Bangladeshi commuters sit in traffic jam along a main road in Dhaka. Photo: Getty
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Welcome to the traffic capital of the world

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

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

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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.