Megacity Dhaka desperately needs an efficient public transport system

Livability in Dhaka has been declining for some time now. The Livability Index, developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), compares the quality of life in different major cities while highlighting areas that cities could focus on for the benefit of their residents.

Dhaka has always remained among the lowest cities according to the index. For example, the 2011 version of the EIU’s Livability Index ranks Dhaka 139 out of 140 cities included in the rating.

Dhaka received a poor score in the infrastructure category, which includes the quality of the road network and public transport, among others. While Dhaka’s overall position improved slightly in the 2021 edition of the EIU’s Quality of Living Index, rising to 137 from 139th previously in 2011, the infrastructure score remained the same. The city was recently called the most polluted in the world.

Truth be told, Dhaka lags woefully behind in dealing with the persistent problems facing the megacity. Unfortunately, we have yet to see much progress toward alleviating the intolerable suffering of city dwellers.

For example, traffic jams, from early morning to late evening, office days and weekends, have been the talk of the town for more than two decades, excluding the 2020-21 lockdown periods. However, traffic congestion has recently worsened and deteriorated to worrying levels.

For decades, Dhaka has grown unexpectedly. While the infrastructure deficit continues, there has been no end to migration to Dhaka. As a result, the city’s population has grown from 10 million to over 20 million over the past two decades.

When megacities around the world, with a population of around several million people, design and implement public transport systems to meet transportation needs, Dhaka does not yet have a public transport system.

With so many people already living in the city and thousands of people traveling to and from Dhaka every day, the lack of an efficient and fast public transport system has ultimately encouraged people to purchase personal vehicles. It is common for many families to own multiple cars.

Many trips within the city are for short distances and there are not enough buses circulating in the city to meet the needs of such a large percentage of the population. The conditions of these buses are not too welcoming either.

As such, the rickshaw is a very popular mode of transport and meets the needs of many city dwellers. Both mechanized and non-mechanized transport operate on the same routes, but with some restrictions on rickshaws on certain routes.

In addition to the lack of a suitable public transport system, mixed modes of transport contribute to terrible traffic congestion. And people, without personal means of transport, prefer to take auto-rickshaws. All of this illustrates the chaotic nature of the Dhaka megacity’s transport system.

Pedestrians are also sometimes at fault – they are found crossing streets casually in groups. They regularly cross busy road intersections ignoring pedestrian bridges, not only risking their lives but also posing a threat to drivers and passengers.

That said, the sidewalks often remain busy with vendors of all kinds and are unusable for pedestrians. Sidewalks are also frequently used by motorcyclists, causing all sorts of problems for pedestrians.

Additionally, the reckless driving culture of our drivers, who push and rush, in an effort to be ahead of everyone else, also contributes to the ongoing traffic congestion. Bus drivers do not use designated stops, but instead pick up and drop off passengers where it is convenient for them at the time.

The cost of this traffic mess is huge. Bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling on city roads is physically exhausting for city dwellers and wastes valuable time. The opportunity cost, due to lost time, could amount to billions of dollars per year.

As the average speed of traffic has decreased significantly, motorized transport operates at a level too far from the desired efficiency, leading to high fuel consumption and thus severely affecting the economy.

This is inefficient from the perspective of our local gas shortage which has tempted the government to import LNG (liquefied natural gas) for the electricity sector and we are historically dependent on imports for liquid fuels.

Gustavo Petro, the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, said, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It is a place where the wealthy use public transport. In this regard, the city of Dhaka is lagging due to the lack of proper public transport.

Dhaka desperately needs an extensive public transport network to meet the needs of millions of people both quickly and affordably. While a metro system comprising several networks connected under the ground could have helped to reduce traffic pressure on the city’s roads, as has been the case for many other cities, we unfortunately do not have such infrastructure.

And now the metro overhead lines are under construction and we expect the first overhead line to be operational soon. The underground system, as a solution to nagging congestion, is also being studied by the government.

While traffic congestion has already reached an alarming level, the cost of congestion continues to rise and migration to Dhaka is not going to stop anytime soon. Routes for mass transit systems, both above and below ground, should be built quickly and as a priority.

Multiple underground networks, one after the other, are the way to go as surface systems, including seedy buses and personal transport, currently choke the city’s roads. An expansive and rapid transit system, if well designed, could induce millions of city dwellers to rely on it and encourage them to avoid using personal transport.

Furthermore, a well-designed public transport system would help improve energy efficiency, reduce economic burden, contain carbon emissions and other pollutants, and make the city livable for the foreseeable future.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.