Yasmin Chowdhury digs deep into Dhaka’s proposed metro system
The recent decision to build a metro (underground rail) system in Dhaka has met with a range of responses. On one side is the "Hallelujah" response -- at last, the government is taking public transit seriously, with plans to invest serious funds (at least $3.2 billion) into making life easier for the masses.
On the other hand, the project raises practical questions: how feasible is the plan, how much will eventually get built, will it actually function, and might not a different form of public transit -- say, a tram or trolley or rapid bus transit -- achieve similar benefits for about a hundred times less money .
On the bright side, travelling in cities with a metro is a far different experience from travelling in those without one. Where I grew up, there is no developed system for public transit, and it is virtually impossible to get around without a car. Since I let my driver's license expire about a decade ago, I feel like a child when I move around, relying on adults to take me places. But when I visit big modern cities like Boston, Washington DC, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, or any number of European cities, I can easily move around on my own.
However, while the independent mobility is a blessing, it comes with a significant down-side. When travelling underground, we fail to experience the city we are in. Living in Boston and frequently travelling by subway, I had many of the stops memorised, and could easily get around underground -- but I had no idea what was over my head.
When I finally got into the habit of walking through the city following the subway lines, above ground, I realised then that I was gaining a perspective of where buildings, monuments, and important parts of the city were in relation to each other -- not in terms of a subway map, but in terms of an actual physical layout. In the process, I realised how little I understood, after all those years of living there, about the true layout of Boston -- or of what was to be found in various neighbourhoods that I had ever only passed under. The parts of the city I knew best were those I walked in, or where the subway emerged into a street-level trolley, and there was a sense of connection between the passengers and the street life outside our windows.
When travelling underground, we are unaware -- and, thus, often unconcerned -- about the situation at ground level. Passing beneath a slum, we don't pause to reflect on the lives of the people there, and whether something could be done to make it better, or why trash is thrown here and there, or how desolate some of the streets look. But we do notice those things when travelling on the surface, and there is the possibility that from noticing, we will go on to change it.
This has a direct practical side as well for business owners: when travelling at ground level, we can see shops and other amenities. Oh, that's where I can buy that -- or, oh, that looks like a pleasant restaurant! And knowing where it is and how to access it, there is the possibility of going back someday. This is both a far more amusing way to pass the time when travelling than looking at tunnel walls, and also good for the businesses we pass.
Then, of course, there are the practical matters. I remember seeing a map of the subway system in Washington, DC, which showed various "planned" routes. I remember seeing the same map year after year, and being surprised that they were never built. Short on funds? Similarly, I read in the newspaper in Bangkok that the sky-train was supposed to extend far beyond the existing network. That hasn't happened, and the sky-train itself took many years to build, in part, I hear, due to corruption. Meanwhile, the new metro in Bangkok doesn't go much beyond the sky-train. What then are the chances that Dhaka will succeed in building all that it has planned? If the existing plans prove unaffor-dable, as the price of materials continues to rise, how much will a very limited system help to reduce traffic congestion or make travelling easier?
Meanwhile, building a subway system requires building a lot of tunnels. The funny thing about tunnels is, they have to be accessed from the street. This involves a lot of big holes, and while those holes are in place, streets are closed down. So congestion will be significantly worse during the construction of the metro system.
There is also the issue of crowding on the subway. I was in New York City recently, and given the intense street-level congestion, when it was too far to walk, I tried the subway. It was certainly better than being stuck in traffic, but, of course, I had no idea where I was, and I couldn't decipher the thick New York accent of the conductor. On one trip, the train was so packed that I couldn't see out the windows to read the names of the stops. This made arriving at my destination a bit of a challenge, and left me as clueless as ever about the geography of Manhattan.
The sky-train is often packed in Bangkok, with barely room to stand. Thais are polite, and I have never had a man grab me. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about my experience of riding in crowded subways in Boston, and I have heard horror stories about the system in Mexico, which apparently had to provide separate carriages for women to prevent sexual harassment on the packed trains.
Then there are those lovely escalators down to the stations. Where there are hills, or where the system must go under high-rise buildings, stations must be built far below ground. Some of those escalators seem to go on forever. Stepping onto those moving stairs, with the ground so far below as to seem to belong almost to another planet, always makes my head spin. I was relieved, on a recent trip to DC, to discover that a Bangladeshi colleague had the same experience, only worse. He insisted on taking the lift. Of course, the lifts are intended mostly for the disabled, those with small children, or those with luggage, so sometimes one must wait a long time for them. Between the long lines for lifts and the crowded situation on the trains, it sometimes feels as if we have simply shifted a portion of our traffic congestion below ground.
Speaking of traffic congestion, it helps to remember that people need to be able to get to and from the public transit stops. Getting from one stop to another quickly is a great convenience, but the benefits of that convenience are rapidly diminished when it is difficult to get from public transit to one's actual destination. I made a mistake in Bangkok once and got off at the wrong subway stop. As I came up to the street, I realised that where I needed to go was on the other side of a highway, with no provision for crossing. I could either go back underground, pay again, then wait for another train to come along to take me just one more stop, or I could risk my life running across the highway. Needless to say, I ran.
In cities with broken sidewalks, and sidewalks blocked by parked cars, barbed wire and cement medians to prevent people from crossing the street, getting to and from public transit becomes a daunting challenge. Anyone in his right mind would choose to drive instead, if he had the option, thus defeating in large part the point of the public transit in the first place: to woo people away from their cars. Public transit doesn't exist in a vacuum -- it is part of the city, and it is meant to connect places not just along the tracks, but throughout the city. If people can't easily get to the stops on foot, or on rickshaw, then there is little point in building the system in the first place.
Then there is that lovely dream of un-congested streets in Dhaka once our metro system is built. How many large, crowded cities with crowded metros have streets free of traffic jams?
Let's face it, moving through a city underground -- even at a good pace -- just isn't that pleasant an experience. Subway stations are often hot and smelly. Homeless people tend to use them as urinals, and there are always those aggressive people who insist on smoking despite all the signs. If subways freed up the streets, then all the passengers who could afford a car or taxi would go back to riding in one.
I remember being late for the airport in Boston once, and figuring that rather than going all that way below ground, changing trains twice, and moving at the snail's pace the Boston subway often goes at -- it is the oldest subway system in the US and thus the least modern -- I would take a taxi. Oops. Of course it took even longer, thanks to all the traffic, and I missed my plane. Yet Boston's subway system is far more extensive than Dhaka's is ever likely to be, it is easy to walk in Boston, there is a good bus system to complement the subway, and the population is a fraction of Dhaka's. So, why are there still traffic jams, when the metro is supposed to eliminate them?
I'm sure the decision was made in good faith. Perhaps the planners involved have not spent much time in the major cities of the world, and experienced both their subways and the traffic situation above ground. Perhaps they feel that people enjoy being below ground, or that the city is best experienced as little as possible -- that is, either underground or safely insulated in a steel box. No doubt they consider the expenditure of a mere few billion dollars quite reasonable, pocket change really. Perhaps they are too busy to read the Strategic Transport Plan, which was meant to map out the best transport plan for the future, and which found that a metro would offer no significant improvements over surface public transit, and thus there was no justification for building it.
Even allowing that a few billion dollars is a minor sum, which should involve little thought or planning before being spent, I would still suggest that when Dhaka's city planners make their final decision about an efficient, fast, affordable, high quality system of public transit, they should be careful not to miss the boat. It's a lot more expensive and technically more difficult to build and operate an underground system than a surface one.
We would get a far more extensive system, with far lower fares or less government subsidy, if we built a surface rather than an underground system. The system could be built a lot faster than a metro, and with a lot less disruption of traffic during its construction. The issue of fares is important -- around the world, public transit tends to be inexpensive, and yet still highly subsidised by government. The more expensive the system is to build and maintain, the higher the fares and the subsidies, and the less that will eventually get built.
People could see their city out the windows while riding, gaining both a sense of perspective and of knowledge of what was happening around them. A less expensive system could be started quickly, and gradually expanded. Ensuring that people can walk around the city would not only make the public transit system viable, but would also help reduce congestion by shifting some short distance trips to walking. The money to fix our footpaths, and the political will to ban cars parking on them, should not be more difficult to find than the billions planned for the metro.
Public transit is definitely the way to go -- but not all public transit is created equal, and leaping onto the wrong train won't help us reach our final destination.
Yasmin Chowdhury is a freelance contributor to Forum.
Photo: Amirul Rajiv