‘Walking, cycling, public transport must be prioritised’

Shameem Reza | Update:
Work for a Better Bangladesh Trust programme manager Maruf Hossain. Photo: CollectedMaruf Hossain is the programme manager of Work for a Better Bangladesh (WBB) Trust. The trust has been the mainstay in organising the Car Free Street event on the first Friday of every month. It also works for promoting public transport, cycling, pedestrians’ rights, wider pavements and curbing the number of cars. Maruf Hossain recently talked to Prothom Alo’s Shameem Reza about the WBB Trust on the eve of World Car Free Day on 22 September.


Prothom Alo: What sectors are you are working on right now?

Maruf Hossain: Work for a Better Bangladesh (WBB) Trust works in the sectors of advocacy, research, networking and awareness raising campaign for a habitable Dhaka city.

Transport is an important part of our work. We have been working to create awareness for a coordinated and pro-people transport system where pedestrians, cycling and public transport will get priority rather than cars.

Our organisation is also involved in work like preserving parks, playgrounds, and water bodies, placemaking (a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces) and curbing sound and air pollution.

Car Free Street event being celebrated at Manik Mia Avenue on 6 September. Photo: Shameem RezaProthom Alo: What made you come up with Car Free Day?

Maruf Hossain: The land in Dhaka is used for a multitude of purposes. This helps those who move within a small area. Around 80 per cent of Dhaka dwellers’ movement is limited within a radius of 5-km area, half of them move within 2-km.

The number of cars will decrease if the environment can be created for cycling and walking short distances and quality public transport for long distance.

Less than 10 per cent of the trips are being made by around 350,000 cars in Dhaka. Around 40 more cars are being added every day. Addition of more cars will increase the traffic jama. Currently hundreds of thousands of working hours, with an economic value of billions of taka, are being wasted every day. There are around 700,000 motorcycles in the capital as well. This also increases pollution. So there’s no alternative but to develop public transport system.

World Car Free Day being celebrated at Manik Mia Avenue on 22 September. Photo: Shameem RezaThe Revised Strategic Plan (2015-2035) also has put emphasis on creating environment for pedestrians and cycling. From now on the message should be delivered to the city dwellers. It is possible to raise awareness among them by observing the World Car Free Day.

In 1800, an American used to commute fro around 50 metres a day on average. Now it has increased to 50 km. The technology boom, urbanisation, construction of roads and production of cars has increased, creating the vicious circle of ever-increasing pollution, accidents and traffic jams.

This matter stirred discussion in the US. Journalist Jane Jacobs came up with the idea of controlling the number of cars in her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ in 1961. This idea played a significant role in city planning. The following year, authorities in Copenhagen, Denmark, stopped movement of vehicles on a certain road and opened it for pedestrians only. They have continued this till today.

The idea to control cars gained momentum during the fuel crisis in the 70’s. Switzerland observed car free day for the first time in 1974. In the 90’s the initiative saw more success. A network of car free city was created. Later on 22 September 1998, 34 cities in France observed Car Free Day. In 1999, 90 Italian and French cities observed the day. In 2001, the day was observed in around 1000 cities in 33 countries. Currently, around 4,000 cities observe the day every year.

World Car Free Day is being observed in Bangladesh since 2006 at the initiative of non-government institutions to create awareness to curb use of cars. The government has joined the initiative since 2016. A total of 39, 41 and 51 institutions were involved in observing the day in 2016, 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Currently, city planners in the US also put emphasis on mixed use of land based on types of areas, for example, residential, commercial, education, and industrial zones. They are trying to ensure most of the required facilities for people in a small area so that they don’t need to move far. Along with this, they have been taking steps to develop public transport to curb the number of cars.

Prothom Alo: You said you have taken initiative to observe the 'Car Free Day' to make people aware of the environment. But it seems many people have come the venue in their cars. How would you then evaluate your past activities?

Maruf Hossain: On 22 September 2017, road transport and bridges minister Obaidul Quader announced to keep Dhaka’s Manik Mia Avenue car free on first Friday every month. The day is being observed at Manik Mia Avenue since November of that year.

On average around 400 people participate in every event. Around 10 families brought cars to the venue on average. The number of cars was more on 6 September event. We always urge people to come to the venue by walking, on bicycle or public transport. But it will take some time to shape the culture.

Children play on car free street at Manik Mia Avenue on 6 September. Photo: Shameem RezaParticipants have asked us to increase the number of venue alongside Manik Mia Avenue, especially in areas that do not have enough playgrounds and parks and in areas closer to their homes.

They also praised the initiative as they think it would help children’s physical and mental growth diverting their attention from screen.

Prothom Alo: On 6 September logo of a certain product was unveiled using your platform. Do you think your platform to make people aware of the environment is being hijacked or being used for some other purposes?

Maruf Hossain: Several non-government institutions have been jointly organising the Car Free Street event. To organise the event regularly, Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA) signed a MoU with a company this year. The company has been providing communication and logistic support to us. On 6 September, it unveiled a new logo of one of its children-centred initiative that happened to be connected to a product. Prior to this, they discussed the matter with us and vowed to work to free the Dhaka children from their ‘caged’ condition.

The logo of Work for a Better Bangladesh (WBB) Trust. Photo: Screen grab of WBB Trust websiteBesides, we also need more organisations to help us enlarge the Car Free Street event. But, yes, we have been keeping an eye so that nothing can hamper our objective.

Prothom Alo: What is the source of your funds?

Maruf Hossain: We have not got any financial assistance for organising the World Car Free Day and Car Free Street events. This is a collective initiative by a few organisations. However, with the financial and technical assistance of UN-Habitat and HealthBridge Foundation Of Canada, WBB Trust is currently working on pedestrians and public space.

Prothom Alo: How long have you been working in the country and what are your achievements so far?

Maruf Hossain: We’ve been working for a better transport system and habitable city since 2004. Since 2006, at the initiative of WBB Trust, and with assistance of some other organisations, World Car Free Day has been observed in Dhaka. Due to our advocacy the day is now being observed jointly by several government and non-government organisations and gaining popularity slowly. Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA) is leading in it.

People come to the Car Free Street event by cars. Photo: Shameem RezaSince 2004, we have been organising seminars, rallies and advocating the use of bicycle. The issue to create environment for cycling has been included in the city planning principles. Various initiatives, including creating bicycle lanes and bike sharing are seen nowadays.

From its beginning WBB Trust has been working for the rights of pedestrians. As a result, pavements in many areas have been widened. Many works are still underway.

A kids zone has been set up in Rayer Bazar playground. Construction work of six community-based pocket parks and playlots is also underway in Mirpur, Dhaka.

We are also working to curb sound pollution.

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