Should megacities be shifting their focus to moving people instead of traffic?


Dhaka intersectionDhaka’s transport system is hurtling towards ever worsening gridlock and the estimated 3.8 Billion USD economic losses are no doubt rising. Photo: Adam Cohn Licensed under CC4.0.

Traffic problems that characterise life in the Bangladeshi capital have been in the news quite a lot lately and popped up on various blogs by people like Michael Hobbs who simply can’t believe the situation has been allowed to get this bad. These articles tend to share common themes which include; there’s too much traffic, nobody is doing anything about it, it’s politically complicated, the investment and structural change needed are too big, it’s all too difficult etc. etc. 

Ke Fang from the World Bank recently blogged about the dangers of focusing on infrastructure to solve traffic problems, instead of looking for urban solutions designed to move people and reduce the need to travel in the first place, it’s an informative read that covers the background well, I recommend you take a look at it if you’re not familiar with the situation.

One thing is clear, in the efforts to fix the traffic problems there is significant focus on improving traffic flow. In the past this has led to the banning of rickshaws and other non-motorised transport (NMT) on major roads despite NMT accounting for 58% of all trips in the city. In addition NMT is one of the most sustainable ways of moving people, but cars are one of the least! Think of a hypothetical where Dhaka banned all NMT and magically gave everyone access to a car, it’s not ever going to happen but you can imagine the consequences, absolutely nothing would move.

It’s because of efforts like these that Dhaka’s transport system is hurtling towards ever worsening gridlock and the estimated 3.8 Billion USD economic losses are no doubt rising. They may appear to be proactive but actually decrease the movement of people. As Ke Fang says, “If the focus of the urban transport policy and investment is on people, not on private cars, shouldn’t we be more worried by the congestion of people’s movement, and not by the congestion of car’s movements?”

This begs the question, where does the pressure to focus on private cars come from and why? It’s certainly not from the millions of people who ride the bus every day and can’t even dream of owning a car, and it’s probably not the estimated 300,000 plus cycle-rickshaw drivers which rely on NMT for their income.

No, our target demographic here are those people who consider the public transport system to be wholly unsuitable for their needs, and who can blame them. I personally commute the 7 km from my home to the UN offices by bicycle most days, and have recently started using the public buses too, it’s not exactly what one would call a pleasant experience.

Before we can even dream of reorienting the transport policy to one that focusses on moving people instead of moving vehicles we need to reach a tipping point where enough people have access to public transport that is acceptable to them. Because if anything more than a small percentage of people consider public transport unacceptable such change will not be achievable.

Through our Transport Innovations Prototype project we’re looking into the reasons and motivations behind people’s decision to preference cars over public transport. Some of the reasons are pretty obvious, like the overcrowding, discomfort, perceived safety risks, wet seats when it rains and athletic ability required to mount a bus that refuses to stop. But we wanted to know which ones most influence people’s decision making. To do this we’ve enlisted 10 Transport Pioneers who usually travel by private car, some have never been on a bus in Dhaka in their entire lives! They have been riding the busses all week, it’s been an exciting and liberating experience for them. Through their experiences we can begin to understand the reasons behind their decisions. Once we know that perhaps we (that’s the royal ‘we’ including you and everyone else in Dhaka and looking in from the outside) can start to make public transport a more viable, and even desirable option for all. Instead of just those who can’t afford the alternatives.

What’s your take on the public transport problem in Dhaka? Let us know! If you could change just three small things what would they be? How can we keep people on public transport and help others start using it for the first time?


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