The Problems of Public Transport in Dhaka

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What was, what is and what can be the future of public transport for Bangladesh.

Dhaka has seen unprecedented growth and development since the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971, transforming into the capital of a nation from a mere provincial capital. It is one of the only seven cities in the world which has experienced urban population growth higher than 2.4% during 1975 to 2005. However, due to poor planning, especially since 1990, Dhaka has secured a spot in the list of most unlivable cities.

The transport system has become one of the major problems in Dhaka. The city is infamous for its never-ending traffic gridlocks and severe lack of traffic safety. Similar to every other megacity of the developing world, rapid growth, low income, and extreme inequality are among the fundamental reasons of transport problems in Dhaka.

Despite having a low level of motorization, Dhaka streets are plagued with traffic congestion, and a deteriorating traffic system. This critical state is largely due to inadequate road space, unplanned road network configuration and archaic traffic management system. Among the existing public transport system, bus transit operations in particular are characterized as the least desirable mobility option for people, especially in terms of reliability, comfort, speed and safety.

Road Inventory
Dhaka’s road network hierarchy is poorly defined, with a very limited number of arterial and main roads. The road inventory of Dhaka, affirmed by different organizations and areas are provided below: * Table 1

Only 10.4% roads are satisfactory for public transport. ‘Connector roads’ are suitable as transit corridors, but there is a mere 30% of roads available for their services, which is only about 400 km (see Table 2). Moreover, this space is also shared by Non-Motorized Traffic (NMT) e.g. rickshaws, rickshaw vans, push carts etc. and bus priority measures become sidelined, prioritized second when they compete for road space with other modes of transportation.

The prevailing situation is worsened by the sharing of this inadequate space by both motorized and non-motorized traffic (heterogeneous traffic mix) and vehicles with varying characteristics (e.g. three-wheelers, human haulers, pickups, vans etc.). Some major features found from the survey conducted for ‘Clean Air and Sustainable Environment’ (CASE) project can be acknowledged as:
– Buses comprise 9.7% of the vehicle mix that combines all vehicles and pedestrians;
– Rickshaws and vans comprise 28.4% of all vehicles;
– Auto-rickshaws (with 36.8%) and Cars/Light Vehicles (with 43%) comprise a substantial proportion of all motorized vehicles (2-stroke three wheelers);
– Whereas buses comprise a small proportion (9.7%) of the mix, bus passengers account for 77% of all people.

Table 3 shows modal distribution (in terms of trips) by income groups. From the table, it is clear that low income groups are responsible for the lion’s share of trips on foot (73%) while most of the rickshaw trips are made by the middle income group (59%). These two income groups are the main users of available transit services in Dhaka, which is a promising sign. The significance of walking, rickshaws and transit trips are obvious as they cater for 97% of city dwellers.

Unsurprisingly, very few in the lower income demography (e.g. day laborers, garments workers etc.) can afford bus fares, although they are quite low and most of the trips are short, forcing them to travel on foot, causing them to suffer lower levels of mobility and accessibility.

Vehicular Growth
Rapid urbanization, income growth coupled with inferior transportation facilities and policies, have created a situation where cars and motorcycles are becoming increasingly necessary for the middle class to get around in the metropolitan. With the overconcentration of non-motorized vehicles, the absence of a decent public transport system and inefficient traffic management practices only further congest the roads and worsen the air pollution, noise, and safety issues. The number of registered motorized vehicle stands at 1,255,402 in April, 2018, increasing from 303,215 in 2003 (a fourfold rise in 15 years). More than 36% of all registered vehicles are in Dhaka (total 3,419,884 in Bangladesh).

The alarming trend is that while the percentage of buses and minibuses remained the same, private vehicles such as cars and motorcycles almost tripled. Public transport such as buses and minibuses have grown at an insignificant rate even though the demand for public transport services is increasing. Motorcycles and cars constitute around 54% and 26% of total motorized vehicles respectively.

The data is from BRTA registration document available on their website. There might be some discrepancies in the database, between the years 2011-2012.

There are 31,922 buses and 10,441 minibuses registered (as of April, 2018) which represent only about 5.7% (buses and minibuses combined) of total motorized traffic. Although the number of large buses and minibuses increased in the last 5 years (hovering around 5%-7% of total traffic), the share/percentage of bus fleets have been declining slowly (see figure 2), which proves the increment in supply cannot cope with the huge travel demand.

A recent summary of characteristics and information about Dhaka’s bus industry and fleet are presented in the following tables and figures.
The volume of buses and minibuses have increased substantially, although not enough. Most of the new vehicles are CNG-converted (Compressed Natural Gas), mainly because of soaring fuel prices (current price: Octane-Tk89/Liter, Petrol-Tk86/Liter, Diesel-Tk65/Liter, whereas the price of CNG is only Tk48/ cft). There were government initiatives to make all government vehicles CNG-fuelled. ‘Dhaka Clean Fuel Project’ by Rupantarita Prakitik Gas Company Ltd. with help from developing partners, encouraged and helped convert vehicles to CNG.
The data used in Table 3 is probably from the period of 2004-2006, when the number of CNG fuelled vehicles was increasing. Although most of the heavy vehicles running in the city are CNG-fuelled, there is still a significant number of diesel-run vehicles as the government provides subsidy on its price.

The bus fleet of Dhaka is not very old (as seen in Figure 3), but poor maintenance, inadequate technology, unavailability of required facilities are the main causes for their deplorable condition. The reason behind the majority of buses manufactured in 2002 is that the government banned buses older than 20 years. Thus, there was a rush to import or buy new buses and minibuses. Also, the introduction of CNG and support from the government for conversion made an impact in 2003.

Table 4 shows that nearly 70% of the route length is within 11 to 30km, which is the extent Dhaka city can be termed by length in north-south direction. These routes crisscross the city and serve the users quite well. But in actuality, there are unnecessary and unwanted overlapping of routes, with the sole intention of profit maximization and operational advantages, as observed in Table 5.
Most bus companies in Dhaka are small to medium sized (roughly 70% of them have only 11 to 30 buses) (see Table 6). However, all buses from a company do not have single person or entity ownership. Instead, a handful of individuals own either one or a few buses. These groups form and run a bus company together. As a result, these companies’ buses ply the roads like individually owned buses.


The prerequisite for economic activity is the mobility of inhabitants by providing an efficient transport system.
Buses and minibuses – the cheapest mass transit modes available in Dhaka – are constrained by poor service conditions. Long waits, delays, overloading and lengthy walks from the residence/work place to bus stops are a few of the problems that users confront every day. This situation has resulted in deterioration in accessibility, level of service, safety, comfort and operational efficiency, causing increased costs, loss of time, air pollution and psychological strain, posing a serious risk to the economic viability of the city and the sustainability of its environment.

Dhaka is probably one of the few megacities in the world without a properly planned and well-constructed mass transit system. Few others can be named such as Lagos, Karachi or Kinshasa, but none of them have a population density of about 43,000 people per square kilometer. According to projections, approximately 24 million and 35 million people will reside in Dhaka respectively in 2030 and 2050 respectively. So, if Dhaka needs to survive the juggernaut called ‘development’, it must fix its transport system by incorporating a properly planned and fluid public transport network.


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