Sustainable traffic management framework critical for mega city like Dhaka, says the World Bank
As many as four government agencies and two international lenders have spent a total of around Tk110 crore to upgrade the traffic light system in Dhaka over the past two decades, but the projects failed due to poor planning, urban transport experts have said
The authorities had been warned that the plans were not realistic for a city as chaotic as Dhaka but proceeded with them regardless, they added.
The latest of the projects is being funded by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for the installation of an intelligent traffic signal system at four intersections of the capital. The project follows failures in installing electronic, semi-automatic and automatic systems.
The failed attempts
First project: In 2001, the then single city corporation undertook the Dhaka Urban Transport Project (DUTP) to install electronic traffic lights with fixed intervals at 68 major crossings in Dhaka city. The project was funded by a Tk25 crore loan from the World Bank.
Although manual traffic lights were upgraded to electronic ones at the capital’s intersections in 2004, most of the lights were either damaged or went out of order within a few years due to a lack of maintenance, according to government sources.
Neither the traffic police nor urban traffic engineers engaged in this failed project. Several officials from the city corporation as well as other officials went on trips abroad to observe how traffic lights were operated in other countries.
Second project: In 2012, the now-split Dhaka City Corporations together took up the Clean Air and Sustainable Environment project (CASE), also funded by the World Bank. The total loan amount was Tk33.77 crore.
Of the loan amount, Tk7.17 crore was spent in repairing damaged electronic lights and adding solar panels and countdown timers.
Following the chaos on roads on the first day of the trial run of the new system in 2015, the city corporations and traffic police abandoned the new lights and returned to manual traffic management.
Once the previous electronic option flopped, the authorities attempted to use a semi-automatic traffic signal system - combining electronic and manual options - still under the CASE project.The idea was that they would import remote controls with which traffic police personnel could manage traffic movement.
This time, the city corporations included 29 more signal points for installing the electronic lights, countdown timers and solar panels at a cost of Tk23.60 crore. This option did not ease traffic movement as it was never executed.
The current project: In September 2017, the DTCA took a more sophisticated initiative to install an Intelligent Traffic System (ITS) at Gulistan, Paltan, Gulshan-1 and Mohakhali intersections under a Tk52 crore JICA-funded project.
Under the ITS, vehicle detectors and CCTV cameras would be installed to count the number of vehicles in each lane of the road and control traffic automatically from the DMP’s command and control centre.
CCTV cameras, ultrasonic vehicle and image vehicle detectors, signal lights, and underground cables were all installed by the end of 2019.
In January 2020, two special computers with ITS software were brought from Japan, but one was stolen from a warehouse of Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) before installation. The activities of the project were then suspended for two years.
Zihan Ara Rifat, a DSCC official and engineer of this project, said she had no idea about the resumption of the project. “We are trying to manage the computers.”
Dhaka Tribune approached several officials of both city corporations seeking explanations for the failed initiatives, but they declined to comment.
Reasons behind the failures
The main reason the projects failed was that the Civil Engineering Department of the city corporations had made the plans for the traffic system without involving any officials or experts from the Traffic Engineering Department, experts said.
Before trying out a signal system, the city corporations should conduct detailed studies on how many vehicles crossed the city at which points, at what time and what were the starting points and destinations of the vehicles. It should also consider the unpredictable movement of vehicles, said one expert.
Additional Police Commissioner Munibur Rahman said the systems were handed over to the police without any training on how to implement them.
"They handed the systems over to us, but we couldn't use them because we were not capable. We have no technical access and teams for this," he added.
Experts criticize planners for wasting funds
“No project relating to maintaining traffic will work unless all the conditions of our roads are taken into consideration and experts concerned are involved,” said urban transport and infrastructure development expert Prof Shamsul Hoque of the civil engineering department of BUET.
He claimed the projects taken up by the city corporations were aimed at misusing public funds and securing trips abroad for those involved with the projects, not to resolve traffic problems.
“One city corporation official who was a project director for the first two digital traffic signal projects made as many as 34 foreign visits with the money that the WB gave us as loans,” he said.
BUET Professor Dr Hadiuzzaman Hadi said: "The current project which is running under JICA will never work in Dhaka. Our existing roads are not suitable for such projects.”
Various modes of traffic, including both motorized and non-motorized vehicles, as well as haphazard movement by pedestrians are some of the factors that make the roads unsuitable, he added.
"Those who are giving us the loans [WB and JICA] are considering our traffic as if it is the same as in more developed countries,” he further said.
What WB said?
Dhaka Tribune sent emails to WB and JICA asking why repeated projects were undertaken to resolve Dhaka’s traffic chaos despite the project plans not being feasible for the city. Only the WB had responded at the time of the filing of this report.
Rajesh Rohatgi, WB program leader and senior transport specialist, said: “Dhaka faces one of the world’s most complex and difficult traffic situations, and traffic signals—aimed at better managing the intersections—is one piece of the puzzle. To manage such a scale of traffic, an effective traffic signal system is a necessity.”
He added that, at the request of the government, the WB had provided financing to the government’s DUTP, which installed 68 signalized intersections that partially relieved the traffic situation in central Dhaka.
After a few years, many of the signals became non-functional due to a lack of maintenance and the government requested that the World Bank finance the $62 million CASE project, he claimed.
“Under CASE, Dhaka South and North City Corporations installed traffic signals at major intersections, but, by the project’s closing in 2019, quite a few were either damaged or removed due to construction of other major projects,” Rohatgi said.
While the original plan of covering major intersections with traffic signals did not materialise as planned, the system demonstrated the benefits of an effective traffic signal system, he added.
He did not explain why the WB had funded the projects when experts had said they were not feasible.