In a recent social media (Facebook) post an industrialist owning a ready-made garment (RMG) factory wrote in a remorse tone that he has developed prostrate and spinal cord problems due to recurring three to four hour confinement in his car in the horrendous traffic jam on Tongi-Gazipur road. He has to travel almost every day from his home in Gulshan to his factory situated in the vicinity of Gazipur. Another day, a tech savvy business leader posted photograph of thousands of gridlocked cars on a key avenue in Dhaka with an interesting tag that the city could soon win a world record for being the biggest car park.
Nothing new, traffic is indeed a pain in the neck and residents as well as visitors are dreaded with fear to commute. These days, the phrase "stuck in a jam" has also lost its weight and does not seem to be working anymore as a good reason, or even a mischievous excuse, for being late in attending office, school and any scheduled task. Truly, traffic jams are widely commonplace now and every day the situation seems to be aggravating further fuelling irritations, frustrations and even medical disorders amongst all, particularly in big cities and in urban areas. Everyone is crying out for a solution but no one can foresee a timeline. The saga of frustration keeps rolling, miles after miles, days after days.
Traffic jams or congestions are nothing new. It all began since human beings started concentrated habitations and used carriers of any kind, from animals to mechanical vehicles, for their mobility. Traffic jams or congestions started surfacing with the increase in agglomeration of people and modes of mobility. As people are more urban oriented, cities have grown wide and motor vehicles have become part of our convenience tools, there are mathematical justifications for gridlocks.
Historically, the first ever traffic jam was recorded in Washington D.C. on November 11 in 1921, exactly hundred years ago, when over three thousand motorcars remained stuck in a gridlock on a main avenue for three hours. It was the Veterans Day and people including government leaders were going to the National Cemetery to pay homage to the war heroes. Hundred years later, traffic jams are inescapable sights in hundreds of cities around the world. These jams are not only annoying but thumping negative impacts on environment, economy and of course, health.
According to economists and related statistics, traffic congestions are causing about US$ 80 billion loss to US economy annually. In China, the congestion in Beijing alone costs US$ 11.3 billion; Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in Brazil account over US$ 43 billion; Jakarta in Indonesia over US$ billion; Istanbul in Turkey $3.0 billion; and four key cities in India - Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and New Delhi -- impact the national economy with US$11 billion loss. In Bangladesh, congestions in the capital city Dhaka sting an annual loss of US$ 15 billion to the national economy.
While it is evident that traffic congestions are posing massive impacts on national economies around the world, there have been unending efforts for easing the menace whether by disciplining the traffic management or by increasing the carrying capacity of the roads and streets. Traffic management is undoubtedly a stupendous task in view of the massive increase in population, rapid urbanisation and unprecedented social and economic progress everywhere. Big cities, particularly those in developing countries, are facing undaunted challenges in coping with the situation when hundreds of new vehicles hit their roads and add to the queue of congestions every new day
Side by side, developing new engineering models such as new roads, flyovers, elevated roads and highways, underground transportation network and overhead rail systems is having hectic concentrations in several cities. Dhaka can be an example in this regard where massive constructions of metro rail, expressway, flyovers etc. are common sights with a hype of enthusiasm for an escape from the notorious traffic congestions here. It may be mentioned here that the first underground rail service was opened in London in 1863 to help reduce traffic congestion on the streets and ensure easier mobility for the residents and visitors. Today, Londoners and visitors enjoy the comfort of commuting.
Traffic congestions have been so irritating and damaging that there are many examples of shifting capital cities as a whole or building specific areas for enabling smooth administrative functions. Putrajaya was developed 25 kilometers away from the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur to enable administrative functions not being hindered by the rapidly growing traffic; Brasilia was made a new capital city in Brazil to bring ease in the choking traffic system; in South Korea, all administrative functions were shifted to Sejong, about 120 kilometers away to escape from the horrendous traffic in Seoul.
Measures like free public transport facilities, heavy surcharges on city entries for private vehicles, encouragement for use of bicycles etc. have also been in place in many places. However, all these efforts and endeavours seem to have failed to be the best responses to the crisis wrought by traffic congestions.
It is an undeniable fact that travel demands have been on exponential increase since the beginning of the century. Alongside the increase in population, industrialisation and socio economic progress, human activities have increased in unforeseen multiples. As a result, land use and infrastructure development could never been pre-emptied. Population pressure and mobility needs thus outpace the provisions already set up forcing people to be hostage to such menaces.
When telecommunication took a dramatic leap in developing cellular technology in the sixties, it was hoped that much of the travel demands of the people would be solved. The deployment of mobile financial services (MFS) some two decades ago further bolstered the effort to curtail travel demands. Using the MFS, one can do any kind of monetary transactions, pay bills, fees, etc. without the need of physically travelling to banks or related organisations. To take into a positive viewpoint, how much travel would have been made to accomplish such tasks if there were no mobile phones and benefits like MFS. The answer is simple. The traffic jam scenario would have displayed a more choking scale or be labelled as an apocalypse.
In Bangladesh too, the trend for payment of utility bills through MFS is on an upward swing. Last year, it grew by 25 per cent and it is likely that there will be significant increase ahead as public confidence in it is growing steadily. As for example, the MFS leader bKash enabled payment of 31 million utility bills by their customers during January to June this year. This figure is double than that of the same period last year. Thus, it helped reduce the travel of thousands of people who would have been required to go to any bank for the payments. During the Covid pandemic, bKash and other such platforms also saved tens of thousands of workers from travelling to receive their salaries and government incentives. These were good examples to indicate that fintech can help reduce mobility.
The Covid-19 pandemic has amply shown that much of life needs can be sustained with restricted mobility. It also rendered emergence of wide scale e-commerce while at the same time wooing fintech sector to be innovative and deploy appropriate services.
There is no debate on the urgent necessity of easing the growing traffic congestions, if not solving it. While policy makers and development planners need to have a long term vision, technology innovators should be more engaged in drawing up solutions to face the challenges irked by traffic congestions. Otherwise, gridlocks and tailbacks will continue to grow and blend a traumatic recap of the worst traffic jam in history - 123 kilometer long vehicular standstill on the highway from Lyon to Paris in France in 1980. Let the commuters be not forced to have the feel of camping on the road and the mass of vehicles on the roads render the photographic sight of an infinity car park.