Can’t get there from here

Published in Dhaka Tribune 25/04/22

Eid holidays can surprise Dhaka residents by the relative ease of movement and quiet they bring to the capital’s roads.

Sadly, the populace is so accustomed to the anti-social blaring of car horns and chronic air pollution amid traffic alternating between chaos and gridlock, that any semblance of basic civility can be a novelty. 

It never lasts long of course. How could it? The country has only belatedly begun to take investment in public transport seriously.  

Headlines report a panel of experts “discouraging” the government’s planned Dhaka subway project. Concentrating on completing existing projects and rapidly bringing in many better and safer buses are their primary comments. This may sound sensible when only one of the six current metro rail lines is expected to be operational in the year ahead — and buses can be improved at a fraction of a subway’s infrastructure cost. 


But Dhaka is not in an “either/or” situation, it needs both. Even if budgets and timescales multiply, as they invariably do, the city still needs a subway to survive. I am sure the first metro rail branch will be popular, but it will mainly show us just how far there is still left to go.  

Right now, it is like bringing a sticking plaster to a heart operation.  

One advantage of a subway system is that unlike flyovers and above-ground rail lines, station entrances aside, most of the construction work can be accomplished out of sight of most residents with the help of giant tunnel-boring machines. 

It is only since 2010 that most of the world’s population has lived in cities, but by 2050 it will be over two thirds.  Even without the imperative of cutting carbon emissions, for congestion reasons alone, city planners around the world are turning towards mass public transit. 

China and India have dozens of new metro rail schemes of various types in the pipeline, and from Sao Paulo to Paris and Tokyo to Toronto, many of the world’s biggest and busiest networks are investing heavily for the future.

Unlike plans for the Dhaka subway, the recent proposal by Dhaka North’s mayor for powers to ban vehicles with odd and even numbered licence plates on alternate days, has largely passed by the critiques of local experts. Even though they ought to know that Mexico City first tried a scheme based on number plates back in the 1980s. 

Far from making a positive difference, it incentivized richer drivers to buy more cars with alternate plates. Given that purchase and import taxes already make the cost of buying a car in Bangladesh high by international standards, it is foolish to imagine the same would not occur in Gulshan. 

I don’t know but would scarcely be surprised if some said experts and their families were among the relatively small part of the population that makes up Dhaka’s private car owners and passengers. People who as individuals may be pleasant and law abiding, but who collectively collude in making excuses for their failure to drive sensibly — typically, by passing the buck or uttering some variation of “somebody else doesn’t follow the rules, so we must break them too.” 

A childish attitude that can only help cause more road accidents.

I can see why people say bus drivers drive like teenage tearaways, many do, but that’s a result of the failure of the government and regulators to do their job. Others prefer to punch up by noting the inconvenience caused by “VIP movement” and I certainly agree most such privileges should have been stripped long ago. 

But their existence doesn’t alter the fact that two wrongs rarely make a right.

The mayor’s proposal to make use of licence plate IDs could be far more fruitfully used to build IT and CCTV systems to automatically fine the owners of vehicles that disobey traffic rules. Cameras can’t be bribed. It would then become feasible to enforce fines for disobeying traffic lights and illegal parking, and speeding, not to mention introducing bus lanes and road use charges. 

Bus lanes combined with better buses and user-friendly bus stops are the most essential part of any decent public transport network. An even cheaper way of improving quality of life would be for drivers to routinely obey zebra crossings and only use horns in emergencies and never as indicators. Hard to imagine, I know, but automated charging systems have been shown to make even the reluctant comply. 

It is welcome the government is belatedly beginning to recognize what Enrique Peñalosa, a former mayor of Bogota meant when he said: “An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation.” 

during Eid rush

Some reality checks 

A subway will be expensive to build. But a megacity needs one to function. Failure is not an option. More investment in people and resources is vital to run and maintain the project.  Until national spending on education gets closer to the 4% of GDP invested by the likes of Malaysia and Vietnam, some scepticism will still be justified. 

A Dhaka subway will only increase the case to invest much more in suburban and national railway networks and replicate similar improvements around the nation. Quite right too, the nation needs to decentralize commerce and administration away from Dhaka. 

None of this makes sense without also properly investing in cleaning up waterways and building future-proof sewage systems. This will all add to the bill. Hypothecating some of the fines proposed above towards public transport would be a smart way to sweeten the pill; ending fossil fuel subsidies and taxing carbon can go a long way towards the rest. 

For the most part, these improvements will take decades to deliver their true benefit. None of this is easy, cheap, simple, or quick. But investing for the future is worth it if Bangladesh is to stop being a country which even some of its most wealthy want to leave. 

Above all, while only the young can count on truly benefiting from it, I do hope the Dhaka subway does get built and I am still upright and mobile enough to try it.  

One lives in hope.