An Unpopular Approach to Solving Traffic Congestion in Dhaka

Last time I had thought about traffic regulation in Dhaka was around 5-6 years back while doing my economics undergrad thesis. I had since become a member of a closed group on Facebook dedicated to providing real-time news regarding traffic in Dhaka called Traffic Updates.

I was present mostly as a consumer of information posted there but I shared my experience with traffic there a few days back. This set off a rather mind-blowing argument. First, my story:

Today [Jan 28th] at around 5:15pm, I got on a Boishakhi [name of a bus service] from BRACU [BRAC University].
The turn that lead on to the rail lines was closed so the bus drove straight towards the flyover near Nabisco. Big mistake. The bus got on the flyover and stopped (the VIP was moving though). I got off and walked.
The real story begins now.
I walked all the way from that place to Asad Gate (about 3-4 kms). I saw *more* PRIVATE cars than roadway almost the entire trip. The people who defend car ownership and say these are not the cause of traffic (I have actually read some) need to live outside the bubble they are enclosed in.
Removing the “plashtik” [colloquial term referring to privately owned vehicles] needs to be the immediate priority not improving the public transport.

Dhaka faces severe traffic congestion that can turn a 15-20min journey into a 2-3hr saga. The city municipality has announced plans to try and improve the current state of affairs. Their approach might not be a very effective though.

The city municipality plans to improve the supply of traffic service either by building more roads or improving mass transport. The problem is not entirely with the supply of traffic service though. A major part of the problem lies with demand for traffic service. The roadways/buses demanded by the commuters.
The current approach is to improve supply, more roads more buses. That is unlikely to work. Roads take time to be built; people here are averse to using buses. So demand management policies are required.

Before even considering such measures (that would set a libertarian on fire), is there any justification or rationale for wanting to regulate demand to alleviate the menace of traffic jams in the short-term? I did some number crunching on the back of an envelope.

Metropolitan Dhaka City is estimated to be around 300km2(1) with 9% of its area being used for roadways [urban planners suggest around 25% be used for roadways](2).
There are more than 200,000 private cars and less than 25,000 buses registered in Dhaka(3). So the scenario is this.

Roughly 200,000 cars and 25,000 buses (not to mention other types of vehicles) are competing for approximately 10% of the available place (even less when you imagine that not all roads are open to all traffic). The area covered by a car ranges on the particular model, let’s take an average of 6m2. There are also different sizes of buses available, the average can be assumed to be 16m2.

Total area covered by all the registered cars then would be 200,000*6m2 = 1,200,000m2 = 1.2km2
Total area covered by all buses would be 25000*16 = 400000m2 = 0.4km2.
The total, 1.6km2, falls far short of even a third of the estimated 30km2 road area.

So why the traffic that stretches a 30min ride to 3hrs? Because of the uneven distribution of flow at certain periods of the day. Offices, businesses, schools, all sprouted up within certain zones of the city and the zones face traffic at particular times of the day. The resulting local traffic jams quickly overflow from one street to the next and the city, being a small one, quickly begins to feel the traffic buildup of one area in other places.

Back to the original question: should demand management policies be enacted? First, take a look at the following showing a fixed number of people in different modes of transport. Dhaka currently does not have the infrastructure to support a light rail transport, so the tradeoff is between buses and cars. Buses cover a little over 2.5 times the area while easily carrying around 11 times as many people. So buses are around 4 times as efficient as cars for the purpose of transporting people (area-wise). That justifies adding more buses to the roads. Coupled with building more roads, that should make the traffic much more bearable compared to now. In theory, yes; in practice, not really. The best example that comes to mind is a link road that was made to bypass one of the most heavily used roads in Dhaka, known as Bijoy Sarani. The link was good for less than 10 years (I think 6 or 7). Traffic regularly builds up all the way till the midpoint of that road at peak times now. It’s a matter of time before the buildup will be at other times of the day or longer.

Dhaka North Municipality has decided to procure new buses (I think 3000 of them). The question is, with traffic on many of the major roads in the city at a standstill, are the extra buses going anywhere? If anything, the buses are more likely to exacerbate the traffic situation and cause people to avoid buses and/or to buy their own car. It’s back to the same problem.

Most intercity public transport services fail because of a lack of demand with many citing the poor service as their reason for not riding the buses. So new buses are introduced to provide better service. However, the number of cars do not reduce significantly enough and the traffic situation remains as it was. So then those who can buy cars or own cars stop riding the buses for the comfort of their cars.
The government expands the road network to accommodate the increased traffic. People see that the scenario is perfect for getting a car as there are less traffic jams. Soon the same problem returns.

So the authorities need to actively pursue ways to regulate traffic demand not just work on providing more roads or better public transport.

It seems the government is having the same idea as well. The newspaper article came out as I worked on this.

Bonus: Many car owners in Dhaka feel they have the right to create traffic jams and increase the misery of other travelers. This smacks of snobbish attitude and feelings of entitlement so much, the French Revolution comes to mind.


Footnotes:

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhaka#cite_note-Bangladesh2001Mun-46

[2]Source: Deficiencies of Existing Road Network in Dhaka Metropolitan City, S.M. Sohel Mahmud and Md. Shamsul Haque

[3]http://www.brta.gov.bd/statistics.html

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