Liveability in Dhaka has been waning for quite some time now. The liveability index, developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) compares the quality of living in different major cities while also bringing forward the areas that the cities could focus on for the benefit of their dwellers.
Dhaka has always remained among the bottom-most cities according to the index. For instance, the 2011 version of the EIU liveability index placed Dhaka at 139 out of 140 cities considered in the assessment.
Dhaka received a poor score in the infrastructure category, which includes, among other things, the quality of the road network and public transport. While Dhaka's overall position slightly improved in the 2021 edition of the EIU's liveability index, ascending to 137 from previously held 139th in 2011, the score on infrastructure remained the same. The city has, of late, been termed the most polluted in the world.
Truth be told, Dhaka is miserably falling behind in terms of handling the persistent problems the megacity is confronted with. Unfortunately, we have not yet seen much progress towards mitigating the intolerable sufferings of the city dwellers.
For instance, traffic congestion, from early morning to late night, both during office days and weekends, has been the talk of the megacity for more than two decades, excluding the lockdown periods of 2020-21. However, traffic congestion has recently worsened and has deteriorated to worrying levels.
For decades, Dhaka has grown in an unplanned way. While infrastructure shortfall continues, there has been no end to migration toward Dhaka. As a result, the population of the city has increased from 10 million to over 20 million during the last two decades.
When megacities across the globe, having a population of around several million, design and implement mass transit systems to cater to the transportation needs, Dhaka is yet to have a mass transit system.
With so many people already living in the city and thousands of people travelling every day to and from Dhaka, the lack of an efficient and fast mass transit system has eventually encouraged people to buy personal vehicles. It is a commonplace thing for many families to own several cars.
Many trips within the city are between short distances and the buses operating in the city are inadequate in number to accommodate the needs of such a significant percentage of the population. The conditions of these buses are not too welcoming either.
As such, the rickshaw is a very popular mode of transport and serves the needs of many city dwellers. Both mechanised and non-mechanised transports run on the same roads, albeit with some restrictions imposed on rickshaws on selected roads.
In addition to the lack of a suitable mass transit system, mixed modes of transport contribute to horrendous traffic congestion. And people, without personal transport, prefer to take auto-rickshaws. All these depict the chaotic nature of the transport system that the megacity Dhaka has.
The pedestrians are also at fault at times – they are found crossing the streets most casually in groups. They routinely cross busy road intersections ignoring foot over-bridges, risking not only their lives but also posing threats to drivers and passengers.
Having said that, the footpaths often remain occupied by all kinds of vendors and are unusable for pedestrians. The footpaths are also being frequently used by motorcycle drivers, causing all sorts of trouble for pedestrians.
Furthermore, the reckless driving culture of our drivers, who are pushing and racing through, in a bid to be ahead of everyone else, is contributing also to the perennial traffic congestion. Bus drivers do not use designated stops, rather pick up and drop off passengers wherever convenient at that moment.
The cost of this traffic mess is enormous. Bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling on city roads is physically exhausting for the city dwellers and wastes their valuable time. The opportunity cost, on account of loss of time, could be billions of dollars per annum.
As average traffic speed has significantly come down, motorised transports run at a level too far from the desired efficiency, causing high fuel consumption and thus affecting the economy severely.
This is inefficient from the perspective of our local gas shortage that has tempted the government to import LNG (liquefied natural gas) for the power sector and we are historically dependent on imports for liquid fuels.
Gustavo Petro, the former Mayor of Bogota, Colombia, said, "A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It is where the rich use public transportation." In this regard, Dhaka city falls behind due to the absence of proper public transport.
Dhaka desperately needs an extensive mass transit network to cater to the needs of millions of people, both quickly and at a reasonable cost. While a subway system comprising several connected networks beneath the ground could have been instrumental in reducing the pressure of traffic on city roads, as it has been for many other cities, we, unfortunately, do not have such infrastructures.
And now the overhead metro rail routes are under construction and we are expecting the first overhead route to be in operation soon. The underground system, as a solution to the nagging congestion, is also under consideration by the government.
As traffic congestion has already reached an alarming level, the cost of congestion continues to rise and the migration towards Dhaka won't end anytime soon. The routes of mass transit systems, both overhead and underground systems, should be constructed rapidly and on a priority basis.
Multiple underground networks, one after another, is the way to go given that the surface systems, including the shabby buses and personal transport, are currently choking up city roads. An extensive and rapid mass transit system, if well-designed, could attract millions of city dwellers to rely on it and encourage them to avoid using personal transport.
Furthermore, a well-designed mass transit system would help enhance the energy efficiency, reduce economic burden, contain carbon emissions and other pollutants, and make the city liveable in the foreseeable future.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.