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When More Roads Mean More Congestion

Zahid Hussain's picture
More congestion follows more roads. Photo Copyright of The Daily Star

Basic transport economics teaches us that changes in roadway supply have an effect on the change in traffic congestion. Additional roadways reduce the amount of time it takes travelers to make trips during congested periods. As urban areas come closer to matching capacity growth and travel growth, the travel time increase is smaller. In theory, if additional roads are the only solution used to address mobility concerns, growth in facilities has to be slightly greater than travel growth in order to maintain constant travel times.

Adding roadway at about the same rate as traffic growth will only slow the growth of congestion. But all these assume “other things equal”. No, I am not referring to “induced demand” that could potentially make the cure (road) worse than the disease (congestion). I am referring to the competence, or lack thereof, of those who design, build, and operate the facilities in the public sector.

One of the vexing problems taxing the taxpayers is the never ending encounter with what we call systemic bureaucratic ineffectiveness. It leaves citizens totally flabbergasted -- the perennial problem of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. The list of little things is long, such as when one well-meaning functionary explains with authority what certain regulation requires of the interested citizen only to find that another equally well-meaning functionary provides a divergent interpretation of the same regulation.

Often, it is more than these little things which are the bane of the public here in Dhaka. This systemic bureaucratic ineffectiveness is frequently manifested in atrocious outcomes causing serious disruption to the public, not to speak of large economic losses. Yet, even when things go horribly awry because the relevant administration is so out of it, the officials who should have prevented such problems in the first place seem to go scot free. They carry on as if nothing more than a big Oops happened. Here is an example of such a big Ooooooooooops.

This photo shows hundreds of vehicles that took a just inaugurated (Tejgaon-Bijoy Sarani) link road in Dhaka for the first time. They remained stuck on the one side—a road that was obviously meant to reduce traffic congestion. The other side of the road hardly has any vehicle, only people.

We see under-used road and over-used road right next to each other. What explains this puzzle? The Daily Star quotes views of experts surveyed in 2007 (long before the road was built) that “if the 120-foot wide Bijoy Sarani is narrowed down to 60 feet at the linking point, the “funnel” would create severe bottleneck in traffic movement instead of easing it.” What is most frustrating is that nothing was done to address this well anticipated problem. Ill design and mismanagement of the traffic signaling system has also apparently contributed to the mess.

If public officials cannot be held accountable for such visible and measurable outcomes that widely affect the common good then God help the softer and nationally less visible sectors!