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OP-ED: What makes Dhaka so unliveable?

  • Published at 11:11 pm July 3rd, 2021
dhaka traffic
The traffic does not help MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

The problems of traffic and air pollution in the capital have only gotten worse over the years

Our rapidly growing metropolis, Dhaka, is the ninth-largest city in the world. Having been a citizen of Dhaka for the past 17 years, like so many others, I have seen first-hand both the merits and the shortcomings of this city. Recently, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) ranked Dhaka as the fourth least liveable city in the world in their annual global survey for 2021, and since learning this piece of information, one major question has plagued my mind relentlessly: Why is Dhaka considered so unliveable? A few factors come to mind.

As the capital of the nation, with one the fastest rates of urbanization in South Asia, Dhaka is undoubtedly the economic and cultural centre of Bangladesh. The bustling city has a population of 21,728,118. With a density of 23,234 people per sq-km, the city is often difficult to navigate through due to its overcrowded streets. 

Stuck on the road

The growing population of the capital has made travelling within the city increasingly difficult in recent years. An increase in the number of people indicates an increase in the number of vehicles being used, and the narrow roads of Dhaka can hardly accommodate such a large number of vehicles. This situation is further aggravated by the defiance of road traffic laws by the people on the streets of Dhaka. 

Residents of this city are no strangers to its growing traffic congestion problem. In fact, they have adapted to this urban dysfunction, and many have altered the patterns of their daily lives to adjust to traffic conditions and limitations. 

Having to spend several hours on the road, planning trips according to traffic conditions, and scheduling trips early as a precaution are all common practices for Dhaka citizens. According to an analysis by the World Bank, in the last 10 years, the average traffic speed in Dhaka dropped from 21km/h to 7km/h. Traffic congestion is so pervasive in the city that the phrase “traffic jam” has become synonymous with the name “Dhaka”. 

As a student, I can speak first-hand on how exhausting this is. Commuting to school every day is made infinitely harder. There have been several occasions when I had to start my journey to school hours in advance to avoid being late, or even abandon the car entirely a few blocks away from school and make the rest of my journey on foot. 

All the time we spend stuck in traffic is time that could otherwise have been invested into more important work. A 2018 study by the Accident Research Institute (ARI) of Buet showed that 5 million work hours were lost annually due to traffic congestion in the city, costing Dhaka a loss of Tk37,000 crore. The uncertainty in traffic conditions makes it nearly impossible to be punctual. 

The bad air

Having to spend several hours on the road directly links us to the next big problem of Dhaka city: Pollution. Environmental pollution has been a massive issue in Bangladesh for several years, and with the amount of time that is spent on the road every day, the people of this city are constantly subjected to noise and air pollution. According to WHO, Dhaka ranks first on the list of cities with the worst air quality in the world, as the city’s air quality index (AQI) has been recorded at 237, which is classified as “very unhealthy.”

Being on the road for a greater amount of time leads to greater exposure to pollution, and excessive exposure to pollution can be detrimental to health. Air pollution heightens the risk of various health problems such as respiratory infections, heart disease, and lung cancer, and could therefore have a negative long-term impact on the health of people who travel throughout the city regularly and commute to workplaces, schools, etc. 

So what can be done?

Immediate attention and action being taken to improve the quality of life in Dhaka could make all the difference. If we expect to live in a more “liveable” version of Dhaka in the near future, it is vitally necessary that we prioritize bringing issues like traffic congestion, pollution, etc under control. 

For example, the enforcement of strict road traffic laws could clear up clogged roads. Increasing investment in the public transportation system and encouraging the use of public transport can reduce the number of vehicles on the street, hence reducing traffic congestion considerably. Projects like the Dhaka Metro Rail -- the rail transport network that is set to be built in Dhaka within the next few years -- could decrease the pressure on the road network by reducing congestion, as it is expected to carry as many as 60,000 passengers an hour. 

Switching to environment-friendly, renewable resources, and investing in anti-pollution campaigns could be a few steps taken to reduce excessive pollution in the city. Ultimately, these are complex infrastructural issues that would require undivided attention, and several years of work to fix. However, taking a small step towards resolving these issues at present could make for a more liveable Dhaka in the future. 

Although it is difficult to be content with the living standards of Dhaka in its current state, the recent attention towards the flaws in our systems should be taken as motivation to work on the underlying issues. 

As a person who was born and raised in this city, I believe that Dhaka has the potential to grow into a city where students, like myself, and working adults alike, can live, travel, and work safely and contentedly. Dhaka has made considerable progress over the years, and if some of the more prominent infrastructural issues of the city are addressed with urgency, then perhaps in the future, Dhaka will be deemed one of the more liveable and prosperous cities in the world. 

Bidisha Roy is an intern and contributor to the Dhaka Tribune.

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