In Dhaka, the city-dwellers are now going through a terrible time due to the abnormal air pollution in the atmosphere and chronic traffic congestions on the city roads. A study conducted by the Centre for Atmospheric Pollution Studies (CAPS) of Dhaka-based Stamford University has found that polluted dust particles in the metropolis are almost five times in excess of tolerable level. The air quality has been gauged by CAPS based on the quantity of miniscule dust particles PM-1, PM-2.5 and PM-10 found at 70 spots of the capital through four observation sequences during November and December last year. More significantly, the study has debunked the myth that brick-fields were responsible for 60 to 65 per cent of the air pollution in Dhaka. The survey findings show that smokes emerging from the huge number of fitness-expired vehicles on the city roads as well as manufacturing units and the polluted air coming from outside its boundaries are mostly responsible for pollutions in the city's atmosphere.
The CAPS has also ranked the major sources of air pollution in the metropolis. According to this ranking, brick-fields were followed by dusts from construction sites, smokes from vehicles and polluted air coming out from industrial units. In fact, brick-kilns operate for around 100 days from November to March, but Dhaka's air quality hovers between bad or unhealthy to very unhealthy in 300 days of the year. Consequently, other polluters including vehicular smoke are now playing a bigger role in the worsening of the situation. Besides, thousands of trucks arrive in Dhaka every night bringing with them huge quantities of sand and soil, which mostly gets mixed in the air, thereby worsening the level of pollution. All these have led to Dhaka being currently ranked as one of the most polluted cities in the world alongside Bangladesh being dubbed as the most polluted country.
Side by side with air pollution, the downslide in Dhaka's urban transport system also continues unabated. The transportation system in Dhaka was modelled on the concept of transporting 88 per cent passengers by buses that occupied 50 per cent of the road surface. But the actual situation is quite the reverse, as private vehicles now occupy 70 per cent of the road-space with the buses occupying around 5.0 per cent. Experts opine that many people have turned to private transportation options in the absence of a viable mass transportation system. As a consequence, the number of private transports including motor cycles underwent rapid surge, thereby significantly reducing the average vehicle speed and causing massive gridlocks. Huge financial and economic losses are being incurred due to losses of working hours owning to these chronic traffic jams.
According to the statistics of Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), a total of 1.5 million 41 thousand 785 motor vehicles were registered with them till January this year. Of these, only 2.36 per cent were buses. On the other hand, motor-cycles accounted for 47.01 per cent and private cars 19.2 per cent. Besides, micro-buses, taxi-cabs, tractors, trucks, covered vans etc. accounted for 31.61 per cent. If the BRTA statistics for the previous five years are analysed, it is found that 208 motor-cycles and 48 private cars have been registered every day during this period. Against this, the number of buses and mini-buses registered per day has remained stuck at only 8 (eight) per day. Experts blame lack of infrastructure, appropriate initiatives and dearth of required investments for this quagmire. Mass-oriented infrastructure conducive for movement of buses and trains has not been built up and the resulting vacuum has been filled up by private transports.
According to a World Bank report published in 2018, private transports occupied 70 per cent of the road-space, but carried only 5.0 per cent of the passengers. On the other hand, the buses occupied 5.0 per cent of the space but carried 30 per cent of the passengers. The experts blame private transports as the main contributors to traffic jams, as their space-passenger ratio is very high. However, despite having a much better space-passenger ratio, the operational mode of buses in the city is also quite anarchic and disorderly. Many of these are dishevelled in appearance besides lacking fitness. Most of these do not display fare-charts, nor are they hygienic inside. They often engage in racing competitions on the road, leading to many deaths or injuries. Extra passengers are routinely seated or made to stand inside the buses for the purpose of extracting extra fares. All these discomforts in addition to frequent traffic gridlocks result in a terrible predicament for the passengers.
The government has been talking about bringing some semblance of order to this sector through some measures like introducing a new road transport law, reorienting the routes and running the bus services through franchises. But there has been little progress in improving the situation till now.
In the above backdrop, the recommendations put forward by the urban transport planner Robert Gallagher in 2016 based on the cost-benefit analysis he undertook on future transportation priorities for Dhaka city through a joint collaboration between the Copenhagen Consensus Centre and BRAC under the 'Smarter Solutions for Bangladesh: Bangladesh Priorities' project still seem to be relevant. Some of those recommendations were as follows: (a) Reduce the generous subsidies given to private motoring, i.e. cars, jeeps and motor cycles; their rapid growth is attributed not only to rising incomes and limited public transport alternatives, but also to substantial subsidies, particularly in fuel and parking as well as extension of easy bank loans; (b) Undertake specific measures to encourage buses by: giving them traffic priority through dedicated bus lanes, priority signals at junctions, 'queue-jumps' and other measures to ensure they are not slowed down by congestion; creating an integrated and inter-connected network; raising bus system quality through high quality buses, good shelters, well-managed terminals, passenger information systems, integrated ticketing etc.; providing services not only on the main roads, but also within neighbourhoods.
The opportunities for walking in Dhaka should be developed, as walking is an essential and healthy part of a city's transportation system. In fact, 20-30 per cent of all trips are made on foot in cities like Tokyo, London, Berlin and Singapore. Besides, 'Pedestrians first' is a motto universally practised by city authorities all over the world. As good footways/footpaths and safe road crossings can transform a city, people should be encouraged to walk more and use vehicles less, thereby freeing up road-space; it would save people's money, make the city pleasant and liveable, and boost people's health and wellbeing. Cycling should also be prioritised in Dhaka, as it is one of the most efficient and environment-friendly transport modes available and has a great potential to bolster Dhaka's transportation system. Compared to Dhaka's 2.0 per cent, cycling accounted for 10-30 per cent of all trips in cities like Berlin (13 per cent), Tokyo (16 per cent), Shanghai (20 per cent), Amsterdam (28 per cent) and Beijing (32 per cent).
Measures for improving traffic management and control may include: more one-way streets, parking controls, better traffic signals, bus-stop discipline etc. The average traffic speed in Dhaka city could be increased by nearly one-third simply through following good traffic management practices. The under-staffed institutions responsible for city traffic and transportation should be strengthened, as proper management of traffic is not possible without sufficient staffs and resources in relevant public agencies. Recruiting competent staffs for bodies like Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA) should therefore be a priority for Dhaka's transport sector development.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary of GoB and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.