How can mega-cities innovate to reduce traffic congestion?

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Infrastructure can't keep up as the number of cars on the streets of Dhaka increase at breakneck speed, slowing traffic to a crawl. Photo: Mohammad Asad/UNDP

How do the 15 million residents of the Bangladeshi capital get to work?

‘Slowly’ is the answer.

It’s common for a short commute across Dhaka (let’s say 7km) to take longer than an hour through perpetually gridlocked traffic. Transport is a big problem for anyone who needs to move about in this mega-city and it affects all residents, rich and poor alike, stealing their time and exposing them to unnecessary pollution and stress every day.

Dhaka’s now infamous traffic jams have been equated to a loss of US $3.86 billion in productivity each year. That’s 3.3 percent of the 2012 GDP!  So we thought we at UNDP should look into doing something about it.

Now we’re avid (sometimes fanatical) supporters of public transport and cycling here at UNDP. In fact in the last few years, cycling’s caught on massively among young people! So the solution to us was clear: let’s install bus and bike lanes. Easy, job’s done, we can all go home!

Right? WRONG!

If that’s all it took to fix Dhaka’s choked transport system it would have been done long ago. Literally billions of dollars are being poured into transport infrastructure, but we had a feeling something might have been missed.

A team of thinkers from across UNDP identified a dizzying array of causes, from weak enforcement of traffic rules to erratic and undisciplined driver behaviour. Each had a solution requiring the simple application of time and resources, and we were heartened to find that in most cases something was already being done about them. But there had to be something more to it than these simple logistical and infrastructure issues, and there was.

We kept on coming up against a simple physical reality: Dhaka wasn’t designed with modern transport in mind. If Dhaka is to ever have a free flowing and effective transport system then it must carry more people in less space.

There are only 200,000 cars registered in Dhaka, about 3 cars per 1,000 residents nationally, far below developed countries which can reach over 700 per 1,000 residents. The problem is not the number of cars but the fact that they occupy 70 percent of the road space!

So we think we’ve found our missing problem. Unless cars, the preferred choice of transport for Dhaka’s prosperous middle and upper classes, start to make way for mass transit or at least better public transport, Dhaka’s gridlock will never be overcome.