A few days ago I travelled to Kushtia, a city situated in the southwest of Bangladesh from my hometown, Mymensingh. As our car was about to enter the city, we were faced with a huge tailback of trucks, cars, buses, and vans carrying passengers and goods.
It was around 10PM, and most of us were exhausted from the long hours on the road. As we waited for the traffic to ease, an hour went by and we became impatient. Thankfully, the vehicles started to move slowly and we were able to take a detour, took a different road cut through the villages, and finally reached our destination.
Most of the vehicles, however, were still waiting for the traffic to ease as time goes by. We found out that it was not only the long array of vehicles, and the poor traffic controls system but also the dilapidated highways that caused the gridlock.
As more people move into the city for better lives and living, and more economic activities take place at a larger scale, severe traffic has become commonplace across the country.
Take the example of Dhaka, Bangladesh's thriving capital, home to 18 million people and the place that also accounts for 20 percent of the country's GDP, is notorious for its heavy traffic congestion. An analysis by the World Bank has found that the average driving speed in the city has declined from 21 kilometres per hour to 7 kilometres per hour already. Traffic gridlocks currently eat up 3.2 million working hours each day and cost the country billions of dollars every year.
The Accident Research Institute at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) has recently concluded that heavy traffic is putting a huge financial burden on the economy – resulting in a financial loss of Tk 1.53 billion per day and an annual loss of Tk 560 billion in 2020, up from Tk 370 billion in 2018. The researchers of BUET also reported that 40 percent of additional fuel is burnt during heavy traffic hours adding to the economic woes of Tk 42 million. In addition, the cost of environmental degradation from traffic congestion is estimated around Tk 87 million – resulting from severe air pollution and various respiratory diseases.
So, what causes these fast-growing Bangladeshi cities to endure such congestion? The presence of motorised and non-motorised vehicles on the roads — cars, rickshaws, buses, auto-rickshaws, trucks, mini-vans, etc., illegal and random parking practices, an increasing number of hawkers on the road struggling to make their ends meet, lack of mass transportation system, poorly constructed roads and highways with shorter life-span, and inefficient traffic controls system – all adds to the narrative.
With the advent of ride-sharing services, the number of motorcycles on the roads has gone up by a huge margin, as commuters try to beat the traffic. According to the estimates of the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), there are around 3.2 million registered motorcycles operating on the roads of Bangladesh, but many experts agree that the number could be higher as many motorcycle owners operate unregistered.
Scarce road space is another feature of Bangladesh's urban life that also causes traffic. The World Bank has reported that only 7.5 percent of the total land area of Bangladesh is allocated for road space, compared to 11 percent in Thailand and 16 percent in Japan.
The Government has started to implement several megaprojects around the country to improve transport connectivity and reduce traffic. However, as we climb through the ladder of development and economic activities picking up at an amazing pace, we face the risk of growing in an unplanned and haphazard way. To counter these challenges, a stronger coordination mechanism should be put in place to coordinate among the different overlapping implementing agencies which will ensure sound implementation of the projects.
The development of the inland water transport channels throughout the country should be prioritised to allow for more cargo and passengers to ease the pressure on the highways. Initiatives should be put in place to connect other strategically located critical urban centres – Gazipur, Narayanganj, Mymensingh, and Bhairab in Kishorganj – to Dhaka through high-speed railways, thereby easing the pressure on the capital.
Necessary institutional arrangements should be established to ensure political commitment from all spheres of society. Also, as the country moves to graduate from the 'Least Developed Country' status to a 'Developing' country in 2024, investment in public transport and better management of traffic has become a priority – that will reduce the burden of traffic congestion.
The writer works in the development sector.