Saturday, October 31, 2009

Some suggestions with worsening traffic condition in major cities of Bangladesh


In e-Bangladesh Engineer Kh. A. Saleque offered some practical solutions to the gridlock situation with roads in Dhaka. I was in Dhaka just the last month, and I could testify to the fact that nearly 80% of one's productive time is lost or wasted in traffic congestion alone. That is too much by any standard. By the time one reaches one's destination, very little is left of one's energy to concentrate on matters important.

Many cities with equally high population density have mitigated such congestion problems. True that many of these countries are rich and can afford to implement solutions that are improbable for a country like Bangladesh. And yet with a strong government desire and well thought out plan that takes into consideration pros and cons of a futuristic plan is still within our reach to solve this problem in our lifetime.

In my own writing earlier, I mentioned that some 300 new cars are pouring into the streets of Dhaka, thus worsening the situation. No new roads have been built to take away the extra pressure. As A. Saleque pointed out, all the offices, government and non-government, are located inside the city. The city is crowded with hundreds of schools and colleges. Every day the city skyline is dotted with newer buildings, thanks to the construction industry. In a small lane with hardly 10-20 feet wide road, there are now several tall residential structures built to house hundreds of new residents, some with cars. When those residents move around, there is little room for them to roam about or drive through. The city planning over the last few years have been responsible for the mess in authorizing such construction permits. The new FAR rule is supposed to somewhat less burden localities, but already much harm has been done to the localities for city corporation' failure to be future thinking.

Most parents send their children these days to the schools in Dhaka by car or other means of transportation. Often times, someone from the family accompanies the little student. This means, the roads are doubly occupied at or close to school opening and closing hours. Thus even a good program like staggered timing for schools simply will not go far into mitigating the root causes. My suggestion there would be forcing schools, esp. the private ones, to pick students from homes in small vans, thereby reducing the pressure on the road. The same vans will also return the kids to their homes. This way, instead of every ten cars or other forms of transportation only one van will occupy the roads during the school opening and closing hours. Some transportation companies can be employed or rented by the school authorities to provide such hourly services at regular hours of the day. Bottom line is greater emphasis must be made towards promoting public transportation over the private ones to mitigate the traffic congestion problem in our cities.

I noticed that when buses move between locations, several buses are already waiting or starting at the same time at any given terminal, thus further narrowing down available space on the road side. There is hardly any designated curb for buses to load and unload passengers. This is where a good urban planning can do miracles. If a transportation policy is enforced such that next buses to a terminal come every five minutes and not simultaneously, and that these also stop at the designated curb side and not in the middle of the road, which usually is the case today blocking many commuters, we would have a much more smoother and continuous flow of traffic along the city roads. Traffic police must be empowered to penalize heavily any violator. A separate court can deal with such traffic violations.

More frequent use of local trains between various city centers can force commuters to settle for such public transportation systems, which are less aggravating, cheaper and faster than means employed now by most commuters.

These days, most cities, including Dhaka, don't have walking footpaths. Thanks to illegal over extension on the roadside by many shopkeepers, road-side restaurants, garbage dumps, and homeless shelters, these passages, if existing, are simply not functional any more in most localities. Pedestrians are thus forced into walking on the roads, which should have been dedicated solely to cars and rickshaws. In the absence of designated terminals for rickshaws and taxis, the available road space is increasingly shrinking at an alarming rate.

Many analysts have noted that any city that has mixed modes of transportation, esp. some requiring brute man power like the rickshaws, it is a losing battle to speed up things on the same road since just like in kinetic reactions the slower ones would dictate the rule of the road. Many concerned citizens have therefore called for banning rickshaws from our roads in major cities that are now plagued by gridlock phenomenon. I personally don't think it is a decision that any democratic government will take - knowing very well that there are now more than a hundred thousand rickshaw pullers in major cities like Dhaka each of whom in turn supporting five to seven family members on their income. On a usual day, they earn close to 300 taka, barely enough to support the needs of their family members. A gradual phased out option with guarantees for alternative means of employment for these rickshaw pullers can be tried to relieve the concentration on the city roads. Sadly, outside the garment industry and housing construction business, very little new jobs have been created in the last couple of decades. The salaries offered there are also too little to meet needs of many workers. For example, a garment worker usually earns about 1500 taka per month. If he pulls a rickshaw even for eight hours, he can make a minimum of 4500 taka monthly to his pockets. Most garment industry owners and executives today are filthy rich making earnings and salaries that are often times at par or more than those offered in Fortune 100 companies. And yet, when it comes to paying salaries of other employees they cheat them big time. In this respect, I was recently too shocked to learn the pay-scale of a new employee having a BBA degree from a reputed private university with one of the largest garment companies. It was only 3000 taka base salary. How can anyone who has spent 40,-70,000 taka per semester for 4 to 5 years of study afford to accept such salary offers? Just the transportation cost to work may cost the employee 3000 taka per month!

Getting back to the subject, I agree with Engineer A. Saleque that a phased relocation of government offices and headquarters away from the city centers would relieve pressure from the roads. I am however against relocating Dhaka University, BUET and Dhaka Medical College. They are part of our heritage and must stay where these are situated. However, newer annex campuses can be built outside the city centers. An all encompassing concerted effort must be made to ensure that no new universities are built within the Dhaka city limit. To sustain such projects adequate care must be made to ensure that such places are self-sufficient to cater to the needs of the teachers and employees. Otherwise, good wishes will not bear the necessary fruits. For instance, teachers and employees of such institutions would be forced to live in major cities that better cater to the needs of their own children. The same goes for any offices that should relocate outside the city centers. Without the necessary infrastructures built a priori, all attempts to force people to settle outside, and thus, reduce the burden on city roads, will fail. Government must develop a long term plan for building some satellite towns around many of the major cities today to further dilute population density in all major cities. Each new towns must be self-sufficient and self-sustaining to maximize their usefulness.

I also propose that the Prime Minister and the President use helicopters to move between their offices so as to less burden commuters. If a CEO of a major Fortune 100 company in the USA can afford to take such rides, why can't our head of state and PM? Such a measure can actually be less expensive not only to the state treasury, but stops wasting commuters' time and money for the extra hours that they now spend on the roads anytime the convoys of our PM or President pass through the busy roads.

Many streets within the city limits must be made one-way roads, strictly being enforced by the Police. In my own experience I have noticed that wherever it is a bi-way road, it is a mess along the frequent turns to the sides. Some narrow roads are now used making turns in all directions thus blocking traffic for hours. Sadly in many such places there were no traffic police to ease people's pains on the roads.

Our people also seem to enjoy law-breaking. Even where there are overpasses and underpasses for pedestrians, meant so that they do not cross the road, they avoid such designated passes. The traffic police don't penalize anyone for such routine violations.

I noticed speed-breaks in front of many schools, colleges and universities (and even hospitals). These unduly slow down the traffic during busy hours, and are totally ignored at night (most of these don't have any visible signs or warnings). Imagine a 10-20 ton lorry rolling over the street at night at 40 to 70 km/hour! All such speed breaks are now taking sleep away from the residents that live nearby. This stupid speed breaks must be eliminated now. Instead, city authorities should consider posting some flashing lights to warn the auto drivers at designated times. For example, during opening and closing hours, such lights would flash warning drivers that it is a busy time and they should slow down to a designated speed limit for safety. At night and at other hours of the day, when it is not necessary, the warning lights need not blink. Provisions must also be taken to ensure that the roads in front of all hospitals are as quiet as possible without any horns and sirens heard. A strict enforcement from Police can do miracles to alleviate people's pain. I say this because during my 3-week long stay in Chittagong, I did not have a single night of sound sleep, thanks to Mayor Mohiuddin's stupid speed breakers on Zakir Hossain Road. Every time a bus or truck passed, and went over those speed breaks, it felt like a small earthquake.

If our city authorities truly care about the residents that live and pay taxes, they should think about alleviating their pains, and come up with smart measures that are forward and future thinking. If they take care of the garbage and sewer problems, enforce laws, build overpasses for pedestrians at busy intersections, clear footpaths from the undesirable people and structures and dumps, they can do a great service to their citizens.

Many city planners and authorities in the western world are now using six sigma methodology to address traffic congestion problems, let alone city planning. Sadly, Bangladesh remains locked up in its past and has shown reluctance to embrace newer methodologies to move forward. Today, there are some Bangladeshi expats that are masters of this methodology and can assist Bangladesh to solve many such problems faced by our nation. But it will take someone in the government to grab their hands. Until then, we shall be deprived of their sincere offer to lend their hands. I am sure if we put our heads and hands together we can solve more than half the traffic problem fast without even spending much.

Friday, October 30, 2009

American Travelers deserve better at their own airports

Last Friday I returned from a three-week long overseas trip. This has been the third of such trips for me in a year. These days, air travels are no fun for any passenger. The traveler is forced to pay for all security checks, arrive at the airport at least two to three hours ahead of the departure time and go through multiple checkpoints. And then, most flights are late in departing from the gate. In these days of job insecurity and high unemployment, security jobs at the airports seem to be exceptions. The companies doing business in this area, whether these are selling machines or providing security guards, are all doing great. I am told that many such security firms are actually managed by former Israeli agents. After all, they had the least number of plane hijacking! They ought to know something better that others don’t.

As usual, the security check-ups in the JFK are the worst. The security guys won’t allow anyone to pass through the security check points with any liquid -- even children’s drinks, not even body lotions and face creams. I saw a female passenger disapprovingly handing over her newly purchased unused expensive lotion and perfume to the security lady. She apparently forgot about those stupid rules! I am sure that someone within the security system is making a good business out of those snatched items. The passengers are also required to take their shoes off before passing through the checkpoints. Blame all such troubles on to Richard Colvin Reid – the failed shoe-bomber!

The intercontinental flight over the Atlantic was a long one – almost 12 hours. But thanks to the Qatar Airways’ Boeing flight with plenty of leg-space and great personal entertainment center, it was not too difficult to relax and enjoy the flight. The in-flight service from the crew, mostly from South-east Asia, was also great. With few passengers flying, many passengers in the economy class were able to lie down and sleep.

During my return flight from Doha, I had to face again the same type of security checks – a more thorough version for everyone flying to the USA. That is, those passengers flying to other places were not required to face multiple checks as we did. Well, looks like every traveler to and from American airports will have to endure the painful process for a long time, unless common sense dictates to stop this madness! As I hinted in the beginning, no one is winning from this madness except those involved in the security business. Billions of dollars are lost every year as a result of this extra security checks at the airports around the globe.

While American immigration officers are probably the most professional and efficient of their kind in the world, taking the least amount of time to process documents of arriving passengers (and causing the least amount of waiting time in front of the counters), the other services inside the arrival terminal -- from bag unloading from the carousels, which can take in excess of half an hour, to finding a cart to load baggage -- are probably worst in the world. One has to pay five dollars to get a wheel cart to load one’s bags. In my frequent flights to many countries around the world, I am simply unaware of any foreign airport charging its arriving passengers to pay for such carts, which are offered free to help them move their baggage easily. But here in the USA such a free service is simply absent, causing much irritation, annoyance and problem to many foreign travelers who may not have the right currency upon their arrival.

When a third world country like Bangladesh can afford to provide such cart services free to all its passengers, it is high time that the USA, the richest country in the world, modifies its policy to make its airports more friendlier to its travelers.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

My recent trip to Doha and Bangladesh

I returned home to Philadelphia last night from my trip to Bangladesh. The Qatar flight from Doha arrived earlier than scheduled although the flight had taken off almost an hour late. The in-flight service was great. I stayed in a hotel, provided by the Qatar Airways, for almost a full day.

Doha is a very organized, neat city, with lots of construction work going on everywhere. There were too many hotels for the people touring or staying in hotels. I don't know what the builders are thinking! Most of the foreign workers were either Indian or Phillippinos. Many of the crew members in the plane were also from SE Asia (again from Thailand and the Philippines). I hardly saw any Bangladeshi except inside the Doha airport. The Indians have effectively taken over the hotel, catering and grocery industries in Qatar, many of them driving expensive foreign cars. Chevrolet was rather very common brand among most Qataris owning foreign cars. Weather was great, not too hot, for this time of the year. It was in the mid-30s (deg C). I hardly saw anyone walking on the streets outside migrant day laborers, working for the construction or hotel industry. So, Qatar seems to be one place in the Middle East where Bangladeshi workers are too few.

By the way, on my first leg of the journey I saw and met some Bangladeshi workers returning from the ME. They had lost the job there, or were betrayed by their sponsors. There was a Sylheti who had spent some quarter million taka to come for his cherished construction job, only to be returned empty-handed (and without even his belongings) within three months. The Bangladeshi embassy, as usual, was of no help to ensure his rights. It is a sad story for some workers who had spent all their savings, even borrowing from others to make that dream trip and then end up like that broke. No one inside the govt, esp. inside the Bangaldeshi embassies, seemed ever to care for such wage earners.

As noted by Prof. Taj Hashmi in a personal letter from his latest trip to Bangladesh, the traffic situation in all major cities is deteriorating fast with almost 300 cars adding every day to the Dhaka city alone. The govt's plan for separate schedules for offices and schools, while well-intentioned and smart, may actually have little luck to alleviate people's miseries on the roads, unless newer ways are found to address the real issues culminating into the mess. They may like to follow other prudent methods, some tried in our neighboring countries. For a mere meeting anywhere, within 3 to 5 kms, one may spend nearly 2 to 6 hours on the road, thus wasting nearly 80% of productive time. I wish our people had learned the art of utilizing phone to do many of their tasks; they still seemed to like the face to face meetings over those held over the phone. The work-efficiency is still a far cry for most business operations. The press freedom is at an all time high. This can be somewhat confusing for some people though. While the price of rice and some food items have come down from the 1/11-days, the price of most items is still beyond the means of most Bangladeshis, costing more in real dollars than in the USA.

The cities are dirty and filthy without any drainage cleaning for years. With corrupt mayors in many cities, esp. in the big ones, the life of most residents is worsening. With all the fast moving heavy trucks and buses rolling over the major streets round the clock, I could hardly have a sound sleep in Chittagong. Mayor Mohiuddin has put up speed breakers in front of all schools and colleges in the cities. However, without any visible sign or warnings, only thing he has been able to do is take away people's sleep at night. It is a stupid policy - trying to apply a wrong formula at a wrong place, without ever thinking about the consequences of such stupid actions. Who advises stupid mayors like him, I don't have any clue! Crime and corruption, as usual, is on the rise everywhere.

Many of the govt-priorities are misplaced and ill-conceived. It needs to do a Pareto analysis to prioritize important deliverables and chalk out real plans to implement those within the shortest time possible effectively. I wish Prime Minister Hasina had the wisdom of appointing more experienced people in her Mahajote govt rather than many amateurs that now include her administration. As usual, tender-politics is on the rise, and this, in spite of her warnings not to favor her party folks. I see lack of sincerity in many such efforts. She should also understand that while her father was definitely the most important Bangladeshi ever in the long history of our people, and that our people are indebted to him, she does not own Bangladesh, and cannot therefore behave like a feudal heiress. She should try to distinguish between sincere advice and sycophancy. The latter practice unfortunately is on the rise. I was simply annoyed to see the name change of the China-Bangladesh Friendship Convention center to Bangabandhu International Convention Center. I don't know whether it was a reversal act from de-naming names though! But such naming games ought to come to a full stop. I don't mind though govt putting its petty name with things that it erects on its own count, but hate to see old structures renamed. It is a piracy and must stop before our people's patience runs dry!

Many of our people are already too frustrated with real reforms taking place; if at all, too slowly. They seemed betrayed. Many blame the bureaucrats for the on-going troubles. While most intellectuals think that it was the lack of continuation of civil administration that is at the heart of our troubles, most seem to opine that a benevolent dictator is probably what is needed for Bangladesh! This wish again epitomizes our failure as a nation state. We seemed to have wasted away the last 38 years! Our political leaders also have learned nothing from history and continues to do insane and stupid things with lack of far-sightedness, sincerity of purpose and intention. As it seems, we shall therefore see more of the same.