Every morning as I travel to work on a rickshaw, I almost run over pedestrians, narrowly avoid multiple head on collisions with reckless cars, bang my head a few times into the hood of the rickshaw as it suddenly falls into a new pothole that appeared overnight while tuning out an endless barrage of honks that the vehicles on the street pump out. These are the streets of Dhaka city-- a commuter's nightmare. Traffic congestion or the need for a transit system is not to be discussed here. Let us focus on the pedestrians for whom the streets of Dhaka are a deathtrap.
The roads were never designed to accommodate the increasing number of cars. The lack of an appropriate response on part of the city corporation has meant that pedestrians' right of way has disappeared and they have been pushed out of their designated spaces and into the oncoming traffic. There has been an increase in demand for walkable neighbourhoods in this city from the millennials--- my contemporaries, friends, co-workers, students-- the people who form the bulk of the workforce and are the engine of entrepreneurship--- the demographic dividend the growth theorists want to take advantage of. On average, these people-- the early adopters of the walkable city, walk more kilometers a day compared to the rest of the population. Within certain neighbourhoods, many offices are located next to coffee shops, restaurants and other services. We abandon our cars or other modes of transportation in the middle of traffic and walk to work, walk to coffee shops for a mid-day pick me up, walk to restaurants for lunch, walk to meetings and to shopping malls.
Given the shift in preference towards walking combined with the proximity of places we need to go to everyday, why aren't more people actively making this desirable choice? The reason is this city is designed to coerce the residents to own cars and to sit behind the wheel instead of using the sidewalk. What we need now is to redesign this city to make it more walkable by offering them a walk that is as good as a drive or better. We can incentivize the walk with a series of nudges.
First, we need to reallocate the space for the pedestrians to the pedestrians- giving them ownership. The existing facilities are clearly not enough, as the footpaths are dilapidated and overrun by construction materials, motorcycles, makeshift shops etc. Let us clear this space, and help all commuters understand that the pedestrian has the right of way. We need to create a buffer, usually by lining the sidewalk with trees that come between the cars and the pedestrians so that they do not feel threatened by oncoming traffic.
Second, let us stop investing in Euclidean zoning that effectively separates everything in the same neighbourhood, making amenities only accessible through the use of automobiles. This is to motivate people to ditch the car and walk to the bakery, to the laundry, to the corner store.
Third, let us allow pedestrians to choose from combinations of streets to get to their destinations, minimising the risk of an unexpected delay in one area disrupting their schedule. This also gives the pedestrians the chance to discover their neighbourhoods, promoting local businesses and breaking the monotony of their walks.
Fourth, we need to invest in transit and create street networks. The network of streets would promote greater connectivity within neighbourhoods, allowing pedestrians to move from point A to point B without feeling the need to get into a car and drive the way.
Fifth, let us invest in parking spaces. If we ever want to initiate the idea of park-and-ride, we need to be able to stow these cars away for the duration their owners are on foot.
Lastly, we need to innovate. We can experiment with creating pedestrian only streets such as Banani Road-11, barring entry of all vehicles at certain times of the day for a week, then a few weeks. We need to observe the responses and modify and re-run the experiments. These recommendations are not comprehensive but to draw attention to the outdated notion of road engineering to ease car traffic flow, shifting the focus to the needs of the pedestrians. New urbanism is sustainable and it is here to stay.
Rehnuma Jahan Islam is a lecturer of Economics at the Department of Economics and Social Sciences at BRAC University. She is interested in redesigning the streets of Dhaka city and to advocate for the rights of
pedestrians. She can be reached at