Abul Hasan Fazle Rabbi works in a business firm in Motijheel of the capital city Dhaka. He lives in Mirpur Section 10. He said, if he starts out by bus at 7:00 in the morning from Mirpur, it takes him around two and a half hours to reach office. And another two and a half hours back home.
According to Google Map, the distance from Mirpur Section 10 to Motijheel is around 12 km. Fazle Rabbi spends five hours every day commuting this distance to and from office, that too in a ramshackle bus. Speaking to Prothom Alo, he said, "When I joined this job in 2009, it took me just 40 to 50 minutes to come to office. Now it takes three times longer."
Fazle Rabbi's words tally with the calculations of the World Bank and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET)'s Accident Research Institute (ARI). They say that in 2007 the speed of vehicles on Dhaka streets was 21 km per hour. That has now slowed to 4.8km per hour. Dhaka's streets are steadily coming to a standstill.
During the coronavirus pandemic, educational institutions were closed and there was less traffic on the streets. The traffic jams were tolerable then. But now with educational institutions resuming in-person classes and also with the advent of Ramadan, the traffic jams have increased.
There is also a financial cost to these five hours which Fazle Rabbi spends in the traffic congestion on the road every day. According to ARI, every day 82,00000 working hours are wasted in Dhaka city due to the traffic congestion. The financial cost of this stands at around Tk 1.39 billion (Tk 139 crore) daily. That would mean the annual losses would exceed Tk 500 billion (Tk 50,000 crore). In 2018, every day 5 million (50 lakh) working hours were lost to traffic. The financial losses in this regard were around Tk 370 billion (Tk 37,000 crore annually).
Experts say that waiting inordinately in the scorching heat or on the water-logged streets, amidst the blaring horns of the vehicles and dust-laden air, the commuters face tremendous health damages and mental pressure.
Director of BUET's ARI, Professor Hadiuzzaman told Prothom Alo, Dhaka is now a cancer patient. Its heart beat is gradually slowing. Unless there is a change in the situation, this city will not be able to remain moving. He said, Dhaka streets are carrying the load three to four times the capacity. And most of the vehicles are not public transport.
Why this state of affairs?
Speaking to concerned persons and experts, a number of reasons behind the traffic jams was identified. These are: 1. The people of Dhaka mostly depend on bus and minibuses for commute. No attention is paid to ensuring orderly movement of buses. 2. Vehicles are registered randomly. 3. The 18 types of vehicles on Dhaka streets move at varying speeds which hamper orderly movement. 4. Mega projects are taken up but not implemented within time. 5. There is a lack of scientific and modern traffic management. And, 6. Government offices and services, quality service in the private sector, have not been decentralised.
According to official records, 11.2 per cent of the country's population lives in Dhaka, which is highest among the countries in the region. In China, only 1.8 per cent of the population lives in the country's largest city Shanghai. No city of India houses more than 2 per cent of the population.
Increase in small vehicles
In 2005, the government approved of a 20-year Strategic Transport Plan (STP) for Dhaka with the deadline for implementation set at 2025. According to the a 2014 study run by the Japanese development organisation JICA, 60 per cent of the people in Dhaka use public transport for essential commute or travelling to work. And 67 per cent of them use buses and minibuses.
The strategic planning of 2005 and various studies and research recommended that, in consideration of the city's population density and trends in transport use, buses should run the various routes on a franchise basis. If this could be done, then one bus wouldn't race in competition with the other. But even in 17 years, this bus franchise system has only been implemented on one route.
Over the past decade in Dhaka, the number of private cars and motorbikes has increased much more than buses and minibuses. According to Bangladesh Road transport Authority (BRTA), from 2011 to 2021, the number of motorbikes in the city has gone up nearly eight times and stands at 700,000. Private cars have doubled in number to 375,809. In 2010 the number of private cars stood at 178,000.
Also, double and single cabin pickups have increased around six fold. These vehicles are not considered to be passenger transport, but are used for this purpose in Dhaka.
As for the increase in buses, according to BRTA, there were 23,313 buses in Dhaka in 2010. That has increased now to 47,484. That means the number of buses has doubled too. Persons involved in the sector say over the last decade, quite a few poor quality buses have come in from China and India. The CNG-run buses among these go out of order within just a couple of years. These are not on the roads. And many buses registered for Dhaka are being used on the long routes. Now, at the most 10,000 buses travel on the roads of Dhaka and adjacent areas.
Around 20,500 CNG-run auto-rickshaws are registered in Dhaka. This is considered inadequate in comparison to such a densely populated city as Dhaka.
From the very outset the government has given more priority to flyovers and Metrorail. But none of the projects has been completed on time. This has increased both costs and suffering of the city residents
Focus on big projects, delays
The strategic transport plan talks about five Metrorail lines, two Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) routes, three ring roads, eight radial roads, six expressways, 21 transport hubs, modernisation of a circular waterway around Dhaka, traffic management and safety, bus route franchise and pedestrian priority strategy by 2025. From the very outset the government has given more priority to flyovers and Metrorail. But none of the projects have been completed on time. This has increased both costs and suffering of the city residents.
According to the road transport ministry, the local government ministry and the public works ministry, over the past one decade around Tk 45 billion (Tk 4500 crore) has been spend on constructing flyovers. Over Tk 20 billion (Tk 2000 crore) has been spent on Hatirjheel development. Another Tk 2 billion (Tk 200 crore) has been spent on procuring, operating and maintaining traffic lights, but these are of no use.
The ongoing projects in Dhaka include Metrorail from Uttara to Motijheel, elevated highway from airport to Jatrabari, special bus lanes from Joydebpur to the airport, and excavation of wide canals by the Pubachal road and the 100ft road. These projects are costing around Tk 500 billion (Tk 50,000 crore). Various roads and flyover projects are also in the pipeline for a cost of another Tk 1 trillion (Tk 100,000 crore). The government also has plans for five Metrorails and subways.
But increasing buses, bringing order to the public transport system, constructing a ring road around Dhaka and expanding roads within Dhaka haven't been given priority.
Air pollution, noise pollution and traffic jams
Dhaka tops the negative indexes of being the most unlivable city, air pollution, noise pollution, most people living in the smallest space and lack of security. Speaking on 29 March at an event regarding the feasibility study for underground railway, road transport and bridges minister Obaidul Quader said he feels bad and ashamed at the situation.
Five days after that in the parliament, Jatiya Party member of parliament Mujibul Haque raised the issue of mismanagement of the roads and said Obaidul Quader had totally failed.
* This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir