Dhaka’s transport situation must be addressed while taking into account other issues; transport does not exist in a vacuum, divorced from other parts of life. It is not sufficient to improve Dhaka’s transport system while disregarding our air quality, levels of noise pollution (already unacceptably high in most of the city), economic situation, and quality of life. Ideally—and quite practically—we can improve the mobility of the majority of Dhaka’s residents, while also improving our environment and quality of life.
How is this possible? Quite simply, we must reduce our economically, socially, and environmentally unaffordable dependence on private cars. We can do this by discouraging the use of private cars through a range of measures, reducing the need for lengthy trips by better mixing our neighbourhoods (keeping polluting industries out of the city but creating a mix of residences, offices, schools, health clinics, shops, restaurants, etc. throughout the city), and encouraging modes of transport that are efficient in their use of space per passengers moved and that do not pollute (a mix of public transit and non-motorized transport).
It is not appropriate to set the official legal number of rickshaws at 89,000 arbitrarily, without any scientific basis. According to two studies on rickshaws , they are very efficient economically and have been operating under long-term marginal equilibrium conditions. This implies that as far as economic efficiency is concerned, the numbers of rickshaws are optimal, be it legal or illegal. There is no need to control their number. Any sub-optimum number may promote corruption, monopolies or even unfair fare regimes. As mentioned earlier, some modal shift from rickshaws to a more efficient mode of transport like bicycles and buses may be desirable. (It is also important to remember that no matter how much bus services improve, buses—like cars, and as opposed to bicycles and rickshaws—will still create air pollution and be the source of serious accidents and injury.) However, any control on the number of rickshaws has to be implemented on the basis of sound traffic management strategies, not by administrative force.
As regards an appropriate mix of different types of NMT, rickshaws should continue to play their due role, as they are more efficient in comparison to their motorized counterparts for short trips, and often more convenient than walking or cycling. While rickshaw pullers represent the most underprivileged section of the society—and a reduction on rickshaws thus means a direct attack on the ability of the poorest to survive and to feed their children—rickshaw passengers mainly come from the middle class, who, according to HDRC’s report, do not perceive rickshaw fares to be high. Rickshaws benefit the middle class through the transport they provide, and benefit the poor through providing jobs. While rickshaws must be maintained, promotion of other NMT is also important. Specifically, introduction of an uninterrupted network for bicycles could significantly improve people’s mobility.
The modal share of pedestrians is very high (63%), indicating that many people cannot afford any form of transport. This includes the very marginal sections of the society like daily labourers, garment workers and other underprivileged people. A cycle-friendly transport system could induce modal shift from walking to cycling, and thus provide basic transport needs to these disadvantaged people who have been deprived of their fundamental rights for so long. This could have far reaching positive impacts on mobility and economic regeneration. Meanwhile, rickshaws would still play an important role in transporting those unable or unwilling to bicycle, which includes the elderly, the very young, the infirm—and at the moment, given the unacceptability of cycling by females, women.
Past measures to control or improve traffic have focused exclusively on motor vehicles. Road dividers are sometimes unbroken for long distances, causing cyclists and rickshaw-pullers to make detours of up to a mile. When rickshaw lanes have been created, they have been quite narrow, despite rickshaws being the major source of transport. While many strategies have been used to reduce rickshaws—including destroying those without a license, banning them from major roads, and preventing them from parking in many areas—no similar efforts have been made as regards cars, which are free to drive, and park without cost, almost everywhere. Private cars can drive in small lanes, and can park on footpaths and on major roads, thereby blocking all other vehicles, including other cars. This imbalance needs to be addressed. Transport solutions must benefit the majority, our environment, our health, and our economy.
“In all respects—economic efficiency, space consumption, and availability to the population—the car is the worst form of transport on Dhaka’s streets.”
Through a change in infrastructure and a reversal of the current propaganda campaign being carried out against non-motorized transport, we could see a vast improvement in the quality of life in Dhaka, accompanied by a cleaner and quieter environment, greater mobility for the masses, fewer serious accidents, more sociable neighbourhoods, less crime, and tremendous savings in money at the household and national level.
BCEOM Fence Engineering Consultants, Development Design Consultants, IT Transport, Kranti Associates, and Resource Planning and Management Consultants (1995) “Bangladesh Rural Roads and Markets Improvement Project II (Draft Final Report)”, Report prepared on behalf of Local Government Engineering Depart (LGED), Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.