health care and more, to the suburbs from the city center.
The public believes the government must reduce the need for the public to travel to the city center by moving needed resources to the suburbs. Government officials have not responded to requests for studies and action.
Even more, if a local business person wished to put a new business or factory in a suburb, transportation of incoming supplies and outgoing goods is difficult because of unpaved roads.
No one believes the roads will ever be free of traffic jams, but the general agreement is that a number of different actions by different government agencies must be taken to reduce the traffic jams, reduce the traffic accidents, and reduce the time lost for people who have to travel throughout Dhaka each day.