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Volume 3 Issue 3 | March 2010



Original Forum Editorial

A New Dhaka is Possible--Kazi Khaleed Ashraf
Photo Feature: Train of the People--Amirul Rajiv
Making Dhaka Livable-- Sadiq Ahmed

The Only Solution --Md. Saidur Rahman


Towards a Sustainable Dhaka-- Adnan Morshed
Traffic Jam--Maruf Rahman


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The Only Solution

Md. Saidur Rahman makes the case for a mass rapid transport system to transform Dhaka


Transport is the lifeline of a city, and choices on public transit options are fundamental decisions which affect a city's future growth and development. The selection of an appropriate mass rapid transit (MRT) system is crucial, not only for creating a transit-friendly city where the urban poor have affordable and hassle-free access to transportation, but also for securing long term advances.

Though Dhaka is one of the least motorised cities in the world, its traffic congestion is one of the highest. Unplanned urbanisation, poor transportation planning, and lower land utilisation efficiency has turned the city into a dangerous urban jungle.

In a new report of the Economist Intelligence Unit, it has been ranked the world's second least livable city, ahead of only Harare. Although Dhaka's area is less than 1 percent of the country's total land area, it supports about 10 percent of the total population and 30 percent of the total urban population.

During the last four decades, Dhaka has recorded phenomenal growth in population and area. It is presently one of the ten largest mega-cities of the world with a population of about 14 million and the highest annual growth rate and is expected to be the second largest city of the world with a population of 22.8 million by 2015.

The rapid rise in population along with increased and versatile urban land use patterns has generated considerable travel demand as well as numerous transport problems in Dhaka city. It has resulted in deterioration in accessibility, level of service, safety, comfort, operational efficiency and urban environment.

Bangladesh witnessed rapid growth of transport since independence in 1971. The overall annual growth rate is nearly 8.2 percent for freight transport and 8.4 percent for passenger transport. During this period, over $40 billion has been invested in the transport sector. The energy-intensive road sector, in particular, has attracted the lion's share of the allocation, far exceeding investments in other modes.

Currently, about 90 percent of transport sector budgetary allocation is for road sector development. Consequently, roadway inventory and number of vehicles has been registering a very high growth rate. During 1985-1993, the volume of road traffic increased by 88 percent whereas the volume of water and rail traffic declined in almost equal proportion.

Investment in rail and water sectors was insignificant aimed mainly at rehabilitation of existing assets. The relative roles of transport modes evolved with road transport expanding at the expense of railways and inland water transport. Interestingly, the road density of Bangladesh in terms of area (km per 100 sq. km) is the second highest in the world (69.2 compared to 70 km/100 sq. km in US) but in terms of population (km per 1,000 persons) it is one of the lowest (0.88 against 27 in US).

Transport intensity of the Bangladesh economy is still considerably lower than that of neighbouring countries in Asia. Freight transport intensity is only 0.28 ton-km/$GDP and passenger mobility 350 km/capita (compared to 770 for India and 1,000 for Malaysia).

A country of about 147,000 sq km area having a population over 150 million at present would have to cater for transport needs of 200 million people by 2020. If transport intensity based on road system alone is to reach anywhere near to that of any developed country, the entire population of Bangladesh might have to migrate elsewhere to make room for road infrastructure! The situation is worse within Dhaka city limits where communication by modes other than road is almost totally absent.

Being the administrative, commercial and cultural capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka has a major role to play in the socio-economic development of the country. But the existing transportation system, which is predominantly road based with non-motorised transport (mainly rickshaws) having a substantial share, is a major bottleneck to the development of the city.

Dhaka's road network (which comprises hardly 7 percent of the total built-up area) covers approximately 3,000 km (200 km primary, 110 km secondary, 50 km feeder and 2,640 km narrow) with few alternative connector road. There are only 400 km of footpaths of which 40 percent are occupied by street vendors, garbage bins, or construction materials at any given time.

There are no exclusive bicycle lanes or pedestrian streets. Although a 37-km long railroad passes through the heart of the city, it has little or no contribution to the city's transport system due to policy constraints. There is a limited use of waterways, mostly for freight movements. Although the car-people ratio in Dhaka is still very low by global standards, its rate of increase in recent years has been significant. Dhaka has almost half (44.41 percent) of the total number of motor vehicles registered in the country.

Figure 1 shows the numbers and percentages of different types of motor vehicles in Dhaka against the total vehicle population in Bangladesh in 2005. In addition to these, over 500,000 rickshaws, mostly unauthorised, also ply on Dhaka's roads. There are around 100 open markets on the streets and 3,000 roadside shopping malls without adequate parking provisions. Most of the traffic signals are manually controlled and the number of traffic policemen is woefully inadequate.

Dhaka's transport environment is characterised by mixed-mode (motorised and non-motorised) transports using the same road space, traffic congestion, mismanagement, noise/air pollution and conflict of jurisdictions and poor coordination among the various government agencies (Dhaka City Corporation, DMP and BRTA) entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing this sector.

The Strategic Transport Plan (STP) 2005 for Dhaka reveals some unique (compared to other similar cities of the world) and interesting facts. The choice of different modes of transports by commuters is as follows: rickshaws (34 percent), mass transit (buses) (44 percent), walking (14 percent) and non-transit motorised transport (private cars, taxis and auto rickshaws) (8 percent).

Current average trip length is 5.37 km (8.4 km by bus; 2.34 km by rickshaw) and average trip time is about 15 minutes. Pedestrian volumes of 10,000 to 20,000 per day are common and reach as high as 30,000 to 50,000 per day in the Old City area. Only about 2 percent households own a bicycle.

Buses and minibuses are the cheapest modes of transport and average cost of transport ranges from about 8 percent of household income for high income groups to 17 percent for low income groups. A substantial majority of the city dwellers have very poor access to transport services.

During 1995 to 2005, road area has increased by only 5 percent but population and traffic have increased by over 50 percent and 134 percent, respectively.

Transport service in Dhaka has several deficiencies resulting from a combination of factors: physical, developmental and institutional-cum-policy framework related which lead to lower efficiency, higher transport costs, longer waiting and travel time, discomfort and more significantly, transport unreliability, all of which have major adverse consequences for the economy and environment.

An example of the absence of good traffic management and coordination among agencies is the chaotic disorder that exists in many areas of Dhaka today. The present bus services (operated under as many as 750 individual ownerships) are inefficient, unproductive and unsafe. Long queues at bus stops, overloading, discomfort and long walking distance from the residence/work place to bus stops are some of the everyday problems facing the commuters. During peak hours, buses often make unscheduled stops in the middle of the road creating obstruction to the free flow of traffic. Women, children, senior citizens, and physically disabled persons are often unable to get on buses during rush hour.

It is apprehended that Dhaka, which is one of the most crowded and congested cities in the world today, is destined to be the world's largest slum if we fail to take urgent corrective measures. Its traffic congestion not only incurs increased costs, loss of time and psychological strain, but also poses a serious threat to our socioeconomic environment.

Unless we adopt a radical and transforma-tional approach to devise immediate and effective solutions, the system will collapse. We need to make a comprehensive assessment of the problems and the available options to formulate suitable strategies. It is the unanimous opinion of transport experts that the introduction of some form of mass rapid transport (MRT) is imperative for Dhaka at this juncture.

The various MRT alternatives (bus rapid transit (BRT), light rail transit (LRT), metro, and commuter rail) have their individual strengths and weaknesses. Such mass rapid transit systems require huge investment but are unavoidable at a certain juncture of a city's development and will provide efficient, cost-effective and long-term service to the commuters.

Policy makers, therefore, have to weigh their options carefully and meticulously (taking into consideration cost, volume of traffic, weather conditions, environmental issues, etc) while selecting the most suitable system (or combination of systems). BRT is the least-expensive form of MRT, especially for short-term investments and along small- to medium-demand corridors it can serve as an efficient urban transport system.

After its successful implementation in Latin American cities, BRT has emerged as an economically self-reliant mass transit system with significant potential for budget-constrained developing cities. But as affordability increases or environmental concerns become critical, LRT may become a more attractive option. In the largest corridors of major cities, metros may be required, especially when affordability can be justified.

A comprehensive evaluation of rail transit benefits over bus services conducted by Victoria Transport Policy Institute (Litman, 2006) shows that large rail cities demonstrate significantly better transport system performance (Figure-5). The study reveals that, compared with bus-only cities, large rail cities have 400 percent higher per capita transit usage (589 versus 118 annual passenger-miles), 887 percent higher transit commute mode split (13.4 percent versus 2.7 percent), 36 percent lower per capita traffic fatalities (7.5 versus 11.7 annual deaths per 100,000 residents), 14 percent lower per capita consumer transportation expenditures ($448 average annual savings), 19 percent smaller portion of household budgets devoted to transportation (12 percent versus 14.9 percent), 21 percent lower per capita motor vehicle mileage (1,958 fewer annual miles), 33 percent lower transit operating costs per passenger-mile ($0.42 versus 0.63), and 58 percent higher transit service cost recovery (38 percent versus 24 percent).

Although the BRT systems apparently show promises in terms of cost effectiveness, especially in terms of initial investment cost, more importantly, according to the findings of Colorado Rapid Transit Alliance White Paper (2002), the initial investment of BRT is comparatively low but it is a poor long term investment.

True (heavy-rail) rapid transit is the best long term investment because its infrastructure lasts 50 to100 years and it runs on an exclusive right-of-way that is separated from all streets, highways and railroads. It is never affected by traffic accidents nor slowed by heavy traffic.

LRT infrastructure lasts 40 to 50 years because it runs on a combination of exclusive right-of-way and surface streets but its track on surface streets typically needs to be refurbished every ten years. It can be delayed by accidents and heavy traffic.

BRT infrastructure lasts only 10 years because it runs on surface streets and dedicated HOV highway lanes. BRT can be delayed by accidents and heavy traffic.

True, rapid transit cars cost $1.2 million each and last 50 years. LRT cars cost $1 million each and can last 45 years. BRT buses cost $700,000 each and last 10 years. Thus they need to be replaced 5 times in 50 years involving an investment of $3.5 million (compared to $1.2 million for a TRT car which lasts 50 years).

The relevance of an urban rail system depends on the prevailing conditions and the pattern of development. When high-density urban development expands over a wide area with a large number of people living in the suburbs but employment remains centralized, buses may not be able to provide efficient transport facilities to the masses and, in such cases, urban rail with coordinated feeder services is a more viable option (World Bank, 2000).

The Japanese system of urban transportation by rail, with its medium-range, high-speed railway network, is a model for all to emulate. Japan's mass transit systems (including railways) are the envy of the world: fast, clean, frequent, and punctual. They are a shining example to other nations of what can be achieved when government, business and science co-operate for the benefit of their citizens. Japan is one the few countries in the world to maintain its faith in the use of a railway network as an integral part of the urban mass transportation system. It is likely that the population and employment growth in the Tokyo Metropolitan Region could not have been achieved without the development of an extensive rail network which has helped expand the area within commuting distance while allowing employment to keep pace.

Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, and Taiwan have also adopted rail-oriented strategies. Singapore is one of the best examples of modern urban transport systems. In Bangkok, rapid economic development and burgeoning private car ownership without an urban rail system has resulted in one of the world's most congested and polluted cities. Recently several attempts have been taken to build urban railway networks by adding various rail systems to the public transport system so that the sufferings of the city dwellers can be mitigated.

To facilitate the rapid urbanisation of Manila, LRT (which was introduced on a small scale in 1984) is being expanded with the active participation of the private sector. The two most rapidly growing nations of Asia, China and India, have introduced urban rail systems, especially the metro, in many big cities in consideration of its capacity to cater to long-term growth.


A large, rapidly growing city like Dhaka with a limited supply of urban land and high population density requires mass rail transit for long-term sustainability. The existing infrastructure and social conditions make it almost impossible to introduce bus-only lanes and bus prioritisation. Due to lack of sufficient road capacity and limited scope for future expansion, bus services alone will not be able to meet the future transportation demand.

By 2024, it is estimated that the population of greater Dhaka will be 36 million with around 70 million person trips a day (STP, 2005). To carry this huge load and considering the long-term investments benefits, a heavy-rail based metro (subway) system (as in New Delhi) would be ideal for Dhaka. But, in addition to the high cost, there are a number of problems associated with this option such as soil excavation, possibility of flooding and consequent electric short-circuit, etc.

A thorough feasibility study which could take into consideration the experiences of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur should, therefore, be undertaken before availing this option. The secondary corridors may then justify BRT systems which also may feed the metro stations. BRT should not be considered as an alternative to heavy rail in a large city like Dhaka.

Even elevated motorways are not a solution since these will most likely cater to a different class (like elite car owners). Moreover, a commuter or suburban railway system can also be developed along existing corridors and integrated into the central heavy-rail systems since the existing railroads traverse many of the major urban centers.

MRT is environment-friendly and contributes both to urban efficiency and the needs of the masses but it can also be risky and can impose a severe burden on municipal finances. MRT planning initiatives involve multiple agencies in a complex stakeholders' setup based on rationality and equity. There are many financial uncertainties associated with such capital-intensive projects that must be addressed with careful planning and effective project and operational management policies.


Although there is no single correct technology to satisfy the transit needs of a city, we can safely conclude that, all things considered, a heavy rail-based transit system is sorely needed for Dhaka. However, this should be implemented only within an integrated planning and financing framework ensuring system sustainability, effective coordination of different transport modes and affordable provision for the poor.

Governments and city authorities should be realistic while selecting appropriate mass transit options taking into account long-term needs and implementation and financial issues. Integration with other transport modes must be achieved in a sensitive manner that respects commuters' choices. Non-motorised transport, especially walking and cycling, should be prioritised in the planning process. Moreover, Dhaka has great potential for the development of water transport due to the presence of rivers and waterways surrounding the metropolitan area. To ensure access to the poor, public transport fares need to be kept at affordable levels. Stakeholders need to agree on a comprehensive transport strategy plan ensuring the co-existence of different modes of transport. There must be strong political support and competent management for smooth implementation with clear-cut provisions delineating the respective roles of the different planning and implementing agencies.

The public sector must identify infrastructure projects in detail (including horizontal and vertical alignment and station locations) and confirm the acceptability of environmental consequences, tariffs, and any contingent changes to the existing transport system. There must be a comprehensive financial plan within which the costs of infrastructure and publicly funded operations are foreseen and securely provided for in order to avoid delays and cost overruns.


Especially when private finance is involved (even in the form of BOT-Build, Operate and Transfer), MRT investments should be consistent with an approved city structure plan because opportunistic development on an ad hoc basis has usually proved to be detrimental to public welfare. It is essential that, before making the final selection, a detailed feasibility report should be prepared weighing the pros and cons of different MRT options.

We believe that the adoption of the correct strategy devised through an enlightened and logical decision-making process would definitely ensure the sustainability of our dear metropolis for generations to come. We also hope that studies for multi-modal surface transport would be undertaken simultaneously involving the objectives and issues of sustainable development and restoring the role of the railway as the dominant mode of transport in the country.

Md. Saidur Rahman is a Deputy Project Director, World Bank Funded TA Project, Bangladesh Railway, Rail Bhaban, Dhaka.


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