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Cover Story

Ending the Misery of Traffic Jam

Ershad Kamol

"It was a horrible traffic jam. Soon I found the body of my six-month old ailing son Sayem become listless in my lap. He badly needed oxygen but it took two hours to go to the hospital just three and half kilometers away from my residence by a three-wheeler. At last when I reached Birdem, the duty doctor announced him dead. Seyem's life could have been saved if had reached the hospital a few minutes ago", says Kahinur Akhtar unable to hold back her tears. The tragic incident took place the day when a train rammed a bus at the Moghbazar level crossing leaving eight people severely injured and caused a four-hour gridlock. Violating the signal the bus tried to cross the railway lines, but, could not move any further due to a terrible traffic jam. Kahinur's tragic experience is not an isolated one. Many people like her regularly face such horrific experiences randomly whenever the city becomes paralysed due to a horrendous traffic jam that has become a daily hurdle for the citizen.

Traffic jams force the commuters to wait during the rush hours.

Each day people waste hours stuck in a gridlock during the rush hours. Apart from the time and energy lost in traffic, there is also the anxiety associated with arriving late for an important appointment. If a study were carried out on burning of fuels by the motorised vehicles during the traffic jam, the results would be astonishing.

It has been an endless problem compounded by the increase in vehicles and people on the streets, the government has always announced over ambitious plans such as the construction of elevated expressway in and around Dhaka, flyovers and a proposed metro rail. Dhaka dwellers have become weary of such pledges by the policymakers for the last ten years. In reality nothing has happened except the formulating of some plans. With no viable plan to tackle the immediate traffic problem, the lives of the city dwellers are becoming increasingly unbearable.

Jaywalking interrupts smooth transition for vehicles, causing accidents.

Following the day of the bus-train collision at Maghbazar last month, the current government has diligently announced yet another set of plans. Following the recommendations of Dhaka Transport Plan (DTP), the current government plans to construct three expressway routes in the city: from Old Airport to Jatrabari via Tejgaon, Moghbazar and Malibagh, another from Sonargaon Hotel to Gulistan via Kataban and New Market and the other from New Airport to Kuril as part of the project. The government has another plan to set up an underground rail track from Joydevpur to Kamalapur. Flying railway surrounding the capital and construction of Dhaka-Narayanganj-Gazipur-Dhaka elevated expressway are also under consideration, as ways to give relief from endless traffic jam.

Skepticism aside we may be hopeful that at least this time round, our government intends to implement all these expensive and time consuming projects. But will the city dwellers continue to live in this bizarre situation till the implementation of these projects, which will take at least another 10 years? By this time the situation will have deteriorated to unbearable levels since about 1,800 vehicles are getting registered each month and each year about four lakh people migrate to the city.

Urban planner Professor Nazrul Islam of Centre for Urban Studies says, "I label Dhaka as a 'surrealistic mega city' of some peculiar combinations where everything is strange. We have been addressing traffic jam as one of the major problems in Dhaka, however, we see little positive movement for the betterment of the situation. Since the approval of Strategic Transport Planning) STP, only two-and-half kilometre roads have been constructed so far. But there are many examples, which are deteriorating the existing problems. The housing developers, for example, are not only filling up the waterbodies violating law, they are also generating huge volumes of traffic jams for not constructing sufficient roads to ease the congestions of traffic. A visit to posh areas such as Bashundhara, Gulshan and Jamuna are stable examples. There are many beautiful buildings inside the well planned housings, however, it takes hours to cross just a few hundred metres to enter these housing societies.

"About 30 years ago I wrote that Dhaka has only 7 percent of its area for roads while the normal international standard is to have 25 percent. Still everybody is giving the same example to comment on the traffic problem in Dhaka. It indicates that in last many years no elaborate study has been initiated. That is a huge lacking for not improving the scenario. If the causes of traffic jam is not addressed properly it would not be possible to take proper long term and short term interventions", Professor Islam adds.

Reckless parking of buses is one of the major causes of traffic jams
Pavements, underpasses and footbridges are occupied by encroachers.

Many cities in Asian countries such as Bangkok, Delhi and Kolkata have overcome their traffic problems by taking short-term and long term plans. Urban planners believe city dwellers in Dhaka can also get relief if the proper measures are taken considering the reality of the city. Transportation planner cum housing policy analyst Dr Asif-uz-Zaman Khan, a teacher of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) says that short-term interventions such as travel demand management are very important to neutralise traffic jams along with long-term development projects.

"There may be 20/25 effective short-term interventions for Dhaka. First of all we have to take measures to reduce the number of trips. It can be done in many ways. To discourage commuters to come to Dhaka, measures should be taken so that they need not come to the city just for personal works at different government offices. Even in case of the city dwellers effective measures should be carried out to reduce the number of trips to and from the city. Say for example, online Banking systems can be introduced, more ATM booths, utility bill paying systems by online and mobile operators and e-commerce can easily reduce the number of trips. In the era of globalisation such measures are the call of the time," Dr Khan says.

Since synchronised signals have been designed without proper study, the police have to control traffic manually.
Random parking of private cars in the busy commercial areas spells trouble for the passengers.

According to Dr. Khan public transport modes should be encouraged while private transport modes should be highly discouraged. "Constructions of roads can never alleviate traffic jam, unless the management of traffic is improved. These days in many cities like Bangkok and Delhi, the authorities are taking such measures", he says, "A study says a bus occupies three times more space than a private car, however, can carry at least 50 passengers smoothly. Quality city bus service can improve the situation a lot. Introduction of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) can be a quick solution. That means there must be a designated lane for bus transit and the buses will get privilege in every intersection. The buses will stop just for a while at stoppages and passengers will approach the bus through foot-over bridges. Advance ticketing and comfortable service can attract people from all classes."

As complementary transportation modes rickshaws and CNG three-wheelers can be used in the feeder roads. If a person has to walk a long distance to go to a bus stop, the system will not work. Rekshaws are environmentally friendly and over 10 lakh people are dependent on this profession. So, the withdrawal of rickshaws from Dhaka is not logical, he adds.

According to Dr. Khan there is no alternative but to discourage the use of private vehicles, since

Professor Nazrul Islam
Professor Jamilur Reza Chowdhury

random parking creates terrible traffic congestions. "Some way or other, the maintenance cost for private cars should be increased. Tax should be increased on the import of private cars. At the same time the owners must be forced to park their cars in the parking places, where there will be a multi-metering system. The shopping malls, hospitals and other centers must have there own parking spaces. DCC must construct more multistory parking centers in the commercial areas," he says.

Dr Asif-uz-Zaman Khan suggests introducing flexible office hours to neutralise traffic congestions in some particular hours of the day as well as introducing more one-way streets. He says, "Situations improved partially after introducing one way streets at Dhanmondi in 2008. For better solution, there should be more one way feeder roads with flexible directions. This done in Kolkata and Delhi, where vehicles go one way in the morning and back from the opposite direction in the evening. If the system is followed properly, the situations will improve a lot. Moreover, channelisation at the intersections should be done properly after a detailed study."

Moreover, he suggests that the fixed road dividers be removed from the main arteries. Lane distribution should be re-adjusted based on the demand of the traffic congestion.

Urban planners and communication experts have identified multi-dimensional causes behind traffic jams in Dhaka. These include rapid unplanned urbanisation high population rate, high rate of increase of vehicles, plying of different speeding vehicles in a single surface, unauthorised parking, illegal occupation of roads, non-compliance with traffic rules, a lack of traffic rule enforcement, lack of coordination among different agencies and ministries for managing city traffic, reckless driving and frequent changes of policies.

Dr SM Salehuddin Dr Asif-uz-Zaman Khan

"Historically, Dhaka has been developed in an unplanned way and the trend is still continuing," says Professor Nazrul Islam, "We have only four major arterial roads connecting the northern and southern parts of Dhaka, while there is no connecting road from the eastern and western parts. People have constructed houses and converted residential areas to be used for multi-purposes including mixing up residential and commercial use. Then the government agencies constructed connective roads. Actually the system should be just reversed. As a result most of the people have to go through the centre of the city from one place to another. Just imagine an estimated eight million people move in only 142 square kilometre areas of Dhaka City Corporation."

Referring to a study Professor Nazrul Islam adds that about 60 per cent of the total population in Dhaka do not use any mode of transportation whatsoever. Garment workers, for example, go to work on foot. But such a study has not been considered during the traffic management plans, he says. "Otherwise more emphasise could be given on the development of walker-friendly footpaths," Professor Islam comments, " Lack of pedestrian-friendly policies, poor planning and design of pavements and foot bridges are forcing large numbers of people to use roads."

Even the existing footpaths, foot bridges and under passes are occupied by encroachers, beggars and hawkers. Moreover, these places are neither clean nor safe. Obviously the DCC is not doing its job of making sure that their pavements and foot bridges are useable. At the same time, the public must use these facilities instead of crossing busy roads risking of their lives and interrupting the traffic flow, he observes. According to the report of Accident Monitoring Cell of Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) and Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP), 377 people died in 620 accidents in Dhaka metropolitan area in 2008 of whom 283 were pedestrians. Another 79 of walkers were seriously injured.

Referring to the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNHCS) forecast that Dhaka will be the sixth most populous city of the world by 2010 and second by 2015, Professor Islam says that there is no alternative to decentralisation of economic activities of Dhaka. "Rehabilitation of the low incoming people, especially the 15 lakh garments workers near the Export Production Zones (EPZ) may solve the problem a little," he adds.

Be it the drivers or the passers-by, everyone flouts traffic law.

Criticising the government agencies, eminent civil engineer Professor Jamilur Reza Chowdhury, who is also vice-chancellor of Brac University, advocates for huge reform since the existing traffic management system is not under any single organisation. Lack of co-ordination between different agencies has deteriorated the situation.

"In fact, an institutional reform is urgent to give a better solution. It's true that Dhaka Transport Co-ordination Board (DTCB), under the Ministry of Communications has been formed as a coordinator and monitor of different agencies, but it is not functional enough, says Professor Chowdhury, who was also the chief adviser of Strategic Transport Plan (STP), "Say for example DTCB plans the routes co-ordinating with Police and BRTA. But it is not balanced. As a result we find too many traffic in some points, but people do not get any mode of transportations most time of the day."

Dhaka City Corporation's multi-storied parking lot is inadequate.

According to Professor Chowdhury, traffic police should be under the DCC, since it is the DCC that is responsible for designing the signals and planning of the roads and parking areas. Police, on the other hand, are the implementery force. He also demands that Rajuk should be separated as two bodies: planning and monitoring. "At present the same organisation Rajuk is planning the expansion of the city and it's also the monitoring authority. As a result the city is expanding in an unplanned way. Once residential areas are converted for multi-purposes, this causes terrific traffic jams in many areas such as Dhanmandi and Gulshan," he observes.

Since most of the educational institutions these days are located in these residential areas, introduction of school buses is essential. "There should be catchments restriction (students must read in local schools only) for enrolling the students. Since we have not quality schools in all areas at present, students should use buses instead of using private cars, which significantly contributes to the traffic congestions in small areas."

"Over the years efforts have been made for the improvement of traffic management, unfortunately many of the investments have been wasted," says Professor Jamilur Reza Chowdhury, "Say for example, despite the installation of expensive aynchronised traffic signals, the police are controlling the system manually, since the DCC has developed the signals without much study. Responding to the demand of the road if the police instruct cars to move during the red signal, why will that car follow another signal? In a sychronised signal system, if a vehicle gets green signal in one point it indicates that it will get the same signal in every intersection. And it is really challenging work, especially in a mega city like Dhaka where motorised vehicles of different speed and shapes and many non-motorised vehicles ply same roads. Besides, the traffic police are giving passages to the VIPs interrupting the signals, which is creating huge traffic jam. I'm the sufferer of this experience almost everyday. The VIPs must also learn to travel like us."

Over 2 lakh buses, jeep, wagon vans, micro buses, taxi, buses, minibuses, trucks, three-wheelers, motor cycles and others now operate in only 250km long arteries of Dhaka's 2,200km roads. Each year on an average about 20,000 new vehicles are added to the roads. Moreover, around 4,00,000 rickshaws are operating in the capital. There are 30 rail crossings in the capital through which trains pass 84 times a day, contributing to the traffic jams.

"I don't say existence of railway station in the centre of the city is a problem. Rather, we are not using the asset properly," says Professor Jamilur Reza Chowdhury, "level crossings can be replaced by the overpasses or underpasses within a year. Using this, we should plan to execute more trains connecting Narayanganj-Dhaka-Gazipur for the commuters. If the railway can provide quality service in this route, it may even make a good profit. It will rather reduce traffic congestions, since a huge number of commuters these days use the route."

But for a better solution Professor Chowdhury suggests introducing a metro rail, underground rail and other recommendations of Strategic Transport Plan (STP) without any further delay.

The immediate past caretaker government approved a 20-year STP in June 2008 to establish an integrated environment friendly traffic management system for greater Dhaka. Addressing the existing problems, the plan includes both short-term and long-term policies to be taken. At the same time STP suggests the institutional capacity building of different agencies including Rajuk, DCC and BRTA.

On execution of the STP, Additional Executive Secretary of Dhaka Transport Coordination Board (DTCB) Dr SM Salehuddin says, "Like other foreign cities we are planning to introduce Rapid Bus Transit (BRT) immediately on one route. Our artery roads have enough space to introduce a designated bus lane. At the same time, after a detailed study we will rearrange the existing routes for public transport immediately."

An estimated 2,000 large buses on the city roads are operated by Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation (BRTC) and several private companies while the number of minibus plying the roads is nearly 4,000. "We will tell the private operators to run buses in one route by a single company so that they cannot hinder smooth traffic at the stops. There will be only a maximum of five or six bus operating companies in the city", he informs.

The DTCB official further adds that the monitoring agency will advise the government to discourage import of small vehicles. "Rather we will focus on bus system rationalisation. He says, "Funded by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) a Japanese team is working on it based on the recommendations of STP. Moreover, we are focusing on capacity building of different concerned government agencies to ensure the optimal use of existing roads, highways and flyovers. We will also initiate awareness generating programmes on traffic rules. Metro rail and MRT might be costly but those are necessary to resolve the ongoing crisis."

Traffic faces unwanted interruptions due to several level crossings at the centre of the city.

Some other features of STP includes introduction of 17,400 square kilometres of water and surface ways in Dhaka and neighbouring Narayanganj, Narsinghdi, Munshiganj, Gazipur, and Manikganj in addition to metro train services, elevated motorways, roads connecting the east of the capital to the west, flyovers, footbridges, new roads, and repair of damaged thoroughfares.

Filth on the pavements force passers-by to walk on the busy roads.
More one-way roads can improve the situation.

Unfortunately it's a common feature in Bangladesh that even the most well thought out plans do not see the light of the day. The Prime Minister has already instructed the government agencies to take immediate steps to improve the situation. Even the Communications Minister has shown concern on the issue. Dhaka's millions of citizens are waiting for some immediate action to relieve them of the agony of wasting away valuable time and energy in avoidable gridlock.



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