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     Volume 4 Issue 45 | May 6, 2005 |

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The Traffic Conundrum

Dr Syed Saad Andaleeb

Traffic congestion in Dhaka now represents a problem of enormous proportions. Various factors account for the traffic conundrum. The complex and heterogeneous traffic pool dominated by non-motorised vehicles creates serious road network capacity restrictions, leading to unbearable congestion. The situation is further exacerbated by a growing population, an inadequate and poorly maintained road network, encroachment of the sidewalks, poor parking facilities, bad infrastructure planning, horrendous traffic management and lack of enforcement of traffic rules. Add to this the fact that Dhaka is the only major magnet that attracts people seeking sustenance from all over the country.

Allowed to continue, the traffic mess is likely to overwhelm the city with gridlock and throw people's lives into even greater disarray. It is important, therefore, to prioritise what needs to be done for immediate relief while longs term prospects of using underground space (subways) or the space above ground (monorails) should be explored for technical and financial feasibility.

Non-motorised traffic is a major impediment to the smooth flow of total traffic in the city and needs to be phased out for immediate relief. These vehicles are slow, present virtually everywhere, cause severe gridlock, particularly in the city's intersections, contribute to loss of work hours, expose the entire travelling population to health hazards from vehicular emissions, and introduce uncertainties of being on time to work, meetings, school, and other scheduled activities. The opportunity cost of sustaining the non-motorised vehicles is rather exorbitant if one imputes the cost of time, adverse health effects, cost of wasted gasoline, and other negative externalities they cause via traffic jams. Also, there is no other major city in the world that relies today on "human power" to transport people and goods. In fact, the very existence of non-motorised vehicles powered by a straining mass of suffering people is a sad reflection of how much we undervalue human beings, often to the point of equating them with draft animals.

The non-motorised traffic situation as a colossal representation of human misery that exhorts us to look closely at their lives (especially that of the rickshaw pullers). The physical toll and the level of denigration these people endure while "pulling" others and their belongings reflects a level of callousness of the city's population that is striking. People seem to be least bothered in their casual acceptance of the physical struggles of the rickshaw pullers and related others who seem fated to endure the extreme wear and tear on their bodies. Indeed their lives may be brutish and short. At another level it also reflects the failure of the successive governments to find alternatives for those who provide such disproportionate amounts of physical labour relative to their counterparts in other countries while eking out a living on the margins of survival and in subhuman conditions.

In addition to the physical challenges, the pullers and pushers in the non-motorised sector are exposed throughout the day to harmful rays of the sun, acid rain, toxic emissions from motorised vehicles that contain suspended particulate matters (SPM), carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and air borne lead, lung-afflicting dust particles, and the extreme heat and fluctuating cold … not to mention the verbal abuse and monetary exploitation from passengers and the corrupt traffic officials that is their added daily reward. What a life! And for all this toil, what hope do they have for a better future? Very little.

An important gain to be realised from phasing out non-motorised vehicles is in the capacity of the city's road network that is severely constrained today. For example, roughly two rickshaw lengths are equivalent to the length of a minibus while three rickshaw lengths take up the same space as a full-sized bus. But the difference in their passenger carrying capacities both in time and space are vastly different: more people can be moved between stations, and faster, using public buses. Clearly, phasing out non-motorised transportation from the streets and replacing the lost capacity by buses would contribute to far better road capacity utilisation.

This task, however, will not be easy as there are many entrenched quarters. In addition to affecting the livelihoods of the rickshaw pullers, it will also affect parts suppliers, mechanics, rickshaw owners who rent out these vehicles and the corrupt officials who prey on this helpless group. These constituencies are likely to work against the phasing out of non-motorised vehicles unless an all-inclusive strategy is carefully devised. Moreover an upwardly mobile social class may have serious reservations about using public buses. Nevertheless, the non-motorised vehicles need to be phased out if congestion and its adverse effects are to be dealt with.

The easiest way to do so would be to enforce license requirements, which according to the estimates, would reduce roughly 80 percent of the rickshaws from the streets. But expecting corrupt officials to play their role may be a bit of a fantasy. Removal of rickshaws by decree or force portends resistance that may easily escalate into violence and widespread destruction of property. Perhaps the best option is to induce behavioural change in their "customers," encouraging them to shift from rickshaws to buses as a cheap and convenient means of transportation.

Reducing or phasing out non-motorised vehicles certainly means having to deal with the lives of the displaced rickshaw pullers and related others and rehabilitating them. A significant amount of funds will be necessary for this purpose to train them in other skills, absorb them into the motorised transportation sector, employ them in road maintenance work, or to provide them with other alternatives.

If the city dwellers want better and faster transportation services, they must be willing to bear part of the costs of congestion removal. Modernisation comes with a price! In fact the enhanced efficiencies from time saved may more than compensate for the increased ticket prices. Also, given the sheer volume of people likely to use bus services, the price increase ought to be marginal, although some simulations may be needed in this area. If this surcharge can be collected in a special account, the work of rehabilitating the displaced workers from the non-motorised sector can begin almost immediately.

The purpose of high taxes on private motor vehicles is to introduce a "large disincentive" for additional private cars to take up the space freed up by the non-motorised vehicles. Otherwise, Dhaka runs the risk of facing similar problems as in Taipei, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and other cities burgeoning with private vehicles. In this regard, I call attention to the alarming growth of car dealerships in the city and urge policy makers to evaluate their contribution to the rising congestion. This growth suggests that car owners are able to pay hefty prices for the variety of cars in the market. Thus they should also be able to pay high taxes that could be used effectively to take non-motorised vehicles off the streets and create alternative employment opportunities for them.

Because of the present level of congestion and its associated costs, fewer people are willing to take time to shop around. As the congestion is eased, more people would be able and willing to transact business. From the financial gains, a congestion removal fee may be imposed on businesses to help the displaced workers to get up on their feet. Many businesses also have irresponsibly built edifices on the city's streets without making allowance for parking. For them, an "irresponsibility tax" ought to be levied to help build multi-storied parking lots in the crunch areas.

A segment of street users ought to be charged fees for the use of certain streets. Some of these streets are in very high demand at certain times and should be accessible only to those who need to use them most. In other words, the class of street users who use streets "unproductively" must be dissuaded from doing so by imposing a "congestion fee" on them. Such users may include people who are visiting friends or shopping malls, hopping places for fun, running low-priority errands, etc., during peak hours. Exempt from these fees should be public transportation modes, office vehicles, school buses, suppliers of essential products, hospital visitors, etc. One might look at the case of London: After years of gridlock, cars entering Central London are now charged five pounds. While critics predicted dire consequences, many now acknowledge that the gains were much greater. Today electronic devices are also available to deduct charges automatically from vehicles. Unauthorised vehicles using certain streets at given times may be charged "multiple" times for causing congestion.

Each of the above fees and surcharges suggested can be justified on the basis of greater efficiencies that will be attained by removing the non-motorised vehicles from the streets (via decreased loss of time, better fuel efficiencies of vehicles, better health, more business transactions, etc.). Also, someone has to pay to bring about improvements; they do not magically happen. Importantly, the charges are to be used to help rehabilitate a group of people who, today, live in truly subhuman conditions.

The government may also have to participate in congestion removal by allocating funds to buy out rickshaws and offer loans to rickshaw owners. Arrangement may also have be made to undertake major construction projects (highways, bridges, educational institutions, hospitals, etc.) in areas far away from Dhaka where the displaced workers are absorbed on a priority basis, preferably closer to their home districts. Such undertakings would also ease the population pressures from Dhaka's streets as people move to where there is work. The idea is to invest in building other "magnets" for work opportunities. Once new infrastructure is in place, it may be possible to move out the RMG sector from the city that many see as a partial cause of congestion.

In addition, comfortable buses -- and many more of them -- ought to be introduced in the city to induce the demand shift. Coupled with better training in traffic management and enforcement, restrictions on further construction in designated areas, and introduction of multi-tiered parking lots, it is possible to beat the horrible traffic mess one endures today and build a modern city.

The measures proposed here are intentionally kept at a general level to encourage further debate and discussion so that an appropriate mix of more specific strategies evolve from it. The government must also boldly pursue chosen strategies instead of being cowed by the fear that key voter segments would turn against them. Keeping everyone happy is an ephemeral concept; instead, the adoption of bold measures that challenge the status quo may actually garner surprising levels of support from unanticipated quarters. The question that now remains is whether the government has the courage, vision, persuasiveness, willingness, and ability to drive much needed change to bring relief to the city's harassed commuters.

Dr Syed Saad Andaleeb is Professor and Program Chair, Marketing, The Black School of Business, Penn State University and Editor of the Journal of Bangladesh Studies.


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