Earlier this month on a Friday, as it drizzled, I was in a fix on my way to the office. Using a bike-sharing service in the rain was not feasible. On the other hand, taking a bus on a Friday is a really bad idea since they take forever to reach the destination, as they keep waiting for passengers for an unusually long time. Other options are either too expensive or difficult to avail.
These are instances when one genuinely feels the need for a private vehicle. A private vehicle, on the face of it, does equate to convenience. At the same time, for some, it equates to a higher status. Ownership of a private, across societies and generations, has often equated to a sign of economic well being and independence - irrespective of whether that is actually the case.
And so, to quench the thirst for 'economic independence' and status projection, the government is reportedly mulling splitting up the single duty slab for vehicles up to 1600 cc, so that smaller cars effectively become more affordable.
This may be exciting news for all those who browse through car dealers' websites, and in fact for most of us at an individual level, spare a thought to what a decision like this could do to us collectively.
New cars are already flooding the streets every day. If the proposal comes to life it would be tantamount to opening up the floodgates.
Before getting all excited about this news, it is important to examine why we feel compelled to buy cars in the first place.
The absence of a proper public transport system is what has led to this mad rush for private vehicles in the first place. Only a decade ago, I asked some car-owning friends and family a simple question: Suppose you commute between Uttara and Motijheel; if you could use a decent, air-conditioned bus service without hassle, would you still use a car?
Most people replied in the negative because they thought parking was always a problem and the car would rather be used by other family members who had a more random daily route.
The situation has not improved one bit in the last ten years. In fact, it has worsened. On average, around 15,000 private cars are registered in Dhaka annually, averaging to 41 cars each day for ten years.
Interestingly, in 2021, a total of 16,049 private passenger cars were registered nationwide. 14,321 from them were in Dhaka alone, continually adding to Dhaka's detering traffic situation.
Congestion, wasted hours and their economic implications
Since the roads do not expand proportionally to the rising number of cars, the average traffic speed decreases.
According to a TBS report published in January 2020, in the last decade, the average speed of motor vehicles in the city has come down to 4.5 km/h – which is less than the walking speed.
Referring to a study conducted by the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), the report states that about 14 years ago, the average motor vehicle speed in the city was 21 kilometre per hour. Ironically, the government spent a staggering Tk28,000 crore (and counting) in the last decade to ease traffic congestion in Dhaka.
The flyovers, constructed during this time, have not played a role in reducing traffic congestion either.
Transportation and road safety expert Professor Md Shamsul Hoque has been vocal on this matter. In dozens of interviews with the media, the professor has repeatedly said that the solution to traffic gridlock in Dhaka is public transport and stricter traffic management, as opposed to building flyovers "which will eventually have to be demolished."
The Buet professor suggests large-scale reforms in the sector. Instead of letting different companies operate buses, the expert favours letting just one company run all the buses on certain routes.
In 2015, Anisul Haque, the late mayor of Dhaka North, took the initiative to run buses in certain areas in Dhaka under such an arrangement. The progress of the 'Bus Route Rationalisation Project' has been slow and after six years, only one route has come under the arrangement with just 50 buses.
As a result, traffic congestion in the city has remained unchanged, with a tendency to worsen with time. Although personal cars are seen busily dotting the streets, they carry only around 10% of total commuters in the city.
The numbers represent a clearer picture. According to BRTA, last year, 14,321 personal cars were registered in Dhaka, while the number of minibuses registered at the same time stood at 186. The city has 3,14,785 registered personal cars but only 9,856 minibuses, resulting in traffic gridlocks that virtually no one can escape.
The aforementioned Buet study also noted that the nation could have saved Tk22,000 crore a year in terms of productivity if traffic jams could be reduced by 60%.
In 2019, the then DTCA (Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority) Executive Director Khandoker Rakibur Rahman said that steps would be taken to control the private cars on completion of several mass transport projects such as metro rail and bus rapid transit.
Ironically, the proposal to make cars more affordable comes at a time when the transport mega projects, especially the metro rail project, have seen significant progress.
"This will further aggravate the congestion," said the former DTCA boss, now retired, when asked for a comment on the matter.
Commuters should be given proper alternatives, he said, avoiding a direct response to the original question involving his statement from 2019 and added that the public transport system in the city is in shambles.
A crisis that transcends the national boundary
With the rising average temperature of the planet, the number of vehicles on the road is not merely a local concern.
Globally, a quarter of CO2 emissions comes from transport. For advanced economies with a lot of cars in the streets such as the US and UK, the scenario is more striking. The transport sector in these countries is responsible for emitting more greenhouse gases than any other.
In a situation like this, climate activists and experts have been advocating the expansion of public transport infrastructure, intending to reduce reliance on private vehicles.
Using local buses results in emitting half the greenhouse gas (GHG) compared to using a single-occupancy car journey, while helping to remove congestion from the roads, according to a study. Travelling on metro rails emits even less GHG - around a sixth of the equivalent car journey.
Therefore, introducing more and more decent public buses and expansion of the metro and regular rail network will not only help limit global warming but will also help ease the traffic gridlock.
Maybe, just maybe, only then will people stop surfing car dealers' websites.