A sociology of Dhaka’s traffic congestion

Published : 31 Jan 2011, 04:33 PM
Updated : 31 Jan 2011, 04:33 PM

Traffic congestion has become, alas, an iconic image of Dhaka and the hot-button issue in any dialogue on urban affairs. Recommendations that are typically offered, however, hinge on the flawed idea that there is a quick technical fix (for instance, a fly-over or an elevated expressway). Sure, there could be multiple technical approaches, but the problem is that rarely are these approaches couched in the sociological and historical contexts of the issue.

The result is, thus, piecemeal and fashionable technocratic mantras that fizzle out before they are put in place. Even if some of them get implemented they are rarely seen to make significant improvements over existing conditions.

Recent research shows that private automobiles occupy nearly 70 percent of Dhaka's streets serving only 20 percent of the commuters, whereas mass transit and non-motorised vehicles take up 30 percent, mobilising 80 percent of the people. What this means is that a moneyed middle-class minority contributes to the traffic congestion by relying exclusively on personal vehicles. Because high-occupancy mass-transit vehicles are vastly outnumbered by low-occupancy personal vehicles in using the street space, urban mobility suffers and many work hours are wasted.

Have the urban authorities that seek to solve Dhaka's traffic quagmire ever thought why the urban middle-class is so stuck up with their personal cars? Even if there was an affordable and user-friendly mass transit in Dhaka, does anyone think the middle-class would sacrifice the comfort and the prestige of personal vehicles in the interest of the greater good? Any contemplation of this question requires a bit of socio-historical reflection on the nature of 20th urbanisation and the role that automobiles played in it.

Lest we overlook, the kind of traffic congestion that we now see in Dhaka had already been experienced in the early 20th century by metropolises like New York, London, and Paris. While urban authorities in these cities realised that city streets crammed with cars with no traffic regulation in place was a menace to public safety and an impediment to economic growth, they also understood that the rise in the number of personal cars was an inevitable consequence of economic prosperity. In the 1920s, Henry Ford's assembly line mass-produced Model T, giving people an opportunity to own a car at an affordable price. In 1929, 5.3 million automobiles were made in Detroit. Cars had a peculiar complicity with the economic history of modernity.

Thus, when the tenets of modern planning began to take shape in the 1920s and 1930s, planners in Western cities laid out streets for the unimpeded circulation of cars. Franco-Swiss architect and planner Le Corbusier's slogan that streets were for cars became the de facto creed of modern planning. After World War II, asphalt grids across America, filled with cars speeding along in demarcated lanes, was portrayed as a shining symbol of progress. Under a planning movement called Urban Renewal in the 1940s and 1950s, congested cities were cleared to make them accessible to cars.

In the 1950s, postcolonial India, at the behest of Nehru, imported this urban model to Chandigarh to showcase its preferred economic trajectory towards industrialisation. The planning of Brazil's capital Brasilia, completed in 1960, was inspired by the car as the prime mover of modernity. No wonder Brasilia was hailed as a "motopia" (motor and utopia)!

But the dream city of cars suffered a setback when in the 1960s and 1970s the gloom of energy crisis and disillusionment with over-reliance on personal cars began to permeate Western societies. Jane Jacobs, a New York-based author, called into question the basis of car-centric cities and championed alternative forms of city design based on pedestrian circulation, mixed-used development, and a humanist philosophy of urban growth. Her bestselling book, The Death and Life of Great America Cities (1961), inaugurated a popular planning effort called New Urbanism that witnessed the proliferation of compact cities, dependent not on personal vehicles but on mass transit and integrated work-living lifestyle.

Inspired by the current Green Movement and its mission to reduce carbon emission, today's urban designers of sustainable growth incorporate zero-carbon modes of mobility like walking and biking. Amsterdam is one of the best examples of cities that thrive on biking. Environment-conscious mayors across American cities have made mass transit and compact urbanisation their top political priorities.

Now let us return to Dhaka. As a modernising country, we have replaced indigenous city forms with an Urban Renewal model of urbanisation, one that overlooks the environmental cost of rampant personal car usage. We promote more road building across agricultural lands but we hardly talk about deglamourising personal car ownership. In the heroic narrative of economic growth, we view owning a car as a sure-fire sign of social mobility and class recognition.

Let us draw a sociological section through a Dhaka street to understand why 70 percent of the street space is occupied by personal autos. The reliance on cars is intertwined with the ways we have evolved as a society and perceived its political space where the rule of law is not known to have a strong foothold.

In the popular imagination of the urban middle-class going outside the home has become synonymous with encountering a host of street threats: menacing muggers, reckless trucks, and health hazards of all kinds. Any space beyond the private domain is negative.

The result of this sorry perception is twofold. First, the middle-class would unfortunately avoid public places that are considered the vital "organs" of a healthy city. Second, city-dwellers lose empathy for the city. This second effect has become deeply cultural. Spitting in the streets, throwing garbage in exposed drains, complete disregard for the environment, and indiscriminate public land-grabbing — all calcify into progress-defying cultural habits that eventually creep into the country's policy mindsets.

But what has it got to do with traffic congestion? If the outdoors is a place to be avoided the natural inclination for the urbanites would be to make private bubbles in the public space. That private bubble is the car. The car provides multiple dividends: among them, a comforting sense of safety and social class. Approximately, 200 officially registered cars now enter Dhaka's streets each day vying for space already swarming with rickshaws, buses, tempos, trucks, and people.

In the absence of a viable public transportation system, those who can afford to do so would either buy a car or dream of buying one. If we are to think of any comprehensive traffic solution for Dhaka, we must realise that there is no alternative to an efficient mass transit. Take a look at Bogota, Colombia. The former crime-ridden city has turned itself around and emerged as an example of sustainable urbanism by introducing an efficient rapid bus transit called TransMilenio. This colour-coded bus system has brought Bogota's various economic classes together, contributing to improved social cohesion and reducing crime rate.

Combating Dhaka's traffic congestion requires short-term and long-term measures. Transportation engineers and urban sociologists must grasp, together, why people so obsessively rely on personal cars and what it would take to sway them to use public transport (provided there is one that is safe, efficient, and user-friendly). A comprehensive solution entails both infrastructure planning and passive measures such as educating urban-dwellers about the benefits of using public transport, walking, and exercising civic responsibilities. Planning policies become viable only when they foster a culture of urban ethics.

Many authors argue that "underdevelopment is a state of mind," meaning that progress-resistant cultural habits cause the problems we are in, including traffic congestion. We want mobility without exercising our share of urban responsibilities. In his book From the Noble Savage to the Noble Revolutionary, Venezuelan writer Carlos Rangel argues that Latin America's widespread poverty is also the consequences of its Iberian cultural heritage. Having studied the underdevelopment of Haiti, American author Lawrence E. Harrison concludes that superstitious ambivalence toward material progress keep Haitians entrenched in poverty (while the repressive histories of colonialism continue to exacerbate their condition).

This means that no development vision is going to work unless people themselves show the willingness to be self-critical and start taking responsibilities for their own destiny. Freeing Dhaka from the grip of traffic congestion can begin with this simple but powerful understanding.


Dr. Adnan Morshed, Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Planning, the Catholic University of America, Washington DC.