Congestion has become such a notorious signature of Dhaka that passing visitors now almost experience it as some peculiar kind of touristic attraction.
Traffic jams are affecting the mood of citizens as much the productivity of the country. UNDP estimated last year that time wasted in transport in the city was worth $4.6 billion of annual loss -- this amount would be sufficient to build more than 30 kilometre of metro line every year.
As for traffic-induced mental and physical stress, one does not need statistics to understand the trauma on a daily basis.
A bleak future: Do we really have reasons to be optimistic?
The situation can become worse. Population in Dhaka is growing at full speed; with 27 million inhabitants expected for 2030, the competition for centimetres of asphalt will become merciless.
Middle-class can increasingly afford to purchase cars; this is good news for them but not for the city. In Dhaka, there are only five private four-wheelers for 100 people. The ratio for Delhi is 15 for 100.
This means we should expect many, many more cars to hit the cramped roads of Dhaka very soon.
The infrastructure gap is so wide that it would -- and it will -- take years to breach. Dhaka is the only megacity in the world deprived of a proper mass transport system. Even Lagos (Nigeria) inaugurated its first line of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in 2016. Likewise, Dhaka suffers from a severe lack of drivable space.
Only 8% of the city’s surface is covered with roads -- the international standard is 25%.
In such adverse environment, how can we not be disheartened? In reality, Dhaka residents would be wrong to feel fatalistic. Solutions to smoothen mobility do exist. Some even are within our grasp.
Infrastructure is the backbone of efficient transportation, but governance is the engine
The government of Bangladesh is taking various steps to address these infrastructural deficiencies.
Three ring roads have been planned to deviate traffic from the city center to the periphery. Five metro lines and two BRT corridors should also be erected to promote public transportation.
These are not just plans: Construction has already started for the metro line between Uttara and Motijheel (financed by JICA) as well as for the BRT line between Gazipur and the Airport (co-financed by the Asian Development Bank and AFD, the French Development Agency).
Yet, let us not lie to ourselves: All these projects -- as relevant, urgent, and crucial as they might be -- will not solve the problem of traffic congestion on their own. These investments need to be integrated into a broader transport revolution. And this revolution should be one of governance.
Coordination: The magic of mobility
Transport is about movement, fluidity. This inherent dynamic nature requires specific efforts in terms of coordination. Every single transit-oriented policy or project should be connected to make sense as a whole.
This is precisely where Dhaka struggles. A constellation of distinct entities are impacting transportation -- but not necessarily in a synchronised manner.
The Roads and Highways Department, the Bangladesh Bridge Authority, LGED, RAJUK, the BRTA, the
Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority, DMP, Bangladesh Railway, DNCC, DSCC City Corporations, Gazipur CC, Narayanganj CC, Dhaka Mass Transit Company, Dhaka BRT Company -- the list is long.
All these organisations have their own political agenda, technical expertise, and institutional logic.
One might push for public transport, while the other encourages the use of private vehicles. One might plan to construct a BRT line, while the other decides to build a flyover on the same spot.
Lack of institutional coordination naturally induces inconsistent, suboptimal choices. Congestion is not just a technical matter, it is closely related to the question of governance.
DTCA: A paramount authority
Here lies a ray of hope. Dhaka in fact has a solid institutional framework as far as transportation is concerned. Particularly, the city can pride itself with a unique institution: Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA).
DTCA is currently under the Ministry of Road Transport and Bridges. This authority is in charge of preparing the Strategic Transport Plan for Dhaka region (whose revised version -- the RSTP -- was approved in 2016). The role of DTCA is fundamental since every single transport project needs
DTCA’s approval. If a project is not consistent with the RSTP, DTCA can reject it.
DTCA hence has the capacity to bring coherence in Dhaka’s transport system and ensure that planned policies and investments are effectively implemented, which is exactly what Dhaka needs.
The DTCA Act (2012) has given DTCA actual power of enforcement and genuine institutional legitimacy. This bold decision by the government should be applauded. Most big cities of the region -- Kolkata or Bangkok, for instance -- are deprived of genuine transport coordination authority.
Sharp minds might be tempted to ask: If DTCA has such potential, then why the transport situation has not significantly improved since its creation in 2012?
Well, because DTCA’s potential is yet to be fully understood. DTCA could aspire for more recognition.
Today, not all stakeholders view DTCA as the urban transport reference it should be, and in fact very few citizens are even aware of its existence.
DTCA’s capacity is also challenged by its lack of human resources. Only 11 engineers work for DTCA on a permanent basis -- this is absolutely insufficient for a gigantic city like Dhaka. Hiring 100 additional technical officers would enable DTCA to reach a new height.
Building the capacity of DTCA
Coordination implies some form of leadership. DTCA’s mission is not to implement projects but to trigger a positive dynamic among transport stakeholders. To that effect, DTCA will become more proactive in engaging in inter-institutional dialogue.
Concretely, what kind of actions could DTCA take on the short-term? DTCA could put private bus operators around a same table to rationalise and restructure the city bus network. DTCA could help concerned institutions to relocate inter-district bus terminals in the periphery. DTCA could mobilise relevant authorities to promote multi-modal hubs (specific locations where buses, metros, BRT, trains, and other modes of transport would be interconnected).
Such initiatives would go a long way to encourage stakeholders to cooperate and to grant DTCA the status of ultimate reference in the field of urban transportation in Dhaka.
With this spirit, AFD, along with the financial support of the European Union, has recently mobilised a team of transport experts to enhance the capacity of DTCA in specific fields -- such as traffic management and bus network reconstruction.
This technical assistance program, which will last until the end of 2018, shall give DTCA the opportunity to initiate several pilot projects with various concerned agencies.
DTCA carries hopes for the future of transportation in Dhaka
DTCA is no superpower and will not solve the issue of traffic congestion in a fortnight. Yet, it is truly the right institution to transform the way mobility issues are addressed in Dhaka.
Oysters need not a lot to produce a pearl: A simple grain of sand trapped inside the shell is enough.
The mollusk deposits nacre around the grain which, over months, gets sculpted into a beautiful sphere.
If the transport system of Dhaka was an oyster, DTCA could be its grain of sand. It does not carry much weight for the moment, but it has the potential to be the starting point at which virtuous change could materialise.