Feature Img
Jam packed Dhaka street
Jam packed Dhaka street

Traffic congestion has become, alas, an iconic image of Dhaka and the hot-button issue in any dialogue on urban affairs. Recommendations that are typically offered, however, hinge on the flawed idea that there is a quick technical fix (for instance, a fly-over or an elevated expressway). Sure, there could be multiple technical approaches, but the problem is that rarely are these approaches couched in the sociological and historical contexts of the issue.

The result is, thus, piecemeal and fashionable technocratic mantras that fizzle out before they are put in place. Even if some of them get implemented they are rarely seen to make significant improvements over existing conditions.

Recent research shows that private automobiles occupy nearly 70 percent of Dhaka’s streets serving only 20 percent of the commuters, whereas mass transit and non-motorised vehicles take up 30 percent, mobilising 80 percent of the people. What this means is that a moneyed middle-class minority contributes to the traffic congestion by relying exclusively on personal vehicles. Because high-occupancy mass-transit vehicles are vastly outnumbered by low-occupancy personal vehicles in using the street space, urban mobility suffers and many work hours are wasted.

Have the urban authorities that seek to solve Dhaka’s traffic quagmire ever thought why the urban middle-class is so stuck up with their personal cars? Even if there was an affordable and user-friendly mass transit in Dhaka, does anyone think the middle-class would sacrifice the comfort and the prestige of personal vehicles in the interest of the greater good? Any contemplation of this question requires a bit of socio-historical reflection on the nature of 20th urbanisation and the role that automobiles played in it.

Lest we overlook, the kind of traffic congestion that we now see in Dhaka had already been experienced in the early 20th century by metropolises like New York, London, and Paris. While urban authorities in these cities realised that city streets crammed with cars with no traffic regulation in place was a menace to public safety and an impediment to economic growth, they also understood that the rise in the number of personal cars was an inevitable consequence of economic prosperity. In the 1920s, Henry Ford’s assembly line mass-produced Model T, giving people an opportunity to own a car at an affordable price. In 1929, 5.3 million automobiles were made in Detroit. Cars had a peculiar complicity with the economic history of modernity.

Thus, when the tenets of modern planning began to take shape in the 1920s and 1930s, planners in Western cities laid out streets for the unimpeded circulation of cars. Franco-Swiss architect and planner Le Corbusier’s slogan that streets were for cars became the de facto creed of modern planning. After World War II, asphalt grids across America, filled with cars speeding along in demarcated lanes, was portrayed as a shining symbol of progress. Under a planning movement called Urban Renewal in the 1940s and 1950s, congested cities were cleared to make them accessible to cars.

In the 1950s, postcolonial India, at the behest of Nehru, imported this urban model to Chandigarh to showcase its preferred economic trajectory towards industrialisation. The planning of Brazil’s capital Brasilia, completed in 1960, was inspired by the car as the prime mover of modernity. No wonder Brasilia was hailed as a “motopia” (motor and utopia)!

But the dream city of cars suffered a setback when in the 1960s and 1970s the gloom of energy crisis and disillusionment with over-reliance on personal cars began to permeate Western societies. Jane Jacobs, a New York-based author, called into question the basis of car-centric cities and championed alternative forms of city design based on pedestrian circulation, mixed-used development, and a humanist philosophy of urban growth. Her bestselling book, The Death and Life of Great America Cities (1961), inaugurated a popular planning effort called New Urbanism that witnessed the proliferation of compact cities, dependent not on personal vehicles but on mass transit and integrated work-living lifestyle.

Inspired by the current Green Movement and its mission to reduce carbon emission, today’s urban designers of sustainable growth incorporate zero-carbon modes of mobility like walking and biking. Amsterdam is one of the best examples of cities that thrive on biking. Environment-conscious mayors across American cities have made mass transit and compact urbanisation their top political priorities.

Now let us return to Dhaka. As a modernising country, we have replaced indigenous city forms with an Urban Renewal model of urbanisation, one that overlooks the environmental cost of rampant personal car usage. We promote more road building across agricultural lands but we hardly talk about deglamourising personal car ownership. In the heroic narrative of economic growth, we view owning a car as a sure-fire sign of social mobility and class recognition.

Let us draw a sociological section through a Dhaka street to understand why 70 percent of the street space is occupied by personal autos. The reliance on cars is intertwined with the ways we have evolved as a society and perceived its political space where the rule of law is not known to have a strong foothold.

In the popular imagination of the urban middle-class going outside the home has become synonymous with encountering a host of street threats: menacing muggers, reckless trucks, and health hazards of all kinds. Any space beyond the private domain is negative.

The result of this sorry perception is twofold. First, the middle-class would unfortunately avoid public places that are considered the vital “organs” of a healthy city. Second, city-dwellers lose empathy for the city. This second effect has become deeply cultural. Spitting in the streets, throwing garbage in exposed drains, complete disregard for the environment, and indiscriminate public land-grabbing — all calcify into progress-defying cultural habits that eventually creep into the country’s policy mindsets.

But what has it got to do with traffic congestion? If the outdoors is a place to be avoided the natural inclination for the urbanites would be to make private bubbles in the public space. That private bubble is the car. The car provides multiple dividends: among them, a comforting sense of safety and social class. Approximately, 200 officially registered cars now enter Dhaka’s streets each day vying for space already swarming with rickshaws, buses, tempos, trucks, and people.

In the absence of a viable public transportation system, those who can afford to do so would either buy a car or dream of buying one. If we are to think of any comprehensive traffic solution for Dhaka, we must realise that there is no alternative to an efficient mass transit. Take a look at Bogota, Colombia. The former crime-ridden city has turned itself around and emerged as an example of sustainable urbanism by introducing an efficient rapid bus transit called TransMilenio. This colour-coded bus system has brought Bogota’s various economic classes together, contributing to improved social cohesion and reducing crime rate.

Combating Dhaka’s traffic congestion requires short-term and long-term measures. Transportation engineers and urban sociologists must grasp, together, why people so obsessively rely on personal cars and what it would take to sway them to use public transport (provided there is one that is safe, efficient, and user-friendly). A comprehensive solution entails both infrastructure planning and passive measures such as educating urban-dwellers about the benefits of using public transport, walking, and exercising civic responsibilities. Planning policies become viable only when they foster a culture of urban ethics.

Many authors argue that “underdevelopment is a state of mind,” meaning that progress-resistant cultural habits cause the problems we are in, including traffic congestion. We want mobility without exercising our share of urban responsibilities. In his book From the Noble Savage to the Noble Revolutionary, Venezuelan writer Carlos Rangel argues that Latin America’s widespread poverty is also the consequences of its Iberian cultural heritage. Having studied the underdevelopment of Haiti, American author Lawrence E. Harrison concludes that superstitious ambivalence toward material progress keep Haitians entrenched in poverty (while the repressive histories of colonialism continue to exacerbate their condition).

This means that no development vision is going to work unless people themselves show the willingness to be self-critical and start taking responsibilities for their own destiny. Freeing Dhaka from the grip of traffic congestion can begin with this simple but powerful understanding.

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Dr. Adnan Morshed, Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Planning, the Catholic University of America, Washington DC.

14 Responses to “A sociology of Dhaka’s traffic congestion”

  1. garage remodeling

    Sorry Kevin, high speed rail is not light-commuter rail. High-speed rail is a longer distance intercity rail system that transports passengers 100 miles and further, and travels at speed of 110 MPH or more. A commuter rail system, serves local communities in a specific major market, and usually travels at speed under 79 MPH.

  2. Monjur Mourshed

    Should the urban middle-income group (I am not very fond of the word ‘class’ as it is derogatory even if used with the best of intentions) in Dhaka be blamed for all its woes and shortcomings? Surely, car ownership among the middle-income group is on the rise and will continue to do so until a balance is achieved between the cost of ownership and benefits accrued or perceived. Decades of failed policies in the west to reduce car ownership are a testament to the fact that people will continue to own cars unless sustainable (mostly financial) alternatives are presented. The focus of transport planning in the West has inevitably shifted from building more roads/infrastructure towards active travel demand management through awareness building and various policies, mostly in the form of increased taxation.

    However, we should probably not jump to conclusions here and start to assume that Western policies are fit for purpose in Bangladesh, not without some serious adaptation/localisation. Inadequate infrastructure (road network, public transport, policies and user/driver education) remains to be Dhaka’s primary shortcomings when it comes to sustainable transport. Dhaka’s urbanisation has been mostly about buildings and housing as many people as possible without much regard to the optimum capacity that can be sustainably served by the adopted dense morphology. Road and infrastructure capacities will, therefore, have to be increased to a certain level, even if softer approaches such as travel demand management and road taxation are adopted.

    I can see the point about middle-income group’s travel behaviour that is increasingly being reliant on the least sustainable mode of road travel – but cannot agree that the blame can be squared upon them in its entirety or the idea that we should abandon building infrastructure.

  3. Waziuddin Chowdhury, AIA LEED AP

    A very well written piece, especially the psycho-analysis of the middle-class mindset. Actually the middle-class lives with an innate need to rectify their status, and cars help with that.

    The rich folks on the other hand are building their “Bagaan baaris” in the picturesque locations far outside the city where they can escape to — in their helicopters if needed. Actually, I subscribe to the theory of Manuel Castells — that the “the elite amongst the colonised become the new coloniser”- and what we have as a ‘fall-out’ of casteism and colonisation is a weird mix of “class-consciousness” (gorib vs poishawala) and “status-consciousness” (sadharon poribaar vs bonedi poribaar) which provide a lethal mix!

    But let’s face it. Public transportation will only work when we come up with hierarchical modes of transportation. In other words, buses with air-conditioning for the financially well-off versus “murir tin” buses for the plebeians, which we do have a few.

    A tongue-in-cheek joke by someone from the upper-class as relayed to me was that the availability of CNG at such low prices can now allow any- “jodu-modhu” to buy a car. Just eliminate the use of CNG for private vehicles and you will see the congestion evaporate!

    Possibly, true and definitely a reasonable statement — which will force these Middle-class folks (alas) to take public transportation again — if they don’t resort to rioting and topple the government.

    I am afraid a solution will only come when vehicles cannot move and the streets literally turn into parking lots. That is how things are done in Dhaka. And why complain? If I am not mistaken, I believe it was Dr. Morshed who had written an article in an English daily not too long ago, extolling the chaos and congestion as a pre-requisite for creativity. I suppose being caught in a jam a few times can change our perspective! (Sorry- that was a cheap shot–but just to say that we can all change our minds based on the reality on the ground).

    In the midst of this intolerable situation, I have seen traffic at Dhaka brought to a halt, just because one minister or another had to travel through the same artery. And you wonder where decisions like ‘Arial Beel’ came from! Yes, workable solutions could suggest that the governmental offices, the Cantonment and even the educational institutions of higher learning are all taken out of Dhaka — but who is going to bell the cat?

  4. Khaled Noman AIA

    Martin Pawley who used to write on architecture wrote a small book on how the automobile has become the modern man’s dream bubble and how addictive it has become. This he was writing right after the oil crisis of the early 70’s. Our country has a growing middle-class, and owning a car is one of the rewards of belonging to that class. But we face a different issue. If Dhaka city attracts about 2200 people everyday (Daily Star article) of the year to migrate and make a living here it adds a different element to the equation.

    Add to that the corruption of the political intents and the twisted policies of the government that are half baked and badly mangled during implementation. Transportation is one of many critical issues that are brewing today. 20 years back there used to be a lot of advertisements about population control and family planning in and around the country; none of that you see today. It’s almost like the problem does not exist. The Daily Star wrote today in one of its reports that the Muslim population of the planet is going to grow at a rate twice as fast as any other group. And we are a Muslim country, so go figure.

    There used to be a lot of talk of de-centralisation, like moving some of the large governmental functions out of the capital. May I suggest moving the Cantonment out of Dhaka, and the Naval Headquarter to Chittagong, etc. But then I know Chittagong is also beginning to have its share of problems. It will of course ease the situation only a bit. In the end, I think the astronomical size of the population compared to the land mass area is the main issue that needs to be looked at. All the beautiful and well managed advanced countries we talk about usually have a good balance of the size of population with that of its natural resources and economic strength. The balance is well tuned and adjusted constantly over time.

    We seem to have buried our head in the sand as regards that. And so… whipping the old boy Le Corbusier is of little comfort. It is a paradigm shift to even bring common sense into common conversation. However, we need to be hopeful that the mindset will change; someday.

  5. Mohammed Biswas

    Dr. Adnan Morshed in his article very appropriately highlighted the significance and need of a sociological study in addressing the artery clogging traffic situation of Dhaka. Thematically I have to agree with the arguments but I may question Dr. Morshed’s position and point of view in this context, I may question his focus only and only on the usage of cars by the middle class in determining the cause and effect. Dr. Morshed has repeatedly pointed and squarely put the blame on the marginal affluence of the middle class and their affordability and choice of owning a car. If the issue must be analyzed by social class and their share of responsibilities, then we should also discuss the rest of the social strata: the rich for avoidance of paying their share and their shameless and irresponsible indifference towards the downhill condition of the rest, the uprooting of the rural poor upon depriving them to a point of existential migration and the corporate corruption of historic proportions.

    I am not sure if the space bubble can be attributed exclusively to the middle class. Any reasonable person irrespective of class would like to feel secured of its surroundings. Considering the regular hijackings in public vehicles no one will feel comfortable or feel safe to take an open auto-rickshaw from the airport to the city. Yet most people despite the hazard do take public transportation, not by choice but only because they can’t afford to hop in a private car.

    Understanding that the term middle class is used in reference to the astronomical number that constitutes the urban crowd, it is yet not so convincing to think that stripping the middle class off of their cars without alternative arrangements will contribute to a significant and sustainable solution to the problem.
    Yes, I agree with Dr. Morshed fully, if he means to say sociology as a behavioral science is essential to help the people understand the issues and rise above their own individual interests and agree to compensate for the common good, but then all has to participate and not just the middle. Sociology is always a significant component in all human issues and endeavors but in this case perhaps economics take the front seat. There are standard economic tools to manipulate and measure consumption, a simple increase in car tax or introduction of a property tax for owning and maintaining a car can help limit the sales and use of cars only if the government and politicians care to concern themselves with addressing such problems.

    So in my opinion, as much as the refraction points to the presumably large number of cars used by the middle class, the root of the problem may be elsewhere or perhaps everywhere. Indeed a thorough study is needed by technologists and sociologists as Dr. Morshed points out, but in reality even the common street person will point to common sense steps that if exercised could relieve the stress. Does the problem persist because it has not been evaluated properly or has not been analyzed and understood, utilizing social science and technology or is it because there is no willingness to correct it. It certainly would have been very, very interesting to read and learn some of the means and methods of engineering the willingness of the people and the government in terms of sociology, citing relevant examples from other countries around the world.

    Without the existence of a reasonably affordable and reliable public transportation system it is hard to tell if the middle class will or will not give up their use of private cars and embrace public transportation. I know that nearly a decade ago a large number of people in Dhaka city happily started to take the newly introduced air conditioned bus to and from work. Most likely given the option of a working public transportation system the need and value driven middle class will embrace it willingly.

    Unlike some classic stories where one ponders on which character is greater in moral standing than the other, the question in this case inevitably turns to which participants act in the society is more detrimental than the other.

    The circle of wrongdoing, not doing and even undoing, wheeling in the opposite direction has gained such inertia in course of time that it is quite difficult to figure out where to start or what to fix first: have the poor not migrate and overwhelm the city’s infrastructure, have the middle class forego their cars, have the rich pay their share of taxes or have the government stop corruption. The current situation defies social science: can’t just fix one apart from the others and can’t take up all at once for lack of resources and willingness.

    The paralysing daily traffic jam at the streets of the large cities in Bangladesh are an extraordinary visualisation of the political gridlock that has been strangling the development and impeding improvement of infrastructure in the nation, a condition that must be corrected before any solution be it sociology, economics or technology can be appropriated..

    • Saif Haque

      The viewpoints of Mohammad Biswas are quite appropriate. I haven’t heard of any minister, MP or the mayors of the various cities in Bangladesh taking a public transportation or walking to work and in such a situation I cannot expect the middle class to give up its hard earned capability of owning a car. Our MPs clamor for a duty free SUV as soon as they are elected, why blame the middle class. The solutions to Dhaka’s traffic congestion is not a difficult thing, the issue here is the will of our politicians to adopt mass oriented solutions.

  6. Fokruddin Khondaker

    Adnan, it was an excellent writing. Good thing is at least you are writing a lot with Dhaka’s problem and someday it will have a positive impact. As a Professional Architect in USA, I just want to add something from an Architect’s point of view.

    The basic question is why is this enormous traffic generating or what is the source of this traffic generation? If we look at rural Bangladesh what is people’s way of life? They live in a small hut, work and produce their agricultural products in a nearby field and can sell their produce and buy their basic necessities in a walking distance bazaar. Their travel route is very simple and hardly require a public or private transport.

    Now look at Dhaka city’s socioeconomic planning and growth and how complex the traffic loop and length it is generating for every single person. A person may be living in Mirpur, his son may be going to Laboratory School, daughter may be going to Holy Cross College, his wife may have a good job in Gulshan and he may be working in Motijheel or in Secretariat in Paltan. Now you think how the city of Dhaka is making this person’s life hell by compelling him and his family members travel so much everyday which in turn generating very complex traffic loop and length just by one middle class family.

    And there are upper class, lower middle class and vast amount of people who do not even fall in any class. Now the question is even if we build nice ultra-modern high speed metro in Dhaka is it going to solve the traffic problem? Probably not unless the basic factor is fulfilled which is metro’s loop match the complex traffic loop of mass people’s everyday life which is going to be a long-term challenge.

    I have a friend who has a house in Shyamoli and has his own car. His kids go to school in Kalabagan which not very far from Shyamoli. Still he rented out his own house in Shyamoli and rented an apartment in Kalabagan to avoid every day’s traffic jam. First, the politicians in Bangladesh have to involve expert architects, urban designers, sociologists, planners, engineers to find out the source of this huge traffic generation and then they have to figure out a plan to kill this traffic generation source and at the same time have to plan and build adequate mass transit and roads.

    Bangladesh is an extremely populous country and started transforming its population from poor to middle-class. So keeping traffic generation source alive and building limited mass transit and roads will never solve the actual problem.

    • Adnan Morshed

      Dear Fokhruddin:

      Excellent points! Thanks for sharing your views.

      Please keep in touch.

      Adnan

  7. Anwar Islam

    This article should be forwarded to the prime minister of Bangladesh and copied to the planning board (if any). They (govt.) should hold national level seminars in collaboration with the planners and the political, social, economic and administrative representatives of public and private sectors. In addition, the media should be encouraged to take part in this vital problem of urban life to play their part.

    Dr. Adnan,
    I well come and congratulate you for this effort. You have a gifted talent, skilled knowledge and the art of writing. I urge you to make the best use of it and pursue it to the possible extent. I don’t have the ability to pay back anything to my place of origin (Bangladesh), but I can clearly see that Allah has provided you with that.

    Wish you all the best.
    Anwar Islam (NJ, USA)

    • Adnan Morshed

      Dear Mr. Islam:

      Thank you for your kind remarks. I’m touched by your generosity.
      Whereever we are, we mustn’t forget our motherland, as you seem to tell us. I couldn’t agree more.

      Warm regards,
      Adnan Morshed

  8. Mohammed Biswas

    Dr. Adnan, your very relevant piece has appropriately highlighted the significance of sociology in addressing the artery clogging carb in the urban infrastructure of Bangladesh. Thematically and structurally, I have to agree with the arguments but I may question Dr. Adnan’s position and point of view.

    I may question his focus only and only on the usage of cars by the middle-class in determining the cause and effect. He has repeatedly pointed and squarely put the blame on the marginal affluence of the middle-class and their affordability and choice of owning a car. If the issue must be analysed by social class and their share of responsibilities, then we should also discuss the rest of the social strata: the rich for avoidance of paying their share and their shameless and irresponsible indifference towards the downhill conditions of the rest, uprooting of the poor upon depriving them to a point of existential migration and the corporate corruption of historic proportions.

    I am not sure if the space bubble can be attributed exclusively to the middle-class. Any reasonable person irrespective of class would like to feel secured of his/her surroundings. Considering the regular hijackings in public vehicles no one will feel comfortable or feel safe enough to avail of a public transport while, say for example, commuting from the airport to the city. Yet most people despite the hazard do take the public transportation, not by choice but only because they can’t afford to hop in a private car.

    Understanding that the term middle-class is used in reference to the astronomical number that constitutes the urban crowd, it is yet not so convincing to think that stripping the middle-class off of their cars without alternative arrangements will contribute to a significant and sustainable solution to the problem.

    Yes, I agree with Dr. Adnan fully if he means to say sociology as a behavioural science is essential to help the people understand the issues and rise above their own individual interests and agree to compensate for the common good, but then all has to participate and not just the middle. Sociology is always a significant component in all human issues and endeavours but in this case, perhaps economics take the front seat.

    There are standard economic tools to manipulate and measure consumption, a simple increase in car tax or introduction of a property tax for owning and maintaining a car can help limit the sales and use of cars only if the government and politicians care to concern themselves with addressing such problems.

    So in my opinion, as much as the refraction points to the presumably large number of cars used by the middle-class, the root of the problem may be elsewhere or perhaps everywhere. Indeed a thorough study is needed by technologists and sociologists as Dr. Adnan points out, but in reality even the common street person will point to common sense steps that if exercised could relieve the stress. Does the problem persist because it has not been evaluated appropriately or not been analysed and understood, utilising social science and technology or is it because there is no willingness to correct it. It would have been very, very interesting to read and learn some of the means and methods of engineering, the willingness of the people and the government in terms of sociology, citing relevant examples from other countries around the world.

    Without the existence of a reasonably affordable and reliable public transportation system it is hard to tell if the middle-class will or will not give up their use of private cars and embrace public transportation. Based on my past experiences from a decade ago when I know a large number of people started to take the newly introduced air conditioned bus to and from work. The middle-class is driven by need, not by choice and I would argue that the middle-class, given the option of a working public transportation will embrace it willingly.

    Unlike some classic stories where one wonders which character is greater in moral standing than the other, in this case, the question inevitably turns to which participants act in the society is more vicious and detrimental than the other.

    The circle of wrongdoing, not doing and even undoing, wheeling in the opposite direction has gained such inertia by now that it is quite difficult to find what to blame or what to fix first: have the poor not migrate and overwhelm the city’s infrastructure, have the middle-class forego their cars, have the rich pay their share of taxes or have the government stop corruption. The current situation defies social science: can’t just fix one of them apart from the others and also can’t take up all of them at once for lack of resources and willingness.

    The paralysing daily traffic jam in the streets of the large cities in Bangladesh are an extraordinary visualisation of the political gridlock that has been strangling the development and impeding improvement of infrastructure in the nation, a condition that must be corrected before any scientific solution be it sociology, economics or technology can be appropriated.

  9. Sulman

    A nice article highlighting a key point to consider as regards planning mass transportation of Dhaka.

    I want to bring out a few other issues as well:

    1. Dhaka is a city of more than 20 million (may be more) and at least half of them are mobile everyday. But we need to understand that the purchasing power of people on the move may not be adequate enough to support a sustainable transit system.

    2. Mass transports like buses are affordable but take more time to reach the destination. And not every one can avail all types buses.

    3. People needs to be aware that public transit involves walking and waiting also, but an efficient mass transit will reduce the walking time and waiting period.

    4. Public transit will be expensive. In Edmonton, Alberta, we pay around 85 CAD per for a monthly pass, which is equivalent to around approx. Tk 5900. In Dhaka, I think public transit will be at least 2500 taka per month and average bus ticket will be higher than Taka 50. People need to realise this.

    5. No public transit can be efficient if the laws and rules are not strictly enforced, and car and other vehicle users must show respect to traffic rules. For example, in London, there are specific lanes for buses, and if any car travels on that lane, it will be heavily fined. Laws must be strict enough to make public transit efficient.

    And each of these points requires social awareness and realisation by all class of people. If the realisation is not there, then infrastructure only won’t help.

  10. Kamal

    Adnan,

    It’s a great article on traffic congestion in Dhaka.
    Keep up ur good work.

    Rgds,
    Kamal Bhai, NY

    • Adnan Morshed

      Kamal bhai:

      Thanks for reading. Please keep in touch.

      Regards,
      Adnan

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