So this is how it went down: A week ago, my friend and I are about to cross a fairly busy street in Gulshan. With me being on the side from which the direction of traffic is coming from, the responsibility of leading the way rests on my rather slender shoulders.
Somewhat misjudging the speed and distance of one particular car, I move forward, only to realise that it is moving at a non-recommended speed. Noticing, I change my walk into a brisk jog.
My friend, on the other hand, having vested trust on to me, and seeing me move forward, does the same, only to realise that she is stuck in the middle of the road, with cars coming at breakneck speed on either side: One car because it has assumed that she has gone past it; the other because it is keeping an eye on me and doesn’t notice the meek little figure following in my path.
At this point, she makes a run for it but it’s too late.
The car brakes. It skids to a halt as I stand, having jogged my way to safety, powerless, waiting for a tragedy to unravel before my eyes.
Thankfully, the car misses her by inches.
The driver, understandably, rolls down his windows and starts yelling at us for being stupid.
Who could blame him?
While I take full responsibility for rushing to cross the road, my excuse would be that the city has conditioned me in such a way.
Whether or not you’re in a hurry, for a street in Dhaka to be traversed, you will require speed and, to some extent, dexterity.
Speed, because you don’t know when the next opportunity will arise when you will be able to cross the road. Dexterity, for when the road is jam-packed and you have to weasel your way through squished together vehicles which sprawl athwart the street.
But situations such as this are nothing new for the Dhaka pedestrian. In fact, every time we are out on the street, we are at some risk of getting floored by a wayward bus or CNG from the wrong side, let alone we are in the process of traversing a mildly busy street.
Where there is no accountability, there is chaos. And our streets have, for the longest time, remained that way.
Every time we are out on the street, we are at some risk of getting floored by a wayward bus or CNG from the wrong side
System of danger
The glaring hole in our traffic system here is obvious. There are, in fact, few designated places for people to cross the street.
While there are “foot overbridges” installed at various junctions across the city, they are not everywhere, and what is worse is that they are not enough to change the way the people of this city have grown up to function.
Which is why, for places which still boast overbridges, we are still struggling to instill the habit of climbing the stairs to cross the street, and failing.
And I foresee no reason why this will change.
The concept of relying solely on overbridges for the crossing of streets is uncommon. Whereas most places in the world rely on a flow of traffic that incorporates pedestrians into its flow, we seem to have completely eradicated them from the system.
Pedestrians flock like ants on the sidewalk; they are intrusions in the exclusively vehicular form of Dhaka’s meandering streets. In the microcosm of the street, they are the minorities.
In most cases, they have no sidewalk, no place to call home, oftentimes taken over by illegal ramshackle shops selling pairs of boxers or the like; in narrower lanes, they are forced to hug the sides of the street and leave it up to the drivers of vehicles to avoid them, and on larger streets, when crossing, they must almost do so together, putting up their hand in solidarity and rebellion, forcing the oncoming flow of traffic to stop.
For it is the only way the pedestrian’s presence is felt. It takes bravery (and to some extent an inherited recklessness) to traipse along the streets of Dhaka and those who do not will more often than not find themselves stranded along the shores of an unwelcome city.
After I had crossed the street in Gulshan with my friend, I cursed myself for having been doing this for over two decades and still making a mistake.
But, when it comes to this, why has the city left so much room for such mistakes to take place?
After all, this wasn’t the first time this had happened to me, and it probably won’t be the last.
And next time, I might not live to tell the tale.
SN Rasul is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune. Follow him @snrasul.