<p>If you want to know what rapid urbanisation can do to cities in the developing world, go to Dhaka. I did, early this month, after a gap of almost two decades, and found the experience shocking.
In 1991, on my previous visit, Dhaka was a spacious, people-friendly place, and old memories still clung around its wide roads. My only complaint then was there were too many rickshaws. They were gaudy and grabbed one’s attention but were a positive nuisance, and cars and pedestrians were in awe of them. This January, my biggest complaint was there were too many cars while the old city was fast disappearing behind a raunchy veneer of new architecture. The cars grabbed one’s attention, too, being big, expensive, and swanky, but were a much bigger nuisance than the bad old rickshaws.
In today’s bustling, exploding Dhaka, with a construction boom that can only be described as crazy, the talk of the town is traffic jams. Bangkok used to be bad at one time. Dhaka seems to be worse. Even Kolkata fares well in comparison. In Dhaka, jams suck you the moment you hit the road. And what a jam! You move inch by inch, or you don’t move at all. You just sit there, helpless, as all you see around you are cars and cars and cars, stacked bumper to bumper, dead. Eventually, you’ll reach your destination, of course, but not before wasting, say, a couple of hours to cover a distance that shouldn’t normally take more than ten minutes. A longer distance could easily lock you in for three-four hours.
The authorities seem to be at bay. They are stricter about lane cheaters, weeding out old and dilapidated vehicles, clamping down on parking violators, and phasing out manually-controlled traffic signals, but nothing seems to work. Under a past World Bank project, two-stroke three-wheelers have been banned, pedestrian footbridges and footways have been built, flyovers have been constructed, and pilot corridors have been converted into rickshaw-free zones. But it’s like putting up a few sandbags to stem a swirling flood.
New cars, imported and reconditioned, are said to be invading Dhaka’s extremely inadequate road space at the rate of 200 to 300 every day. In Bangladesh, car-owning appears to be the ultimate symbol of social rank, and one family owning three or four cars isn’t a rarity. And, as private car registration spirals out of control, the registration of taxis and auto-rickshaws has collapsed.
Something needs to be done, big and quick, to untangle Dhaka before it sinks even deeper into its mess. With a road space of only about 7 per cent, a bad urban layout, and people from the hinterland pouring steadily into a metropolis whose current population of 13 million could swell to 22-25 million by 2020, the task isn’t easy. But it must be undertaken and carried out at various levels at the same time. The 20-year Strategic Transport Plan that was endorsed in 2006 and that spoke of elevated expressways, underground railways, flyovers, bus rapid transit systems, and new roads connecting the east of the capital to the west must be taken up in earnest.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has announced a plan for a significant expansion of Dhaka’s geographic boundaries, incorporating seven outlying municipalities into Dhaka City Corporation and creating new satellite townships. This is a step in the right direction, but a mere geographical expansion won’t solve the problem unless it’s accompanied by a well-thought-out road and transportation planning.
The immediate need is to create additional road space in the form of an extensive network of well-planned flyovers, connectors, ring roads, and elevated bypasses to ease bottlenecks on the ground. Bangkok could be followed as an example in this regard. But the main thing is to provide a public transportation alternative that will be credible, sustainable, and speedy enough to reduce people’s overwhelming dependence on private cars. People simply won’t leave their cars at home and jump into buses that crawl.
Naturally, given Dhaka’s present choked conditions, buses alone can’t be a big part of that alternative, though carefully carved BRT corridors would certainly help. The only way to save Dhaka from certain urban disaster is to start work immediately on an extensive network of tunnelled underground railways. Underground metros are fast, dependable, and large people-movers, and, therefore, should be the bedrock on which all associated public transport initiatives should be based.
At the same time, efforts should be made to develop alternative population clusters to stop people from flooding into Dhaka. There already are good roads connecting district towns with Dhaka and if these are further upgraded into four-lane highways, as is the government’s intention, decompressing Dhaka would be easier. America has developed along its highways. Bangladesh could as well, particularly since it’s a land of manageable distances.