How many roads must a city lay down? 14/07/15

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 14 July 2015

Urban legends tend to lie at two extremes.

The most common rely on a compelling comic or horror element. Thomas Pynchon used one of these myths in his novels to spin tales of alligators prowling the sewers of Manhattan. He drew on an air of believability surrounding the idea that people might keep baby alligators as pets and later flush them down toilets when they grew too big. The popularity of this tale says a lot about New Yorkers’ self-image.

At the other end of the spectrum are memes that flourish because they seem to have some basis in fact.

It is commonplace for experts writing about congestion in Dhaka to trot out the statistic that a well-planned city should have 25% of its surface area taken up by roads, but Dhaka barely manages c.7.5%. Plausible enough at first glance, but one can’t help but question how stating this helps to solve Dhaka’s traffic crisis.

More to the point, it is not true.

Cities obviously all have different ages and grow at different rates, so it is fatuous to argue or believe that there is an “officially” correct surface area.

The popularity of this factoid among city planners appears to stem from 19th century Paris after Baron Haussmann’s famed transformations to its medieval street plan under Napoleon III. Similar estimates for imperial Vienna and Barcelona added to the 25% myth, but they are where the truth ends and the legend begins.

North American cities with their ample land area have long devoted far greater proportions of their land mass to streets and highways. They account for nearly 65% of space in Houston for instance, while the city of Los Angles had the luxury of parcelling out enough land in 1925 for 7 million people, some 50 years before its population actually reached that level.

On the other hand, older cities elsewhere make do with far less than the fabled 25%. Aerial surveys of London, for example, suggest that 8.5% of its surface area is devoted to roads with perhaps a similar proportion given to pavements and car parks.

Bear in mind that this is for the 1,572 square kilometres of its whole metropolitan area, which also devotes over a third of land to parks and green space.

Central London itself has to manage with only a fraction of this number. Most of its roads are also narrower and bendier than Dhaka’s main thoroughfares and newer residential areas.

When the Victorians sought to emulate Haussmann’s efforts in London, they found it prohibitively expensive to demolish entire neighbourhoods to build wide roads. This is also the reason why London’s several major railway stations haphazardly ring its centre, because they had come to a stop where landowners could not be bought off. It is also why they were not connected by rail until London pioneered the idea of underground railway systems in 1863.

Subsequent developments and an ever expanding commuter belt mean that hundreds of thousands of people can and do travel to work in London from far and wide. The 104.6km separating it from Cambridge, for instance, are served by over 50 trains a day, depositing passengers in central London within an hour each way.

Extensive underground and local railway networks allow most people to depend on them for speedy and predictable journey times across and within the city.

None of this stops Londoners complaining about their commutes however. Even though they fare better than the minority who choose to or have to drive through its middle by car during the work day. Average daytime road traffic speeds in central London were 14.5km an hour in 2014, a figure barely changed since horse drawn days.

During crush hour, even wide arterial roads and motorways are not immune from slow speeds. It is only thanks to London’s many public transport-only traffic lanes that buses and taxis can move with some frequency.

This is worth keeping in mind when seeking solutions to Dhaka’s traffic problems.

On the whole though, London is a good example of the wise dictum of Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, who said that “an advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation.”

This is clearly the goal that Dhaka’s residents should be demanding of its mayors.

But that is easier said than done. Dhaka is the place where archaeological custodians, completely misunderstanding the lyrics of Big Yellow Taxi, decided that Lalbagh fort, one of the city’s oldest and most attractive large historical landmarks, was the right place to demolish a wall and put up a VIP car park.

Optimism dictates that eventually electoral arithmetic will force politicians to get their priorities right, and gain popularity by making public transport work better.

After all, most people don’t own or have access to private cars, however much media coverage and the jams outside your window may give a different impression. Getting car owners on board will follow naturally once standards are improved and traffic starts moving more smoothly.

I say smoothly, rather than speedily, because to some extent, congestion is part of the price for living in a successful, densely populated mega-city. Take Hong Kong, which benefits from every conceivable public transport advantage. Its roads are still full of cars.

Making all bus and car journeys far more comfortable, reliable, safer, and free from the anti-social drivers who blare horns at all hours of the day and night, is just as important in reducing stress as cutting travel times.

Of course, citizens must also make sure the Metro Rail project does not stop at just one line, but heralds the start of modern mass transit.

By all means, car owners should demand a faster inter-city highway network so Dhaka-dwellers could safely drive to Cox’s Bazar within six hours.

More quickly and more cheaply, reviving waterways and canals to link back circular river routes would go some way to invigorating Dhaka’s overlooked riverfronts.

And surely every city resident would agree that decentralisation of commerce and industry, and building satellite towns connected by fast new railroads would go a long way to easing pressure on the centre, by giving Dhaka’s geographically constrained land area a bigger footprint, just as commuter trains do in Paris and London.

In fact, given Bangladesh’s small land area, faster trains and national highways would flip congestion complaints on their head by turning high population density into a positive strength.

But private car owners do not have a right to expect a cross-town journey to take less than 45 minutes. Not at peak times. And not when there are 15 million people about.

That really is an urban legend.

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