Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Dhaka is plagued with multifaceted problems. Among them, the transportation crisis deserves to be considered as one of the most complex problems. Various studies have shown that the average speed of vehicles in the capital city of Dhaka during peak hours has become slower than the walking speed of people. Recently, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a research institution in the United States of America, funded by the World Bank, has conducted an extensive study on the speed of traffic in different cities around the world. In particular, this study was conducted on 1,200 cities in 152 countries of the developed, developing and poor classes of the world. Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, has been recognized as the slowest city in the world in the study.
In my view the research is very logical and informative. The study was carried out by taking traffic data and road network and topographical data (topographical) of different cities from Google Maps and Open Street Maps respectively. When we study traffic speed in Dhaka, we focus only on main roads. Due to lack of funding, extensive research is not possible. As a result of focusing on the main road, the extent to which the problem of traffic congestion on the branch roads has intensified, remains unknown to us. But the NBER study can be said to be an exception in this regard. They have also taken into consideration the traffic congestion on main roads as well as branch roads during the study. It can be understood from the results of their research, how critical the traffic congestion in the capital city of Dhaka has become.
On the other hand, Namibia’s (Serbian crowd-sourced online database) traffic section provides information and insights on traffic conditions in cities around the world. It calculates the average speed of the road by searching data on traffic congestion, travel time and transport infrastructure. Four or five years ago, in one of their studies, Dhaka was ranked ninth. Now it has moved to fifth place. But the limitation of these data is that they are mainly focused on main roads. As a result, the intensity of traffic congestion in the city is not accurately reflected. But the research report published by NBER is very broad in scope. They included main roads as well as branch roads and locally constructed roads in the study. As a result, the acceptance of this research is very high. I think, if Dhaka’s traffic-related research is to be given a complete shape, it should be done by including all the 3 thousand km road network including 400 km main road of Dhaka. Otherwise the research will be fragmented and incomplete. A study by NBER named the capital Dhaka as the slowest city in the world. Mymensingh ranks ninth among the slowest cities due to traffic congestion. And Chittagong is at number 12. Among the top 20 cities mentioned in the study, there are three cities in Bangladesh.
The research institute of the United States attributed three reasons for naming Dhaka as the slowest city in the world. Watersheds are high, population is high and arterial roads are low. Basically these three issues have been mentioned as the reason for severe traffic congestion in Dhaka. According to them, Bangladeshi cities are markedly different from cities in other poor countries and have different characteristics, which make cities slow. When compared to cities in other poor countries, Dhaka is 40 percent more populated, has 116 percent more water bodies crossing the city, and 42 percent fewer arterial roads than cities in other countries of the same size. It may seem natural that a city with a large population will be congested. Walking speed will be slow. That is not the case. Even a densely populated city can be quite free of traffic. Congestion depends on how the traffic system is managed. If the city has more arterial roads, the city will be relatively less congested. Because if the arterial road is high, the traffic speed is high in that city. Actually according to me, there is not a single arterial road in Dhaka city. Because arterial roads are the main feature, land management on both sides of the road must be well controlled. None of the roads that we call arterial roads in Dhaka city, such as Mirpur Road, Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue, Pragti Sarani, have well-regulated connecting roads.
Again according to NBER research topography (watershed) is the most important factor, which cannot be changed. According to their research, the presence of reservoirs is acting as a major hindrance in increasing the speed of Dhaka. Because there are more reservoirs in Dhaka compared to other cities of the same size, it will not be possible to expand the main road or arterial road here. I would like to look at this obstacle in a slightly different light. Especially in the cities of Bangladesh, the presence of water bodies should be considered as a blessing rather than a limitation. The high traffic pressure on the roads of Dhaka could have been reduced to a great extent by developing a water transport system to utilize the reservoirs. But they have not been used, instead many of our rivers and canals have suffered encroachment and pollution. I think at least 50 canals of Dhaka have disappeared in the last 30 years, which has changed the topography of Dhaka city a lot. Also, this change in topography is not only watershed-centric. Man-made unplanned infrastructure, buildings and land management changes are also largely responsible. In most of Dhaka city, tall residential and commercial buildings have been built on both sides of the road without proper traffic impact assessment. Also the side roads are unscientifically connected to the main road without following any criteria. I think it’s pretty much impossible to change this man-made topography now. Since the number of standard public transport is less, besides we have not been able to use the waterway, we are not able to increase the speed of movement in Dhaka city due to these reasons. On the other hand, the number of legal and illegal small retail vehicles including motorcycles is continuously increasing on the road. If these could be brought under a proper planning and management, then the traffic congestion in the city could be controlled to a great extent. So just creating infrastructure will not solve the traffic congestion problem. The most useful way we have now is to control the population of Dhaka city, which we can do through administrative or capital decentralization. Indonesia, for example, has recently adopted such an approach. In order to diversify the economic and political centers, the Indonesian government decided to move their country’s capital from the overpopulated city of Jakarta to the island of Borneo. It is a sad but true fact that despite repeated recommendations by experts to decentralize Dhaka, no initiative has been seen at the policy-making level so far.
The data used by the American research institute NBER in their research was obtained from Google Maps. There the traffic of different countries, the speed of vehicles have been scientifically simulated. When the organization compares one city to another, they take into account population and city size. Notably, in their study, the African city of Lagos was ranked as the second slowest city. Infrastructural investment in Lagos is undoubtedly very low compared to our country. It is a big question that the infrastructural development in Dhaka city in the last two eras is useful for the people. In particular, the huge amount of money invested in the infrastructure sector, including flyovers, elevated expressways, has benefited mainly the economically affluent class of private car users. But the philosophy of inclusive development is that investment should be planned with all classes of people. It must be ensured that the benefits of development can be enjoyed by all on an equitable basis. It should be remembered that Dhaka city is contributing 30 percent of our total domestic production. However, due to traffic congestion, the economic loss in Dhaka city is about 55 thousand crore taka. Therefore, the transportation system and management of Dhaka city must be properly evaluated. Along with mega projects, proper footpaths and public transport management should be prioritized.
the writer: Department of Civil Engineering Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) and urban transport specialist
write down: MA Khalek