Welcome to the traffic capital of the world

What I learned from the crippling gridlock in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi commuters sit in traffic jam along a main road in Dhaka. Photo: Getty
Bangladeshi commuters sit in traffic jam along a main road in Dhaka. Photo: Getty

I am in a tiny steel cage attached to a motorcycle, stuttering through traffic in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In the last ten minutes, we have moved forward maybe three feet, inch by inch, the driver wrenching the wheel left and right, wriggling deeper into the wedge between a delivery truck and a rickshaw in front of us.

Up ahead, the traffic is jammed so close together that pedestrians are climbing over pickup trucks and through empty rickshaws to cross the street. Two rows to my left is an ambulance, blue light spinning uselessly. The driver is in the road, smoking a cigarette, standing on his tiptoes, looking ahead for where the traffic clears. Every once in awhile he reaches into the open door to honk his horn.

This is what the streets here look like from seven o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night. If you’re rich, you experience it from the back seat of a car, the percussion muffled behind glass. If you’re poor, you’re in a rickshaw, breathing in the exhaust.

Me, I’m sitting in the back of a CNG, a three-wheeled motorcycle shaped like a slice of pie and covered with scrap metal. I’m here working on a human rights project related (inevitably) to the garment factories, but whenever I ask people in Dhaka what their main priority is, what they think international organisations should really be working on, they tell me about the traffic.

It might not be as sexy as building schools or curing malaria, but alleviating traffic congestion is one of the defining development challenges of our time. Half the world’s population already lives in cities, and the United Nations estimates that proportion will rise to nearly 70 per cent by 2050.

Of the 23 “megacities” identified by the United Nations, only five are in high-income countries, places with the infrastructure (physical, political, economic, you name it) to deal with the increasing queues of cars snarling up the roads. Mexico City adds two cars to its roads for every person it adds to its population. In India, the ratio is three to one.

Dhaka, the world’s densest and fastest-growing city by some measures, and its twentieth-largest by population, is a case study in how this problem got so bad – and why it’s so difficult to solve.

Like many developing-country capitals, Dhaka’s infrastructure doesn’t match the scale of its population. Just 7 per cent of the city is covered by roads, compared with around 25 per cent of Paris and Vienna and 40 per cent of Washington and Chicago, according to one analysis. Dhaka also suffers from the absence of a deliberate road network, feeder streets leading to arterials leading to highways. There are 650 major intersections, but only 60 traffic lights, many of which don’t work. That means the already stretched-thin police force isn’t enforcing driving or parking rules – they’re in the intersections, directing traffic.

The cost of Dhaka’s traffic congestion is estimated at $3.8bn a year, and that’s just the delays and air pollution, not the less-tangible losses in quality of life and social capital. Paradoxically, the poor infrastructure is one of the reasons why the city is growing so fast. Without roads or trains to whisk them to the suburbs, Dhaka residents have no choice but to crowd into the middle, set up slums between high-rises, and walk to work.

“See that?” asked one of my Bangladeshi colleagues, pointing to a quilt of corrugated roofs. “That’s where all of our domestic workers live.”

Then there are the users of the roads. Besides pedestrians, the narrow lanes are shared by bicycles, rickshaws, scooters, motorcycles, CNGs, buses, and cars. All these modes take up a different amount of space and have different top speeds. It’s like a version of Tetris where none of the shapes fit.

Most people you talk to in Bangladesh blame the traffic jams on the rickshaws. There are too many of them, they say, and they drive so slowly, slaloming around the potholes, that they trap the cars, buses, and CNGs behind them. The government is under pressure to designate some lanes as car-only, to build wider roads and overpasses, to take the slow traffic out from in front of the fast.

And this brings us to the third reason why the traffic problem is so difficult to solve: politics. All of these fixes sound easy and obvious, but they come at a cost. One and a half million people drive rickshaws for a living, plus another few hundred thousand own and repair them. Government efforts to get people out of rickshaws and into buses and trains are going to attract huge opposition.

Even increasing bus capacity is more complicated than it sounds. A 2009 World Bank analysis found 60 separate bus companies in Dhaka, each with their own ever-changing routes and schedules. Passengers are charged according to how far they’re travelling, and have to haggle with the driver over the fare. Since the bus companies compete with each other, the drivers have every incentive to drive aggressively and take more passengers than the buses can hold.

What’s more, the public transport isn’t, technically, all that public. Many of the bus companies are owned or linked to political parties or powerful trade unions. Government efforts to unify or regularize the system would amount to a hostile takeover of all of these small companies.

The obvious solution, or the one proposed by international experts anyway, is to separate the rickshaws from the cars from the CNGs, give each of them lanes and lights according to their top speed, and, crucially, make car drivers pay the cost of taking up more space on the roads.

But that, politically speaking, is about as plausible as suggesting that everyone fly to work on the back of a giant eagle. Car owners are a small part of the population, but a highly influential and politically necessary one. Having a car – and a driver, of course – is a major perk of being a government official or business executive.

What is development for, after all, if you still have to ride to work in a swaying, shuddering rickshaw, amid the fumes and the horns and the heat? Every year, Dhaka adds an extra 37,000 cars to its already beleaguered roads. Many Dhaka residents would, understandably, see this as a success, a sign of Bangladesh’s brighter, middle-income future.

Even the cops make it harder to fix the problem. That World Bank analysis reported that only 50 per cent of bus drivers and less than half of CNG drivers had proper licenses. Cops take bribes to overlook fake, expired, or nonexistent paperwork. Updating and regularizing the licensing system and enforcing traffic laws, in practice, means cutting off an income stream for an underpaid, important constituency.

Take a second to think about all this from a Bangladeshi politician’s point of view. Any attempt to solve the traffic mess means pissing off the poor, the middle class, and the rich all at once. It’s basically President Obama versus the health care system, only instead of patients, doctors, and insurance companies, it’s rickshaw drivers, cops, and bus companies. As Americans know well by now, entrenched institutions don’t just dissolve when you point out how inefficient they are.

But here’s where the metaphor breaks down. The government of Bangladesh has an option that Obama never did, one last way to have their roads and drive on them, too: international donors. In 2012, the government announced a $2.75bn plan to build a metro rail system. Eighty-five per cent of the project is being financed as a loan – at 0.01 per cent interest – by the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

If you’re a Bangladeshi politician, this is a great deal. Not only do you avoid taking on these inconveniently entrenched interest groups, but you also get a transportation system for poisha on the taka. A $255m bus rapid-transit line from the airport, thanks to loans from the French government and the Asian Development Bank, will cost Bangladesh just $45m to build.

For residents of Dhaka, however, it’s less of a bargain. These projects will take years, maybe decades, to come to fruition (there’s already infighting about how the bus lines should be built) and the construction will only make Dhaka’s traffic worse until they do. In the meantime, cheaper solutions to Dhaka’s traffic jams – enforce the law, reduce cars, improve bus service – cost too much, in political terms, to consider.

Whenever I asked my Bangladeshi colleagues how long it would take to get somewhere, they always gave two answers: “Without traffic, maybe fifteen minutes. But with traffic? Who knows?”

Maybe that’s the way to think about how the world’s megacities will solve the problem of traffic congestion. Without hard political choices to make? Maybe a few years. But with them? Who knows?

Michael Hobbes is a human rights consultant in Berlin. He has written for Slate, Pacific Standard, and The Billfold.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com