Road safety lies at the heart of a country’s development
The capital has been paralyzed for a week by student protestors demanding road safety. In 2017, an estimated 4,200 pedestrians were killed in road accidents according to the National Committee to Protect Shipping, Roads and Railways.
The latest demonstrations are a result of the deaths of two high school students on Airport Road who were hit by speeding buses.
The response of the government has been to rush the finalization of the Road Transport Bill and place it before cabinet next week for approval. But much more needs to be done.
For the 2018-19 budget, Finance Minister AMA Muhith allocated 12.2% of the budget for the transport and communication sector. When asked about transport issues in the capital, bureaucrats tend to respond by pointing to the Strategic Transport Plan for Dhaka.
That plan was approved in 2008. It was revised in 2015 to include the metro rail, bus rapid transit, and elevated expressway.
The reality is that Bangladeshi cities are trailing behind most cities in the world in terms of road safety. The government is still not grappling with the huge priority that needs to be given for cities to function.
Infrastructural bottlenecks are one of the main impediments to economic growth in Bangladesh. If Dhaka, Chittagong, and other metropolises have efficient transport systems, there will be a multiplier effect on the economy.
There has to be firm political will and greater budgetary allocations to improve the transport system. The government should involve the best possible international expertise to assist it in overhauling the system and bring in ideas from cities around the world.
The following proposals should be the basic measures for ensuring road safety.
Zebra crossings with push buttons
One of the best advancements in road safety has been to equip zebra crossings with pedestrian push buttons. These push buttons allow the pedestrian to launch a traffic signal for vehicles to stop.
The government should install push buttons at each zebra crossing. The system should be spread throughout a city as much as possible. Multiple systems on a main road can bring down the speed limit.
The government should introduce a code for pedestrians. For example, the Highway Code in the UK contains rules for crossing a road and general guidance for pedestrians.
Such a code can be an authority on the standard of care that pedestrians must maintain. It should be available on the government’s online portal. Pedestrian education should be popularized through schools and the media.
Regulation of the bus system
The bus system in urban areas should be highly regulated for safety, maintenance, and customer service. Please stop buses that look like broken tin cans from running on the streets.
A bus code should be introduced with provisions detailing standards for seats, floors, handles, railings, lights, signs, space for the disabled, air conditioning, etc. Bus stations with clean benches and electronic signboards should be spread across a city. There should be speed limits for buses.
The government should maintain a database on bus drivers in each city. The database can be used for inspections on a frequent basis. Operators should strictly adhere to regulation or lose their license.
Currently, bus services are both state-owned and private. A bus rapid transit system is planned for Dhaka and can be replicated in all metropolitan cities.
Increasing road space
In 2014, a World Bank transport specialist believed that only 7% of Dhaka was covered by roads. In more developed cities, at least 20% of the area is covered by roads.
The government should muster the political and financial will to invest in developing roads, be it in the form of elevated roads, underground tunnels, or newly created thoroughfares. A master plan should be made in this regard.
Rapid transit and light rail
In July, it was reported that a section of the first phase of the Dhaka metro rail project was ahead of schedule. The government must prioritize the completion of the entire metro rail project as early as possible.
Given the large population of Dhaka, the government can consider light rail transit systems for different parts of the capital. Both mass rapid transit and light rail transit should be considered for cities across the country.
The rickshaw debate
Most commuter trips in the country continue to be on cycle rickshaws and auto rickshaws (CNGs). The collapse of the traffic system can be partly attributed to the clogging of roads by rickshaws. Auto rickshaws also do not maintain an adequate safety standard.
Bangladesh must have a debate on the rickshaw. Is it sustainable to have rickshaws clogging transport in metropolitan cities?
Other cities where rickshaws were once prominent, such as in Kolkata, Tokyo, and Beijing, have phased out the vehicle. Attempts to ban rickshaws in Dhaka have faced protests from rickshaws-pullers in the past. But the rickshaw industry will continue to enjoy an ample market outside metropolitan cities.
Manufacturing buses and rolling stock
Currently, Bangladesh depends on imports for buses and rolling stock. The government must ponder on developing a manufacturing base to produce vehicles for public transport.
Foreign investors and local businesses should be encouraged to develop such a base, given the large potential that exists. A country where cities have populations in the millions needs to be self-sufficient in producing public transport vehicles.
Indeed, in order to produce innovative technological products, the country must also develop a base for semiconductors, steel, and other industrial inputs.
For Bangladeshis, economic development has been a national priority.
Road safety lies at the heart of modern development.
Umran Chowdhury is a student of the Sorbonne-Assas International Law School.