In its 400-year-old survival, the growth of urban Dhaka has occurred at a faltering and leisurely pace. Older than many of world's highly advanced cities, the city has started experiencing its progress in urban communication infrastructure tentatively in the early 1960s. Starting with rides on commercially hired elephants in the 17th century, Dhaka's residents eventually switched over to 4-wheel hackney carriages (horse-drawn carriages) in the mid-19th century. One of these carriages was brought to Dhaka by an Armenian merchant in 1856. It was a revolution of sorts in the city's communication sector; but more awaited the Dhaka residents. It appeared in the form of a motor car. In 1904, Sir Khawja Salimullah, the Nawab of Dhaka, was seen at the wheel of a car, a 1902 model Dechamps Tonneau. He was driving with none in that car on a Dhaka street. That was Dhaka city's first-ever private automobile. Thus began the era of private cars in one of the two largest urban centres in Bengal, the other being the then Calcutta.
It required nearly six decades for Dhaka to have motorised public transports. By that time, wealthy people in the city began owning private cars. But their presence on the roads was quite thin, even in the 1960s. It was not until years after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 that the Dhaka roads could be compared with those in any other large city in terms of private cars, alongside public transport. In those days, one of the remarkable features of the city's traffic movement was the motor operator's adherence to discipline and their respect for relevant laws. Moving past the traffic police or automated signals asking vehicles to stop would be deemed a sacrilegious idea back then. The trend of flouting traffic signals nowadays is found to be more frequent among the private cars than among the other habitually rashly driven vehicles.
A couple of decades ago, it was the rickshaws which were chiefly singled out for creating Dhaka's traffic congestions, as well as road mishaps. Later the finger was pointed at the law-flouting buses and minibuses, which at one time began ruling the roost in the city's streets. Few have noticed that in the meantime, the fast increasing number of private cars have also picked the trend. Since these passenger carrying small private automobiles are normally owned and operated by relatively educated and sober people, they had negligible role in the occurrence of accidents. But their formidably increasing presence in the stiflingly filled roads has for some time been causing hindrances to smooth traffic movement in Dhaka. According to the road-use experts, due to the network of narrow and choked roads in the capital the private cars cannot offer much relief to their owners. Cars face difficulty moving in the roads as they should have. At the same time, the general commuters' preference for public transports at times makes the presence of countless cars devoid of any logic. Overdependence on cars invites problems and different types of complications, especially those linked to the physical wellbeing of their passengers.
In view of these realities, the World Car Free Day was observed in the capital on September 22. The special day highlighted ways to reduce the dependence on cars for easing traffic gridlocks. The theme of the day's observance this year centres round encouraging cycling and walking. It proposes keeping provisions for special lanes for bicycle riders in the future planning of road construction. Using bicycles bear two fruits prominently: they occupy little space, and do not pollute the environment. Thanks to the physical efforts required for riding a bicycle, its regular use keep younger people physically fit. At the same time, in order to enable the energetic people to walk peacefully, the construction of standard footpaths also warrants equal focus. Against this backdrop, the theme of this year's Car Free Day --- 'Safe walking and cycling' appears to be quite appropriate.
According to social watchers, the dependence on cars for travelling even a small distance stems from a typical middle-class hangover. Most of the car-owning people know it is veritably meaningless to use one's private car to cover a distance from Shahbagh to Bangla Motor, or from Azimpur to Nilkhet. But they feign a state of helplessness. There is also another factor at play --- a false sense of vanity or prestige. Many car-owning people feel reluctant to walk lest people think they cannot afford a car. Except the elderly and women with children, using cars to travel small distances by able-bodied persons goes against the basic urban pattern of lifestyle. The city life is expected to follow some basic ethics, which is distinct from feudalistic rusticity.
However in the case of Dhaka, facing unwarranted hindrances on the sidewalks or footpaths also comes up as reason for avoiding walking. In the big cities around the world men and women including the senior citizens are seen walking along footpaths during rush hours. It could be seen in New York, London or Tokyo. It is a common scene in Kolkata, the capital of our neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal. The same applies to cyclists. They are found in every part of the big cities in the Western world.
The Executive Director of Dhaka Transport Cooperation Authority pointed out the other day a vital fact related to Dhaka's private car density. As he has observed, though the rate of car use in Bangladesh is much lower than the countries in the Southeast Asia, the cars cause traffic jams in the capital. He made it clear that the observance of the Car Free Day did not mean stopping the use of cars. The day's message highlights too much dependence on private cars for commuting. It could be cut down considerably by using them reasonably. The lack of enough public and mass transport is responsible for the increasing dependence on private cars, he has observed. It's undeniable that the capital needs far more public buses than found now being in operation. The reason is simple. A mid-size car carrying a single person can be termed a mindless misuse of road space. A certain breadth of space occupied by a single person can accommodate three to four persons in a public transport. Upon being multiplied, the space which could be saved means a lot to the space-constrained Dhaka. Perhaps it was this factor which had prompted the traffic management authorities a decade ago to discourage passengers from travelling by a car as a lone passenger-cum-driver or a single passenger with the driver.
Using private cars on short-distance travels is sheer misuse of space. Small or mid-size public transports can be employed to do the job. At present, the government-run circular buses that operate in some inner Dhaka areas and cover only a few roads seem to be an effective substitute for private cars.
The city of Dhaka is now waiting for the launch of the Metro Rail service, the largest mode of mass transit in the city to date. With its full operation, many of Dhaka's traffic movement problems and commuters' difficulty in travelling are expected to disappear. Larger motorised public transports that ply the roads within the city will most likely cut down on operation. Many cars might face the similar fate. But the prestige-conscious and individualistic car owners may not leave their vehicles. That will not cause any disruption to the city's traffic movement. Certain roads in Dhaka in the near future are expected to be quite spacious, and much less congested. The habitual car-riders and both cyclists and walkers will then definitely enjoy their happier times. The proposed 'car free days' could then be reserved for the areas out of the zones benefited by the metro rail service.