Dhaka Monday October 24, 2011

Keeping Dhaka moving

Inam Ahmed

Dhaka is stuck. Its residents trapped in the doomed city. In every sense of the words.

From morning to past midnight, thousands of cars, buses, trucks, three-wheelers and every possible vehicle clog the streets. Always stalling, sometimes trying to crawl along.

And the losses are enormous. Every year, 8.15 million work hours and 3.2 million business hours are lost on roads. In monetary terms, that comes to Tk 20,000 crore a year which can build a Padma bridge. .

Probably no-one has looked at how much this crippling traffic jam costs in terms of mental agony, the health impacts, the opportunity lost or the energy dissipated sitting in the jam. But it must run up to astronomical figures.

This is Dhaka city today, the capital. It looks doomed because of ignoring the traffic problem for too long. Or for wrong decisions. For example, the capital could have nine vital flyovers more than a decade back. But the contracts were cancelled when the interim government of 1991 came into power after the fall of General Ershad. So we now have one flyover at Mohakhali which has actually just shifted the traffic jam from Mohakhali point to Jahangir gate, some 200 metres away.

Traffic police are overstressed and disinterested to apply the law. Had they been active to fine anybody hopping lanes or parking illegally, much of the jam would have disappeared.

On any given day, a trip from Dhanmondi to Gulshan, a distance of about five km, would take between an hour and one-and-a-half hours. Motijheel, once the commercial hub of the city, was discarded by businesses for Gulshan because of traffic jam. Now a resident living in Dhannmondi area finds himself in the same situation -- he or she has to spend about three hours in a car a day just to make a round trip to office.

Uttara, the new township, is similarly a no-no zone. If you start from Elephant Road, the centre of Dhaka, you have to negotiate at least 20 traffic hotspots where no-one knows how long you have to wait.

People are trying to get out early to jumpstart on others, and then they reach office and try to catch a nap. Executives cannot plan more than one meeting outside office a day. And you pray that you don't fall sick for which you have to be rushed, or rather snail-paced to the hospital.

Schoolchildren suffer a lot too. They have to forego at least one hour of sleep in the morning. Parents report children would refuse to eat that early and get sick. Again at night, they have to forego another hour of extra waking hour of socialization and relaxation to hit the bed early.

There might not be any immediate relief from the whole chaos that the city is caught. But even the mid- or long-term plans are hopelessly slow. The metro for example. It has not been contracted for although it is a vital system to reduce jam. Even the preliminary work is stalled as the air force refuses to allow the route for 'security' reasons. The funding of the project by JICA now looks uncertain too. The expressway has been signed. But work is stuck. There have been talks about bus rapid transit for long.

But some quickly doable things remain undone. Strict application of the traffic rules is one. The traffic department has not got the sufficient manpower to man the abominably chaotic traffic. And the existing policemen are also demotivated. They do not show the willingness to apply the law and punish rogue drivers. Illegal parking is rampant and is generally overlooked by the police. The thumb rule here is why waste valuable office space to provide for parking when you have the whole road to park.

This city needs an awakening. The policymakers need to wake up and realize that unless they act now on a super-fast track, things will be beyond any correction. Already we are adding millions to the city every year and we have only 25 percent of the city space as roads which far beyond than the ideal 40 percent. So the task is enormous not only for the present but for the future to keep Dhaka alive.