We need to focus on behavioural solutions
Dhaka is home to 17 million people, expected to grow to 27 million by 2030. The city sees about 60 new private cars on the road every day.
According to the Atlas of Urban Expansion, the share of built-up area in Dhaka occupied by roads in 1990-2014 fell to 12%, compared to 21% in the pre-1990 area. Between the same two periods, the average road-width reduced by half, with 56% of the roads being less than four metres wide.
Last year, the World Bank highlighted the fact that the levels of traffic congestion in Dhaka meant that the average driving speed would soon drop to 4km per hour, which is slower than how fast a person can walk. No surprise then, that collectively, commuters in Dhaka lose a total of 3.2 million working hours each day on the road.
Bangladesh is ranked 177 out of 180 countries in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2018; and 99 out of 137 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, 2017-18. The sub-index scores for the latter ranks “corruption” as the most problematic factor for doing business in Bangladesh.
Several solutions have been proposed and applied to varying measures. The government has proposed reviving waterways, elevated transport corridors, and a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS). Public investment has seen a major push in Bangladesh under the current government.
Mega transport and energy projects have been taken up. The 2018 budget, with its highest ever Annual Development Program of Tk173,000 crore prioritizes transport infrastructure, among other major public investment projects.
This is one of those public policy problems, where the technical answers, even beyond “build more infrastructure” seem evident.
In Dhaka, the factors that determine the nature of traffic may be broadly divided into two categories: First, design issues other than physical infrastructure -- systems and processes that are supposed to work to enable smooth traffic on the road, such as issuances of route permits for public transport, vehicle fitness permits for private and public vehicles, and driving licenses.
Second are the on-road behaviour of different actors involved, such as vehicle drivers, pedestrians, two-wheeler riders, rickshaw pullers, etc; visible signs that traffic regulations are in place, such as functioning traffic signals at intersections, traffic police, and enforcement of regulations by those responsible.
There are multiple agencies of the government that are in one way or the other responsible for managing urban transport in Dhaka -- two of these agencies are engaged in developing traffic and road infrastructure; two others are supposed to regulate urban transport, and one agency is entrusted with policy coordination.
This scenario of overlapping jurisdictions -- prone to both blind-spots and turf-wars -- contributes to a general environment of low mutual accountability. Moreover, institutional capacity, to both regulate and enforce, is limited, and vested interests rule the roost.
Thus, even when all that is needed is that the responsible agencies ensure compliance to the rules, it turns out to be an uphill battle. Public and private vehicles that are unfit for the road ply unhindered. Drivers without proper driving licenses run riot. Recent events have also cast a spotlight on road safety (or the lack of it). In the absence of a system that ensures that both vehicles and drivers are fit for the road, this is hardly surprising.
The combination of factors which contribute to the traffic chaos overlap quite neatly with other manifestations of poor governance, such as corruption, and weak institutional checks and balances. It is also a good indicator of the extent to which a society is “rule-abiding” in nature.
In such contexts, attempts to push reform by external agents are likely to fail. Studies in the past that recommended rationing the award of bus routes through a transparent mechanism, or projects that installed modern vehicle inspection centres, were eventually not implemented.
Similarly, technical fixes, such as vehicular pollution meters and clean fuel options exist. However, solutions must focus on enhancing institutional capacity to the responsible agencies to legislate, regulate, and enforce rules on the ground.
Working with those responsible for urban transport management, and finding a mechanism by which a combination of technical and behavioural approaches can be piloted, studied, and implemented (or discarded) is the way forward.
A strong public communications campaign that emphasizes the importance of following rules when on the road will be beneficial. External interventions may trigger this reform, but for any chance of lasting success, it will require sustained leadership from within.
Leadership from the highest levels is essential, but will need to be transferred down the line.
For the government of Bangladesh, this is an issue fraught with challenges -- where on one hand, public support ought to be guaranteed if there is even moderate success, but on the other hand, there are powerful interests at work that will face disruption, and will not remain silent.
However, public sentiment, at this point, is firmly in favour of reform. This is an urgent need, and should win the day.
Bangladesh has tremendous growth potential, and to continue to lose productivity due to persistent traffic woes would be unfortunate.
A successful reform process that tackles the urban transport crisis holds the key to realizing Bangladesh’s aspirations of attaining high-income country status by 2041.
Suvojit Chattopadhyay is a freelance contributor.