VOL 20 NO 157 REGD NO DA 1589 | Dhaka, Friday, April 19 2013
Traffic congestion in Dhaka: An anatomy
Published : Friday, 19 April 2013

M Jinnat Ali Mian in the first of a two-part article on the traffic situation in Dhaka

Economic, efficient and enforcement-the three 'Es' are very essential for developing the transport system of a city. Unfortunately, none of the three criteria has been effectively followed in planning the transport system of Dhaka. Decades of unplanned urbanisation has given birth to unbearable traffic congestions, environmental pollution, water-logging during rains and many such problems.

As Dhaka is the centre of all political decisions, employment, business and educational facilities, there has been an explosive growth in population of the capital city. In 1971 the city had a population of 1.2 million. It rose to 12 million in 2011. As per a World Bank report to be published, Dhaka will have a population of 17.9 million by 2015. As projected in another study, the population will reach 22 million by 2020. Unfortunately, enough has not been done to check the growth in the city's population nor any planned development has taken place in the urban transport sector.

With the increase in population, the activity, income level and mobility also increased tremendously during the decade until 2012. Consequently, there has been a sharp increase in the volume of traffic in the city of Dhaka. Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) statistics shows that in 2003 there were 303,215 registered motorised vehicles in the city. The number of such vehicles rose to 741,547 by 2012, a growth of 145 per cent. During the same period, the number of private cars increased by 121 per cent. On an average, 1,304 cars were registered every month.

Private cars occupy more than 30 per cent of the city road spaces but carry only 5.15 per cent of the total passengers. Easy access to bank loans and compressed natural gas (CNG), the relatively cheaper source of fuel, has contributed to the higher car ownership. Of the remaining 95 per cent passengers, rickshaws are used by 38.3 per cent, pedestrians 19.8 per cent, public buses used by 30.1 per cent and auto-rickshaws 6.5 per cent.

The manually-operated and battery-operated rickshaws, three wheelers, push-carts and rickshaw vans compete with the motorised vehicles aggravating the congestion level. As per a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) study, the average travel speed in Dhaka is 15.2 km per hour, which comes down to 10/12 km per hour during a terrific traffic jam.

A total of 20,198 buses and minibuses, running on 149 routes, carry 30.1 per cent of the total passengers in the city. Auto-rickshaws numbering 21,937 serve only 6.6 per cent of the passengers while 400,000 rickshaws share 19.8 per cent. About 80 per cent of the buses, minibuses, taxis and human-haulers are very old and obsolete. Many of the obsolete buses have been taken off the intercity routes. According to the BRTA, 6.6 per cent registered vehicles do not have fitness certificates. The Metropolitan Road Transport Committee headed by the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) Commissioner issues route permits for buses. The secretarial responsibility of the committee lies with the BRTA and one representative each from the bus owners' association and the transport workers' union are the members of the committee. The bus owners' and transport workers' representatives are the major players to decide on allocation of bus routes. As a result, the route permits are issued on the basis of profitability without giving consideration to bus users' convenience. Taxi and auto-rickshaw, the two other modes of public transport, do not run on meter. So their users are dependent on the whim of the drivers. Thus the public transport users are the worst sufferers in the present urban transport system.

The state-owned Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation (BRTC) should have been the main public transport operator in the city. But unfortunately, because of its poor management only 352 buses out of the total fleet of 973 are running in Dhaka. A total of 115 buses have been leased out to private operators/drivers while a significant number of buses always remain out of service due to poor maintenance

Agencies like Dhaka City Corporation, Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (RAJUK), Ministry of Housing and Public Works, Ministry of Communication, Ministry of LGRD, Ministry of Environment, BRTA, and Traffic Police Department in one way or the other are involved in the transport system of Dhaka creating a problem for coordinated planning, implementation and management.

Since its inception in 1959, the RAJUK initiated a number of development plans for the city; but in most cases failed to implement them. Hence very little was achieved for the overall development of the city spanning an area of 1528 sq km. Finally, the much-talked-about 'Detailed Area Plan (DAP) was formulated with the objective of building a planned city with designated land use, conservation of environment, wetlands, greenery and planned transportation systems. Unfortunately, again RAJUK has failed to do the jobs as prescribed.

Apart from approving building designs, the RAJUK is more involved in developing its own residential areas rather than working for planned development of the city. As a result, the self-developed private residential areas, all over the city, are expanding where very little provisions for pedestrian walkways and roadways for vehicular movement exist. This slum-like urbanisation, where RAJUK failed to play its significant role, is one of the major causes of the present traffic havoc.

Due to prevalence of irregularities and corruption in the BRTA, there remains a big slackness in issuance of driving licence. Many drivers who get licence through unfair means do not know properly the traffic rules and regulations and even driving. This easy process of getting licence gives rise to the number of reckless and novice drivers. For the same reason, many outdated and obsolete vehicles get fitness certificates which in turn add to traffic congestions and increase the rate of accidents.

For planning and development of the transportation system, the Dhaka Transport Planning and Coordination Authority (DTCA) was set up in 2000 comprising 23 members from different agencies directly or indirectly involved in the transport system of Dhaka.

In the 70-men DTCA, there are only 7 professionals including traffic engineers, transport economist, transport planner, transport engineer, urban planner and design engineer. This team of seven professionals is very insignificant if compared to the aims and objectives of the DTCA. The authority has to be solely dependent on external professional support for any small project.

A large number of government agencies are involved in the management of urban land. In case of land policy and administration, the responsibilities of concerned agencies are not clearly defined. It is even difficult on the part of the agency concerned to apply their own policy as there is no defined urban land use policy in the country. As a result, the city of Dhaka is experiencing problems like the proliferation of slums and squatter settlements giving rise to haphazard expansion of urban areas where no motorised vehicle can move. For the same reason, most of the water retention lands, wetlands in and around the city are being occupied by real estate developers, industrial and commercial users giving rise to haphazard urban growth.

However, the Strategic Transport Plan (STP) is misunderstood to be the transport policy of the capital city which, in fact, is the long term transport plan and not the transport policy of the city. The policy, free from all hegemonies, has to embody issues like modal mix, vehicle mix, parking policy, urban and suburban development strategies, as envisaged in the DAP. Because of the ineffective transport policy anybody can bring any type of vehicle onto the city streets adding to the congestion and the rate of accidents.

The method of accommodating vehicles when at rest (parked) must be regarded as an integral part of the total transport planning process of the city. To keep the available road space free from static vehicles, an effective and rigid parking policy is essential. But for not having any effective policy, street parking is rampant in the city leaving very little space for vehicle movement. For instance, the off-street multistoried parking lot at Motijheel remains unutilized while cars are parked in more than one line blocking the streets. Parking lots in commercial buildings as stipulated by the RAJUK are available on paper only. In reality, the parking lots are often let out to super markets or used for commercial purposes. Even in RAJUK's commercial building the parking lot has been turned into a market.

The road users, drivers and non-drivers alike, have very little knowledge of and respect for traffic rules and regulations. Very few drivers know the significance of lane markings, principles of overtaking, amber (yellow light) light at traffic signals.

About 25 per cent of the urban land needs to be earmarked for its road network. But, only about 5.0 per cent to 6.0 per cent of the urban land is available for the road network in Dhaka city. In 1986 the total length of the road network was 1,868 km. It increased to 2,274 km by 2012. For smooth and safe traffic, combination of circular, arterial, zonal /district roads, local feeder and access roads is essential. But unfortunately, because of geographical formation of the land the finite city of Dhaka has grown south to northwards and most of the major roads are running from north to southwards having very few major roads running from east to the west creating many T-junctions and cul-de-sacs. Thus the road conditions deter fast and smooth mobility.

The capacity of a road does not necessarily mean the width of the road only. It rather means the number of vehicles passing through a point during a period of time. The capacity of the road network in Dhaka could be the lowest in the world, because, over 30 per cent of the available roadways are occupied by static vehicles and commercial activities. Moreover, there is a unique mixture of motorised, battery-run and manually-operated vehicles running on the same road reducing the vehicle speed and thus limiting the road capacity.

There is a very little facility provided for pedestrians' walkways in the city. Most walkways are either broken or unpaved and occupied by commercial activities. There are underpasses and overpasses for pedestrians and many more are being built, but because of the steep climbing angles, inappropriate location and nonexistence of road crossing barriers, most of the pedestrian overpasses are left unutilised allowing the pedestrians to cross the roads beneath.

To ease the congestion problem in the city, the authority has undertaken the construction of the massive 26km 'Elevated Expressway project in Dhaka involving Tk 8.3 billion. The huge structure will add to the noise and other pollutants and narrow down the surface traffic by about 50 per cent. Moreover, the planned elevated expressway system, in the absence of required traffic redistribution roadways, will only shift the congestion knots. The elevated expressway seems to overlap the proposed metro network lines. Above all, Dhaka, the finite city, is said to be located in the earthquake zone. In case of a major earthquake, cleaning the debris and rebuilding roadways will be an impossible task. Thus, the elevated expressway could be the 'last nail in the coffin'. Alternatively, the investment of Tk 8.3 billion for the Bus Rapid Transit system, development of traffic management efficiency and improvement of pedestrian walkways could help radically improve the congestion level in the city traffic. Cities like Toronto, Seoul have demolished the elevated roadways in this consideration.

Effective enforcement of traffic rules and regulations is the key to maintaining smooth traffic. The traffic management system in the mega city is still in the primitive stage. Out of the 650 traffic crossings, only 60 intersections have traffic signals and many of those are non-functional. The 3,358 traffic police personnel are sweating it out to manually control and manage the traffic system of the city. This lawlessness and lack of provisions for required electronic traffic signals are adding to congestions on the city roads.

The writer is a transport economist and former transport consultant, Tehran Department of Transport

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