THE ECONOMICS OF CONGESTION
Traffic congestion and inadequate urban road planning are two of the most challenging issues that are hindering growth and development in the urban economy; the capital city is just 7% road. ICE Business Times recently conversed with Dr. Md. Shamsul Hoque, Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), to gather insights on the issue and discuss possible solutions to improving urban transport in Dhaka.
A recent study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), before the 2015 Strategic Transport Plan (STP) for Dhaka revealed that the economy loses $11.4 billion a year, resulting from traffic congestion, which roughly translates to Tk. 250 crore a day. The loss occurs mainly from the extra value of travel time and additional vehicle operating cost regarding fuel and maintenance, as a result of the stagnancy. Moreover, there lies a significant amount of other intangible costs which cannot be quantified, regardless of which, a huge economic implication arises from traffic congestion as the value of loss equals to almost 5% of the national GDP.
If we further consider studies such as the Dhaka Integrated Transport Study (DITA) in 1994, the proposed 20-year Transport Plan in 2005, the Dhaka Urban Transport Study (DUTS) JICA in 2010, and the 2015 STP, we can observe the magnitude to which traffic congestion has impacted our lives. The average travel time at peak hours in the city has dropped from nearly 27 kph in 1994 to a mere 6.4 kph in 2015. Situations are worsening to such an extent that we are losing speed and rhythm of traffic, heading towards a standstill condition. With ever-growing car ownership coupled with an increasing number of motorcycles as a means of beating the congestion, it seems the rise in the number of vehicles as the economy progresses will soon bring average vehicle travel speeds down to walking speeds.
PAVING THE WAY: A GOVERNMENT INITIATIVE
Dr. Md. Shamsul Hoque is very well researched in the government’s investment in capital-intensive projects. He has gone through numerous studies conducted by world-renowned academicians and professionals, some of which spanned over periods of 1-3 years. Hoque concludes that almost all the studies propose overlapping recommendations in the form of infrastructural development, institutional reform, capacity build-up, and public transport planning, with proper integration amongst all of them. But what has happened in reality is a project-based approach by the government where planning flaws occur in the manner that multiple projects are focused on solving the same issue without any precursory study. Whereas, integration can lead to the reduction in unnecessary project count.
The government has taken multiple infrastructural initiatives, such as the seven flyovers, which are all but integrated and not pro-people, instead are counterproductive as they reduce road size. While the government might feel proud of these capital-intensive projects, these do not have any tangible contribution to the economy with no improvement in economic indicators as the average speed continuously keeps dropping despite such projects. Such initiatives are uncoordinated and unguided, and no one takes ownership of the precursory studies which are highly significant. Moreover, lack of term based scenario analysis projects focusing on public transport, and furthermore institutional or regulatory reforms are worsening conditions every day.
A SYSTEMATIC BUS TRANSPORT SEGMENT
Public transport has been defined in the 2005 STP; it is made up of ordinary buses, rapid transit buses, and fast transit rail, in that particular hierarchy. This suggests that the backbone for public transport for Dhaka should be the regular bus system. But as of now, the segment is in turmoil with fragmented ownership, unhealthy competition, contribution to bottleneck congestion, and significant creation of road indiscipline.
Creation of multiple unnecessary bus routes resulting from political patronization is significantly harming the urban traffic system. Route rationalization must come up as the main agenda to fix the public transport system. Overlapping of bus routes with fierce competition between service providers needs to be resolved with policies such as bus route franchising, by not allowing multiple competitors to operate along a single corridor.
Citizens have shifted from bus to car, primarily because of the comfort, better environment, and the lack of discipline in the public transport segment. Currently, the ordinary bus segment provides no incentive to the car-driven population to shift back to buses due to its poor infrastructure. However, developing improved services, fixing bus routes, fragmented ownership, and maintaining discipline in the system can lead to a minimum number of buses serving a maximum number of people.
Reliability and speed can be ensured with dedicated bus lanes, which is a general practice in most developed cities of the world, with bus rides providing minute-accuracy to the riders, incentivizing them to switch back to public transport. The eccentric demand of peak hours must be solved by public transportation, with a primary focus on ordinary buses. Directly shifting to rapid transit projects might not be effective, as despite implementation of five Bus Rapid Transit and two Mass Rail Transit lines by 2035 will only move 17% of all trips in the city, with 40% still being catered by ordinary buses as per experts. Hence leaping over to capital-intensive projects such as the MRT might not be the best possible solution.
INCLUSIVE AND SUSTAINABLE PEDESTRIAN STRATEGIES
The second target of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 demands provision of sustainable transport to all and inclusive development should have some attributes which can accommodate all road users including the physically challenged. However, hardly any of the road planning initiatives are aligned with such inclusiveness; even the pedestrian walkways are not developed. Walkways should be meant for pedestrians and be on the same continuous level, whereas in Dhaka most walkways are constructed addressing the road adjacent property driveways, rising and dropping now and then, prioritizing the property developers over the pedestrians. Quality and maintenance of walkways in Dhaka are certainly improving, but they do not duly recognize all pedestrians, particularly the physically challenged and ones in wheelchairs.
Moreover, road crossing policies are also misaligned with the construction of foot overbridges at intersections, following an outdated concept, where priority was given to vehicles, whereas the global standard has shifted to prioritizing the pedestrians now by stopping vehicles. Road crossing should have inclusive designs and universal acceptability, instead of ignorant construction of foot overbridges at junctions, with no proper implementation of traffic signals. Without fixing the signal system, Dhaka is focused more on constructing overbridges, which is not sustainable in the long run. Additionally, once construction is completed, nobody takes the ownership of maintaining the usability of such foot overbridges, as each become hotspots of shady obnoxious activities. No modern city constructs such overbridges at junctions. Instead, cities in China, Japan, and South Korea halt traffic for 1-2 minutes at high-intensity junctions and allow pedestrians to pass quickly and diagonally.
THE CURB OF URBAN ACCIDENTS
One of the surprising by-products of traffic congestion in Dhaka has been the significant decrease in urban accident counts. The number of accidents is directly correlated with average travel speeds, and with falling speeds, fatality from accidents in Dhaka is also decreasing significantly. Trends have shifted from speed-related accidents to hit and smash related ones, most of which are conducted by commercial vehicles trying to break the signal and speeding, resulting in hitting other vehicles, hardly causing any fatality but rather more congestion. Previously 10% of all road fatalities recorded nationally were in Dhaka, but over the decade this has halved as a by-product of congestion.
PATRONIZING TECHNICAL KNOWLEDGE IN INSTITUTIONAL REFORM
With no impending institutional reform, urban transport planning in Dhaka has adopted a project-centric approach which is highly inefficient and hardly effective. Some infrastructural development projects are still in the pipeline, all of which need to show a significant contribution to the economy. To achieve whatever was proposed in the STP, a practice of systematic implementation needs to be adopted with attention not on projects but on fixing the overall system.
Studies continuously suggest the change of the bureaucratic system in urban planning and improvement in flatter organograms to include more personnel with greater technical knowledge into the decision-making framework. The government also needs to take the responsibility and show tenacity in changing its human resource and patronize its compatibility to the 21st century. Continuing to maintain a bureaucratic non-technical system may introduce many more projects, but will provide no improvement for congestion.
APPLICATION OF TECHNOLOGY IN PREDICTING TRAFFIC
Western homogeneous lane-based traffic is entirely different from Dhaka’s heterogeneous non-lane-based transport system, which makes it difficult to implement simple technology models to understand traffic behavior in the city. Predicting urban traffic is difficult, but the prediction for modeling or assistance purposes can be achieved by implementing simple Artificial Intelligence (AI) or Neuro-Fuzzy Systems. This software programs can predict the vehicle traffic flow and be applied to improve road traffic scenario and assist in future urban road planning and policy making. Nevertheless, experts believe that the existing environment is highly unsuitable for such implementations as indiscipline in the traffic system will negate the benefits which such systems have to offer.
SOLUTION IN ONE UNITARY AUTHORITY
The experts of traffic congestion and urban transport planning, such as Dr. Md. Shamsul Hoque, believe a single unitary authority who takes responsibility for planning, designing and constructing development, as well as ensuring operational maintenance is the most suitable solution for metropolitans like Dhaka. Introducing an authority, elected by the citizens, will ensure a check and balance system, and eliminate the overlapping authorities and their independent projects which are often contradicting in goals with one another.
Dhaka direly requires an independent, accountable authority, much like those in cities such as Tokyo and Delhi. Instead, the capital’s current policy of dividing it into two authorities, whereas traffic itself is a linear process, adds another dimension to this already chaotic predicament, with the different metropolitan authorities having colliding attitudes.
To make a city like Dhaka livable, it is undeniable that primary focus must be towards pedestrians and public transport; instead, we have policies promoting car ownership, which is detrimental to overall progress. Capital-intensive projects such as flyovers are unsustainable solutions and should be built at peripheries and not in the heart of the city. Finally, whatever projects are undertaken should prioritize pedestrian and public transport above anything else.