Some of the ongoing development works are also being blamed for the current traffic situation. When will those be complete?
Actually, we have a severe lack of efficiency. There is a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in 175 cities. Implementing such a project takes from nine months to one and a half years. But we could not complete the project even in 10 years. We’ve made a record in terms of taking time and spending money. Recently, Pakistan has completed three BRT projects in one to two and a half years. Jakarta started a Metrorail project with JICA financing along with us but they have opened the Metrorail last year. That means, first we have to acknowledge that we don’t have the efficiency to implement projects. There are mistakes in our philosophy of development. If you employ people who never worked on BRT, Metrorail, the projects are bound to hang midair. There will no benefit of employing even a world class consultant.
It is being said that the city dwellers will get relief from traffic jams once the Metrorail in opened. But we heard the same about the flyovers …
In this country good words are used to pass projects but no re-evaluation is done after completion because there is a lack of good governance. Seven flyovers have been built, a lot f good things were said, and all at the cost of much sufferings of the people. But we’re experiencing traffic jam on those as well. The reason is vehicles from both the flyovers and road below have been using same intersection. These have not been made in a planned way. You can pour water from a bottle as per the size of its neck. The traffic situation is such that it can’t be resolved even after deploying the army.
Currently, the global belief is that public transport, not flyovers, will provide a sustainable resolution to traffic jam. As a result, many countries have been demolishing flyovers. But we have done irreparable loss by adopting the development ideas of the 60’s for a megacity like Dhaka. Now, neither there is scope to run bus above nor any opportunity built subway or metro underground. We’ve committed an unpardonable crime using the people’s money. Since we have started out late, we could have taken the path of the most efficient, sustainable and smart solutions. But we did not do so.
Recently you said the traffic jam will not lessen even after completing five Metrorail lines by 2035 if the quality of bus service is not improved. But why are we not being able to open an effective bus service?
Such is said in the strategic papers. The survey report said the five MRTs, to be constructed at the cost of US $19 billion, would take only 17 per cent of the pressure of the whole transport sector. Whereas public transport will bear 40 per cent pressure because it can travel to different places but Metrorail cannot go to other areas other than along its track.
The process of providing a quality service by bringing many different bus companies under one or several companies does not require expenses. You do not need any infrastructure for this. Bringing the public transport sector within such a discipline is just a matter of policy decision. You neither need millions of taka for this nor time. But everyone is in high on development, no one is happy unless the project is an overly ambitious one. Recommendations were made for sidewalks, public transport, BRT, MRT considering their priorities. But, ignoring all that, we took a leap for the topmost part first. We did not pay attention to public transport first that would resolve the crisis of traffic jam most. That’s because the government believes in development of ribbon cutting at grand inaugurations, big investments and mega projects. Whereas no big investment is required for quality projects. What you need is care.
An announcement has been made to field over 200 buses in several routes in two city corporations through Dhaka Nagar Paribahan. A few buses have already started operating on a route under coordinated system. Will this improve the situation?
I don’t think so. We have to observe who have been creating this coordinated system. That could be started with employing consultants. But who would look after the system when they are gone in a few days? The mayor has to think of that first. He should have separate units for looking after the public transport and signal sectors. If the people, who would look after the system gradually as part of their duty, are not included in the projects, inauguration will be end of it. Whom would the passengers complain to if they do not get bus even in 30 minutes? Who would ensure whether the same service is being provided at night as well? A system has to be built here but they have taken it as a project. They just invite the media, cut ribbons, and say, “We have started with success.” That’s for complacency. This would not dispel people’s suffering. There is no philosophy of sustainable development here.
Dhaka’s transport system has become dependent on roads. Despite the opportunities, why are waterways and railways not being used?
There are many cities around the world which do not have even a single river, but there are four rivers around Dhaka city. We could not use those. In a plan in 2013, the government talked about building a transport system coordinating the roads, waterways and railways. That was a wonderful plan. We have a small amount of land but a huge population – so a balanced transport system means, the waterways will bear some pressure, the roads will bear some and the railway will bear some. All those possibilities were talked about in the plan. But nothing of what was said there has been followed. Rivers have been encroached and bridges were built in an unplanned way. Waterbuses were inaugurated at a cost of Tk 2 billion (200 billion) without conducting any feasibility study. But those cannot operate under the bridges in the monsoon. As a result, waterbuses have been shut. Rivers have been destroyed in the name of development. Now they are speaking about demolishing 13 bridges. The thing is, why was it not considered while construction? Not even one person thought that the development work being undertaken would be conflicting with something else!
Dhaka North City Corporation mayor said he would initiate rationing vehicle operations by odd and even number plates. How realistic is it?
He said this without knowing the facts. Without acquiring any kind of capability, without being proficient in digital systems, how can he introduce this system? They do not have the wisdom to run a mega city. They can't tell the government that they will not allow flyovers in this city or public transport will be the backbone of communication system. Now, if the arrangement is made for vehicles plying on the basis of odd-even number plates, there will be magistrates at one or two places for a few days and those who will violate the rules will be fined. Some people will suffer. But they will not be able to stop the officials of different ministries or their families who buy cars on soft loans or use more than one car allocated by government project. So far, they have not been able to stop the movement of garbage trucks during the day. They cannot free the sidewalks of their own markets. I don't really trust their words.
We do not see any remedy for the issues like mismanagement in the transport sector or extortion on the roads.
Students took to the streets more than once. It made headlines in the world media. No one has a driving license. They exposed everything. Nothing has changed since then. Many people are benefiting from this traffic jam. Once everything is in order, the supply of ‘dirt money’ will stop. Police, transport leaders, political leaders and criminals have formed a big syndicate here. How is it possible to bring all the buses in Dhaka under five companies? Then there will be no more than two thousand bus owners, no more opportunity to be their leader. It will not be possible to bring Dhaka to a halt at the call of the government. They are given even more opportunities. That is why the issues are not resolved.
A survey has shown that private cars occupy more than 76 per cent of the roads. Now how to reduce the use of private vehicles?
I would say it is a challenging task. But this is not difficult for this government. They just have to clean their own house first. The incentives given to high-ranking government officials to buy private cars or the opportunity to avail cars for the officials working in different projects should be stopped first. The government ministers often brag "We want to be like Singapore." Even if there is purchasing capacity, not everyone can buy a car in Singapore. One family does not have more than one car. They have to pay huge amount of registration fees. That money is spent on modernising public transport facilities. All kinds of facilities are added so that those who have a car are also interested in traveling by public transport. Now we are going in the opposite direction. The government has achieved a lot. Yet everything fades when we see that we are the country with the most polluted air in the world. The use of car fuel is largely responsible for this.
Millions have been spent on traffic management, signals and maintenance. We do not see any results.
Fast, medium and slow all three types of vehicles ply on Dhaka roads. Designing western-like traffic signal for a city with a lot of pedestrians is not feasible. That is happens by bringing world famous consultants from abroad. How will the same software used in America, where there is orderly management, the number of vehicles is less than the capacity of the road, everyone obeys the law, work here? It is a pity that people's money is being wasted in this way. No one has ever asked who will run this system that has been installed spending so much money after the consultants leave. More and more similar big projects are being taken up after one project after another failed. Because, no one here has any accountability. Some people involved in those projects, not the public, make profit.
5 million working hours are being wasted daily in Dhaka due to traffic jam. The speed of vehicles in the capital is now equal to walking speed. Will the speed of the vehicle be slower than speed of walking in future?
A decade ago, the speed of vehicles in Dhaka was 21 km per hour. The situation in Dhaka is now a lot like that of a 'cancer patient'. Its heart rate is steadily declining, it is slowly weakening. With the slowing speed of the vehicles, Dhaka is telling itself - I am not well, I am seriously ill. So much data from the past shows that the speed of vehicles is going towards zero km. If we do not understand this yet, there is nothing more unfortunate.
Thank you too.
* The interview, originally published in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Shameem Reza and Farjana Liakat