Let them beat traffic jams (15/11/19)

Dhaka's car owning classes are their own worst enemy
Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 9 December 2018

In an era of multiplying mega cities, the private motor car is increasingly out of date.

Roads will always fill up beyond capacity inside big cities. Average traffic speeds invariably slow. The most successful world cities of the future will need to do more to ensure commuters and visitors can rely on trains and buses for most journeys.

As Enrique Peñalosa, two-time mayor of Bogota, famously put it: “an advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation.”

Sadly, many a wealthy car owner in Dhaka wilfully ignores this truth, even if they have experienced it for themselves on trips abroad.

Until more such people accept that they are part of the problem, new investment and regulations alone will not clear Dhaka’s congested roads.

Dhaka’s private cars are at best an anti-social blight with their blaring horns.

It doesn’t matter if you know some sensible car owners and/or drivers.

Collectively, a group of people that don’t respect pedestrians and have gotten used to turning a blind eye to ambulances hemmed in by traffic should have long ago forfeited any right it claims to resist reforms.

It’s not good enough to say Metro Rail’s first tentacle is only just starting to come into view, and that a decent bus system is a bit like plans for subways, still some way off.

Many of the changes Dhaka needs to make road traffic safe and user-friendly are as cheap and simple as only using horns in emergencies and never as indicators. They can be put into practice right now.

If every zebra crossing and the traffic light was obeyed by every vehicle, pedestrians wouldn’t have to gamble their lives every time they crossed the road.

If more building owners were considerate about the steep gradients driveways sometimes carve into pavements and more importantly, fewer motorcyclists mounted them, walking in Dhaka might get closer to the rewarding experience it deserves to be in a city of no hills and lots of short distances.

Put pedestrians first, the priority is that simple. Almost as soon as they first built them, town planners in densely populated parts of Europe have prioritized phasing out 1960s style footbridges and underpasses in favour of flat connections for pedestrians.

Everyone can appreciate that footbridges are not friendly for the less mobile, while unpoliced underpasses can be too mugger friendly. Everyone, except, it seems, Dhaka’s car owners and town planners.

If there’s money available for digging, it makes far more sense to put cars into tunnels and have green pedestrianized spaces on top. Bus-only lanes merely require political will, CCTV, and automated escalating penalties to enforce.

One bus can carry more people than 30 cars in a fraction of the space, the knock-on benefits have been proven the world over to outweigh any howls of outcry they raise.

But not here, not now, no matter how much everyone complains about the costs of congestion. Everybody’s fault but mine is the motto of Dhaka’s private car owners.

From within their cocoons, they wax lyrical about too many rickshaws, delivery drivers being inconsiderate, drinkers behind wheels, bus drivers being teenage tearaways, powerful people failing to set good examples, and police not doing their job.

Anything to distract attention from their own responsibilities.

True as such complaints often are, they are mostly problems that can readily be fixed, and, like building Metro Rail, it is in the interest of politicians to do so.

I accept it does seem harder to ensure zero tolerance for sexual harassment on buses as in public spaces more generally, but the goal is simple enough to understand and demand.

And if more women with the influence and privilege to stay in cars and taxis forever actively demonstrated for change more effectively, I suspect it might happen quicker than many currently believe possible.

Like those commuters who can afford to commute by car but choose to cycle or ride the bus in Dhaka, society benefits when more people be the change they want to see.

All the above does not mean I think Dhaka’s drivers are any worse than those in other big cities.

Even in countries with well-functioning public transport systems and effective traffic police, many drivers still routinely break rules as much as they can get away with and show little consideration for other road users.

Cars can be great, but cocoons make people selfish. It’s part of the appeal of the machine. What Dhaka’s car-owning classes most need to realize is that they are their own worst enemies.

Not only do their collective actions make life harder and often more dangerous for others, but they also pay the price themselves by aggravating pollution and increasing hours spent in jams.

Everyone should play a part of course, but make no mistake. If car owners don’t live up to their responsibilities better, Dhaka will keep driving itself crazy.