Is Dhaka destined to remain congested or jammed forever? Does the city have any alternative to save the wasting hours trapped in the terrible traffic? These are the questions that have been haunting millions of city dwellers and commuters for the last two decades. Stray moves to get rid of traffic gridlocks are actually giving an indication that such questions will continue to haunt the people in the near future.
In the recent years, the government has undertaken some mega projects to ease Dhaka traffic. All these projects are outlined in the 20-year (2016-2035) Revised Strategic Transport Plan (RSTP) for Dhaka city. The local authorities and international donors, who are supporting these mega projects, have been claiming that successful implementation of these projects will reverse the course of ongoing traffic congestion dramatically. They are also portraying rosy picture of Dhaka traffic in future.
One of the mega projects is the introduction of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. The RSTP proposed two BRT lines with a length of 76km and a projected investment of Tk43.3 billion or $657 million to implement the project.
It is to be noted that BRT is a system to speed up buses by giving them a dedicated lane or corridor. Beside dedicated bus-way, the system provides for well-designed stations aligned to the centre of the road, off-board fare collection facilities, platform level boarding and prohibited turns for traffic across the bus lane. The basic idea behind the BRT is to ensure uninterrupted movement of buses so that commuters can reach their destinations on time.
Thus, BRT requires huge investment and planned construction with long-term perspective. Moreover, it should be a part of a comprehensive transport and transit system of the city and need to be coordinated with regular transport services. Failure to make the coordination will turn the whole thing into a disaster.
The government has started the construction of Northern section of the BRT Line-2, the official name -- Gazipur to Jhilmil BRT line. Jhilmil is a project of RAJUK at Keranigonj across the Buriganga River. While the total distance of the BRT line is 42 km, the northern section, Gazipur to Airport, is 20 km. The project cost is estimated at Tk 20.4 billion and was initially set to be completed by 2016, but now reset at 2018. The whole project includes dedicated lane with 4 km Uttara-Tongi elevated lane, six flyovers, 8-lane Tongi bridge and 56-km link roads.
Initial implementation status is, however, disappointing and some irregularities on expenditure have already been identified. A news item, run at The Financial Express last month, mentioned that only 5.5 per cent of the total budget has been spent in four years with no visible progress. Thus, it is unlikely that the project will be completed by the end of 2018 and further extension of time will also escalate the cost of the project as it has been the case with other ongoing infrastructure projects like Moghbazar-Mouchak flyover.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB), French donor AFD and Global Environment Facility (GEF) Fund are financing the major part of the BRT. The environmental impact assessment found no harm on environment from the project rather some positive effect like low carbon emission on overall environment is expected. Moreover, it is likely to improve the public transport system in Gazipur City Corporation area and improve the connectivity with the northern part of Dhaka City Corporation.
As Gazipur has already emerged as an industrial hub along with growing business and trade activities, the area requires better and faster mobility options for the dwellers and commuters which can also reduce pressure on Dhaka. The feasibility study of the BRT rightly identified the importance of such mobility.
But, better mobility between Dhaka and Gazipur is also possible without a costly BRT system. In fact, there are two options and both can be adopted simultaneously at lower cost than BRT. One is improving the current rail network between Joydevpur junction and Kamalapur railway station. Frequent commuter trains could be introduced in this route and the stations in between could be connected with feeder buses. This will ease traffic pressure on roads. The other option is introduction of better quality buses on this route like double-deckers and low-floor ones. Both long and short distanced buses should also be there so that short-distance passengers will not need to rely on long-distance ones. Existing ramshackle and older buses may be replaced gradually with new buses.
Required investment for such options will be quite low than BRT but is likely to serve the purpose fairly well. What is needed is strong monitoring and efficient management.
The main problem with the public transportation in Dhaka as well as in the whole country is increasing criminalisation backed by strong political connections. The criminalisation is so deep-rooted that the authorities have little capacity to deal with the distorted management of the public transport system. A recent study done by a research institute unveiled the criminalisation of the sector. The study, conducted by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), revealed that private bus operators in Dhaka annually pay Tk 75.60 million as 'subscription' to transport owners and workers' unions. The amount, believed to be a conservative estimation, clearly reflects the alarming rent seeking culture in this sector. Such rent-seeking is ultimately penalising the regular commuters who are not only paying higher bus fare for inefficient public buses, but also compromising their valuable time and productivity.
Thus, governance issue is very important. Without ensuring good governance, it is not possible to ensure better management of the traffic system in Dhaka. In fact, it will require huge additional financing to run the system, especially for proper maintenance and additional security measures. The BRT corridor will obviously narrow the existing roads and so congestion may increase in the pick hour. In some places, dedicated bus-ways have to be merged with regular traffic which will reduce the speed of the buses.
Bus fare is another important thing. To avail congestion-free travel, passengers have to pay some premium and that is obviously linked with return on investment. Thus, fare in BRT route will be quite high and may not be affordable to low and middle-income people who constitute the majority of the passengers.
This is not to say that the BRT is a nonviable option for easing traffic. But what is more important is to clearly understand and acknowledge the prime causes of the traffic congestion. Ignoring governance issue and traffic literacy, heavy reliance on physical infrastructure and projection of BRT as the best solution may not be the answer to redressing the city's traffic problem.