Horrible traffic, really horrible traffic, almost no traffic, O.K. traffic — it takes just a few minutes in Dhaka to realize that these are not scientific terms. When my plane touched down I caught a taxi, which exited the airport into a roundabout before making its way onto the infamous highway. There, unmistakably, was a traffic jam: cars and trucks, as far the eye could see, stacked up in a configuration that bore no clear relationship to the lanes painted on the blacktop. My cab nosed into the convoy. Whereupon a crawl commenced.
The traffic rolled south for 20 seconds. The traffic stopped. My cab idled for a couple of minutes at a dead standstill. Then, for mysterious reasons, it crept forward again. Occasionally, the traffic would flow unimpeded for a minute or so, reaching a clip of perhaps 15 miles per hour. But soon we’d lurch to a halt again. It was the kind of stop-and-go routine I’d experienced on American interstates, the “bumper-to-bumper” conditions that traffic reporters describe on news radio, shouting something about a jackknifed tractor-trailer over thumping helicopter rotors. In this case, though, the problem was not an accident. The problem was Dhaka.
It was hot and I was jet-lagged. I dozed off. When I snapped awake, about an hour later, the congestion had thickened and the scenery had turned frantic. We were in the heart of the city now, penned in by surging pedestrians and hundreds of vehicles competing for space on a wide road called Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue. There were passenger cars and puttering three-wheeled auto-rickshaws. There were buses so vacuum-packed with passengers that many riders were forced onto the exterior, clinging to open doorways and crouched on rooftop luggage racks. There were cargo tricycles, known locally as “vans,” heading to markets bearing heaping payloads of bamboo, watermelons, metal pipes, eggs, live animals. And, of course, there were the iconic Dhaka passenger vehicles, bicycle rickshaws. Officially, rickshaws are banned on major thoroughfares like Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue, but there they were, in vast phalanxes, their bicycle bells pealing above the roar of the traffic jam.
Eventually, my taxi reached a roundabout, and we turned left onto another thoroughfare, the Panthapath Tejgaon Link Road. There, the cabdriver executed a U-turn and a tricky sequence of maneuvers to win a place in a feeder lane that permitted entrance to the driveway of my hotel. The lane was empty: our final hundred yards of terrain to travel, and our first stretch of open road. The distance from airport to hotel was eight and a half miles. The trip had taken two and a half hours. We wheeled into the hotel’s driveway and the cabby spun around to offer his verdict. “Some traffic,” he said. “Not so bad.”
“BANGLADESH IS NOT so much a nation as a condition of distress,” wrote the journalist William Langewiesche in 2000. It sounds like an overstatement, but to behold the gridlocked streets of Dhaka is to see distress in action, or rather, in inaction. The stalled traffic in the capital city is symptomatic of the nation’s broader woes, in particular population growth, which is moderate by the standards of the developing world, but disastrous given the size of Bangladesh.
Fundamentally, traffic is an issue of density: It’s what happens when too many people try to squeeze through too small a space. Bangladesh is the 12th most densely settled nation on earth, but with an estimated 160 million citizens it is by far the most populous, and the poorest, of the countries at the top of the list. To put the matter in different terms: The landmass of Bangladesh is one-118th the size of Russia, but its population exceeds Russia’s by more than 25 million.
Bangladesh’s density problem is magnified in Dhaka, in part because, practically speaking, Dhaka is Bangladesh. Nearly all of the country’s government, business, health care and educational institutions, and a large percentage of its jobs, are concentrated in Dhaka. Each year, 400,000 new residents pour into the capital, a mass migration that has made Dhaka the world’s most densely settled megacity, and one of the fastest growing.
The town that those millions inhabit almost completely lacks the basic infrastructure and rule of law that make big cities navigable. There are just 60 traffic lights in Dhaka, and they are more or less ornamental; few drivers heed them. The main problem with Dhaka’s anarchic streets, though, is that there aren’t enough. The Daily Star has reported that just 7 percent of Dhaka is covered by roads. (In places like Paris and Barcelona, models of 19th-century urban planning, the number is around 30 percent.) Footpaths are also an issue. There are too few sidewalks in Dhaka, and those that exist are often impassable, occupied by vendors and masses of poor citizens who make their homes in curbside shanties.
The usual solution to congestion in cities like Dhaka is to move commuters under the streets rather than over them. But Dhaka has no subway, and no concrete plans to build one. The problem is compounded by the growing status-symbol appeal of private transport: a vogue for automobiles among Dhaka’s middle classes that is adding tens of thousands of new vehicles to the city’s streets every year.
By the government’s own estimate, Dhaka’s traffic jams eat up 3.2 million working hours each day and drain billions of dollars from the city’s economy annually. Traffic takes another kind of toll on the lives and minds of Dhakaites. “The city is atomized,” says Sarwar Jahan, a professor of urban and regional planning at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. “People cannot socialize because of the traffic problems. You can only occasionally go to a friend’s house or relatives. It simply takes too long.”
It is wrong, in other words, to speak of Dhaka’s traffic as an inconvenience; even “crisis” is too mild a term. Adnan Morshed, an associate professor of architecture and planning at the Catholic University of America, has called Dhaka’s congestion “a vast urban pathology” that “continues to kill.” Bangladesh’s thriving textile industry has given the nation’s economy a jolt, but analysts warn that if the capital cannot solve its traffic and infrastructure problem, such gains will prove fleeting — that progress itself may grind to a standstill. Jammed-up roads are the indelible image of Dhaka’s agony. They may also be its single greatest cause.
DHAKA’S TRAFFIC OVERLOAD is a sensory overload. You can smell and taste it: The exhaust fumes tickle your nostrils and coat your mouth, leaving an acrid taste on your tongue. You can — often, you must — reach out and touch the traffic, executing defensive hand-check maneuvers to ward off vehicles and fellow pedestrians as you scramble across packed streets.
But the traffic hits you most forcefully in your ears. Some historians claim that the city’s name derives from the dhak, a big drum with a clattering sound. True or not, there’s no mistaking the pounding that the city gives to your auditory nerves. Traffic is Dhaka’s deafening music, a dissonant theme song of shouting drivers, rumbling engines and, leading the attack, honking horns: vocals, bass, ill-tuned brass.
That din is the sound of aggression. Dhaka’s drivers may be the most brutish and pitiless on earth. They may also be some of the best, if your idea of skillful driving is expansive enough to include the lawlessness and daredevilry that Dhaka demands.
One afternoon I hailed an auto-rickshaw near the Sher-e-Bangla National Cricket Stadium and took a long, meandering journey through some of the city’s most heavily trafficked streets. Dhakaites call auto-rickshaws “CNGs,” because they run on compressed natural gas. They’re the kind of vehicles you find all over urban Asia, essentially small metal boxes, propped atop three wheels and divided into two tiny compartments, one for the driver, and another, slightly larger but still a tight squeeze, for passengers. In Dhaka, they’re painted forest green, nearly all of them are dirty and dinged up, and they make a lot of loud, unpleasant noise snarling through the streets. They’re scruffy, ornery little machines, the piratical cousins of golf carts.
My CNG was piloted by an unsmiling man who looked to be in his late 20s. On the road, he was relentless. He vied for every centimeter of roadway in thick traffic and sped as fast as possible when congestion eased. We were in one of the busiest parts of town now, on Bir Uttam Rafiqul Islam Avenue, a wide street lined with malls and crammed with shoppers. Another mall, of a sort, had sprung up on the road itself. In Dhaka, a traffic jam is an economic opportunity: Vehicles are descended on by vendors hawking bottles of water, peeled cucumbers, books. Crime is an issue, too. Once, CNGs had no doors, but wire doors were added as protection from muggers who prey on riders in stalled traffic. Enterprising thieves have been known to drop in on passengers, clambering on top of CNGs and slicing through their canvas roofing to gain entry. The weapon of choice for some muggers is Tiger Balm, the heat rub, which they smear on victims’ eyes to disable them.
My driver’s modus operandi was to keep his CNG in motion no matter what, even in chock-a-block conditions. When he couldn’t push the thing forward vertically, he moved horizontally, crossing lanes of traffic by beating out a nattering pattern on his horn, nosing his way in between vehicles and forcing other drivers to budge in turn, even if the only movement possible was an inch or two. He kept repeating two syllables, barking at fellow commuters in between horn blasts: “As-tay!” he cried. “As-tay! As-tay! As-tay!” Later, I asked a friend who speaks Bengali to translate the word for me. Aste, it turns out, means “slowly, gently.”
There is one form of transportation in Dhaka that might be deemed gentle, at least by the city’s hard-as-nails standards. Bicycle rickshaws are the quaintest and most ubiquitous of all the vehicles on Dhaka’s streets. No one is certain about the size of the city’s rickshaw fleet. (Only a fraction of the vehicles are officially licensed.) Most estimates put the number upward of 200,000; some reckon there are several times that many.
Arguing about rickshaws is as big a pastime in Dhaka as riding them. There have been many proposals to ban the machines, but the efforts have always been beaten back. Some contend that rickshaws are the vehicles best-suited to traffic-choked roads, and the most environmentally friendly. Others say that they are inefficient, that four rickshaws rolling abreast on a Dhaka street take up the square footage of a bus while transporting just eight passengers.
One thing that everyone agrees on is that Dhaka’s rickshaws look great. They have been called “moving museums.” They’re elaborately appliquéd with tinsel and tassels; their frames bear colorful paintings of flowers, movie-star portraits, heroic images of Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence, pastoral and urban scenes. Scrutinize the cityscapes painted on rickshaws and you will note an irony. Invariably they show a dreamily placid city, with swooping birds and sunsets blazing behind turreted towers. As for the roads depicted in the paintings: They are tidy, tranquil, serenely traffic-free.
FOR THE FORESEEABLE future, those rickshaw paintings are the closest thing to orderly street scenes that you’ll find in Dhaka. When experts are asked about solutions to the city’s woes, they recite a familiar litany. They talk about traffic lights, dedicated rickshaw lanes, arterial roads, light rail. They speak of decentralization, of easing the burden on Dhaka by developing secondary cities like Chittagong and Khulna. The government, for its part, is touting the 12-mile-long, $1.14 billion Dhaka Elevated Expressway, whose construction began in August of 2015. But skepticism about such projects runs deep in Dhaka, where progress has so often been stymied by government ineptitude and corruption.
In the meantime, the capital’s roadways seethe. It takes just a few days in Dhaka to acclimate, and to develop an affection for the city’s impregnable streets. For a greenhorn, the traffic offers a novel perspective on an alien city. I learned to appreciate the way that 360 degrees of stacked-up traffic transformed sight lines, collapsing space and perspective, shattering Dhaka’s scenery into Cubist shards: splashes of color; a flash of a painted sign on a wall; a glimpse of a driver’s beard in his truck’s rearview mirror; a pile of corrugated metal siding, surreally floating a dozen feet in the air, the payload of an unseen cargo tricycle.
I knew, of course, that it was unseemly for a visitor from one of the world’s richest cities to aestheticize the chaos and dysfunction of one of its poorest. Traffic in Dhaka is not just a nuisance. It is poverty, it’s injustice, it’s suffering.
Yet nearly everyone I met in Dhaka spoke of the traffic as a trial by fire, a test of mettle, a horror that is also a perverse source of pride. One woman, a lifelong Dhaka resident, told me she “missed the jams” when she lived abroad: In the big cities of Europe and America, the relative lack of congestion unnerved her. When you make it through a day in Dhaka, when you make it across a snarled intersection, you have triumphed against the odds, and over the gods. The town puts you in a philosophical frame of mind. Dhaka teaches that travel is hell, but it also reminds you of the primitive wonder of travel, the truth that, to complete any journey, no matter how quotidian, is to conquer space, and — depending just how awful the congestion is on the Mirpur Road — to subdue time.
When the day came for my return to New York, I’d been in Dhaka long enough to have learned its golden rule of commuting: Leave early. So I arranged for a wake-up call and at 4:45 a.m., more than five hours before my flight’s boarding time, I staggered into a waiting taxi. The cabdriver assured me that the traffic at that hour would not be so bad.
Lo and behold, he was right. The sun hadn’t yet risen, and the taxi went hurtling through the black streets of central Dhaka. There was no traffic — zilch. We gained the Airport Road, and whizzed faster still. I watched the kilometers tick off on the dashboard speedometer and I rolled down my window. As the taxi revved past 50 miles per hour, we seemed to be flying.
Then, a mile or so south of our destination, a formation of cars and trucks and CNGs pressed up against us, the taxi slowed and suddenly we were earthbound again: on a jammed-up road in Dhaka, Bangladesh. We stopped, we started, we stopped again. The cause of the congestion was unclear, but it was obvious that I’d have no trouble making my flight. So I relaxed: I was going to relish the madness one last time. Eventually, the speedometer nudged a hair above five miles per hour, and as we started to crawl forward again, a thought stole into my mind, proof that Dhaka had done its work on me. You call this traffic? C’mon. This isn’t traffic.Continue reading the main story
traffic problem Essay
2258 WordsSep 13th, 201310 Pages
Traffic congestion in Mumbai
When one thinks of Mumbai, what inevitably comes to mind are images of overcrowded trains or queues of cars and yellow-black taxis, bumper to bumper, constantly honking. A single word to characterise the situation is saturation.
If 60% of the 20.8 million inhabitants of Mumbai
Metropolitan Region (MMR) walk, then half of the people using motorised modes take the train (MMRDA, 20081). Since the 1970s, the population has tripled but the railway network has remained more or less the same.
Thanks to the Mumbai Urban Transport Project
(MUTP), directed by the Mumbai Metropolitan
Region Development Authority (MMRDA) with
World Bank assistance, the network has been recently upgraded with…show more content…
Nowadays, the figure has dropped to 60%. Rails still assure the major part of commute trips but local government has started to build roads (Balakrishnan, interview 04/09/10). Traffic jams are important in westbound and eastbound where rail transport does not exist. The worst part of the
MMR in terms of traffic jams is the western suburbs where travel speed drops to 5 km/h.
Table 3 Urban growth in Greater
Mumbai: Housing and job localization
Population (In millions)
in the formal sector (In millions),
2008 Census 1971 Census 2001 Growth % 2005 Island city 3.07 3.34 109 % 2.20 Western suburbs 1.71 5.13 300 % 2.18 Eastern suburbs 1.20 3.51 290 % 1.00 Total Greater Mumbai 5.98 11.98 200 % 5.38
Traffic congestion is mainly due to the rapid growth in motorisation, while the road network has not changed much in 4 decades. This rapid growth in motorisation can be explained by the extreme saturation in public transport, the lack of efficient public transport in the eastwest links and by income growth, especially since the 1991 economic liberalisation.
Cars are becoming cheaper items compared to other goods such as housing, and central government encourages its ownership
(Datar, interview 03/16/10). Moreover,
70% of car owners can afford a driver who relieves them of traffic and parking problems
(data from MESN). At the same