Can We Build Dhaka out of Traffic Congestion?


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Traffic in Dhaka. Arne Hoel/World Bank

Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, has been dubbed as “the traffic capital of the world” because of its chaotic traffic and frequent traffic jams. Some say Dhaka needs more roads, because only 7% of land is covered by roads in Dhaka, while in many developed capital cities it is more than 20%. That argument may hold some water.
For many years, many cities in the world did try to build more roads to relief traffic jams after motorization took place. However, no city has been able to build itself out of congestion. In fact, allocating more urban land to roads means you have to reduce the portion of land allocated for other urban functions, such as housing, industrial, commercial and entertainment.  What has also been widely recognized is that building more roads does NOT reduce traffic congestion. It would actually induce more motorized traffic and thus create more traffic congestion.

The trend is reversing. We are now seeing many cities, such as Seoul, London, New York, San Francisco, returning land occupied by roads back to other urban functions, by demolishing via ducts, removing roadside parking lots, and replacing motor vehicle lanes with sidewalks, bike lanes, trees, flowers, coffee tables, benches, or chairs.

Cheong Gye Cheon, Seoul. Dr. Gyeng Chul Kim, Korea Transport Institute

Coming back to Dhaka, one fundamental question the city leaders and all city residents must ask before they rush to any solution is: What kind of city do you want Dhaka to be 20, 30 or 50 years later? Do you want to build Dhaka into a city where the city center is cleaned up to provide space for private cars? You will see big roads, elevated interchanges, parking lots, and lots of cars, but very few people (as shown in the “Before” photo of Seoul)? Or, do you want to keep the current vivid urban lives and provide a clean, safe and comfortable environment for people (as shown in the “After” photo of Seoul)?
If the focus of the urban transport policy and investment is on people, not on private cars, shouldn’t we be more worried by the congestion of people’s movement, and not by the congestion of car’s movements?
Here are some numbers that illustrate the real problems in Dhaka’s urban transport. Out of about total 21 million trips generated in Dhaka metropolitan area every day, only 5% are carried out by private cars, which however use roughly 80% of the road space and are the main cause of traffic congestion. Yet 28% of the total trips are carried out by buses which only use about 5 % of the road space. What’s more, 58% of the total trips are made by walking, bicycling, or riding on rickshaws, also called non-motorized transport modes (NMT). But these NMT modes barely get proper allocation of road space. There are no dedicated bicycle or rickshaw lane on any roads in Dhaka and less than 25% of roads have separated, paved sidewalks, most of which are either occupied by parked cars or damaged without proper maintenance. NMT users literally have to fight with vehicles for their right of way on roads and thus expose their lives to huge risks. During my visit to Dhaka in April, a local newspaper reported that 12 people (including one entire family) had died in traffic accidents on one single day; all of them were NMT users.

With the above numbers, I think even a person who has no transport planning or traffic engineering background would know what Dhaka should do to address its transport problems:  to give higher priority, more space, and better infrastructure to public transport and non-motorized transport, which meet mobility needs of 86% of the people in the city while only consuming a small portion of the road space and urban land. That is exactly what the World Bank experts are helping Dhaka to do now, through the Bangladesh Clean Air and Sustainable Environment (CASE) Project. The project is promoting safe pedestrian mobility in Dhaka by actively rehabilitating and improving sidewalks and constructing foot over bridges. It is also improving traffic management by improving intersections, installing traffic signals and training the police in the enforcement of traffic signalization. Under the CASE project the feasibility of a 20 km Bus Rapid Transit (or BRT) line from the airport to Buriganga Bridge was studied. We are also working on a new project - Dhaka Bus Rapid Transit Project – with the aim to offer a low cost high efficient solution to public transport in the congested city of Dhaka. Please let us know your thoughts and let us work together to help Dhaka improve its urban transportation.


Ke Fang

Lead Transport Specialist

T M Tonmoy Islam
July 21, 2014

The roads that pass over the rail-lines in Dhaka city can be elevated so that trains can pass below and road transport above. Or vice versa. This can help to reduce traffic snarls when a train passes through the city.
Once this is done, the existing rail network that transverse through Dhaka city can be used to transport people and goods from one end to another. Regular shuttle trains could run between Airport Railway Station and Narayanganj Railway Station without hampering road traffic. This could ease traffic congestion a bit.

Tasfin Aziz
July 15, 2014

NMT is required to be in focus for neighborhood level. Public transport must be encouraged in the primary roads!!

July 15, 2014

BRT in Delhi has been a disaster from a traffic congestion point of view. Dedicated corridor remains empty or is used illgegally by other vehicles. For BRT to work there are several pre-requsites - a) there needs to be escalators/ foot bridges to avoid Zebra crossings b) There should be adequate lanes for non dedicated traffic c) Public transport on one central road should be complemented by feeder transport of good/ reliable quality so people can give up commuting by cars/ mobikes and use Public Transport. In Delhi even the new Metro is so congested, stinky and crowded that not many who can afford personal transport can use it. The real decongestion can come when a city has widespread, clean comfortable and reliable public transport. There has been marginal improvements but not adequate enough for people to give up personal transport and use public transport. Secondly the NMT transport actually cause traffic congestion due to slow movement, do not follow any traffic rules and often compete with motorized vehicles. When accident happens it is the victims who are sympathized but if you drive in such cities you will realize the kind of unimaginable things (comming from opposite side is normal for them , crossing the road from anywhere with no respect to traffic lights is also normal, you will see all kinds of animals - cows, elephants, horses as well on roads meant for motorized vehicles) that people do that you will feel that the fact that so less people die on roads is a miracle.

Greg Chen
July 15, 2014

As a resident of Dhaka from 2008-2013, I like the proposed solution. It is more equitable and I believe Dhaka is meant to be an intimate city for walking, biking, rickshaws and public transport. A city dominated by private cars and wide highways seems both ill-suited and unlikely.

Tasfin Aziz
February 12, 2016

I agree with the idea of Mr. Chen. Every city has it's own character and culture to be practiced. For Instance, Rickshaw goes alongside with the traditional identity of the Dhaka City. We can not think of a day without rickshaw for every single errand. Therefore, well Integrated transport management is the timely demand avoiding unnecessary transport infrastructure and options.

Zahin Hasan
October 25, 2015

During the daytime, at least one lane of every road in Dhanmandi and Gulshan is occupied by parked cars. Car owners should be made to pay for the right to park on the roads. All those parked cars waste precious road space, and make traffic worse.

August 10, 2016

oh! nice this is good idea but reality is very hard.