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.

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