Deadly Traffic Sparks Unrest
On July 29, a speeding bus killed two students on their way to school in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka. The deadly accident sparked mass protests with students demanding more safety on the roads from the authorities. According to the World Health Organization, more than 3000 people are killed in road accidents in Bangladesh every year. In a country where fatal road collisions are quite common, the students’ death could have passed as an everyday occurrence. But this time it triggered widespread anger on social media, a wave of student protests and a brutal crackdown by the authorities.
With official statistics showing the number of fatal road accidents on the rise, the agitated students started stopping trucks buses and cars, demanding drivers to produce licenses and checking if vehicles were in roadworthy conditions. The young activists stationed themselves on the roads directing traffic making sure vehicles stayed in their lanes.
Dhaka’s traffic travails are notorious and often a nerve wracking and dangerous experience, say locals and visitors alike. According to a World Bank report, the average traffic speed in Dhaka has dropped from 21 kilometers per hour to seven kilometers. Come 2035, that number could drop as low as four kilometers, which would be slower than walking speed.
“The worst city in the world”
A study by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development says traffic congestion in Dhaka eats up some five million working hours every day costing the country more than eleven billion US Dollars annually.
In the 2017 Global Livability Survey of the Economist Intelligence Unit, Dhaka ranks 137th out of 140 cities, edging out only Lagos, Tripoli and war-torn Damascus. Dhaka’s infrastructure rating is the worst of any city in the world, says the survey.
Against this backdrop, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom Bangladesh and its partner Daffodil International University (DIU) are working to promote “smart” solutions in the fields of urban mobility and infrastructure. In a recent exhibition titled “Urban Mobility: Design for Pedestrians” students from different private and public universities and other stakeholders presented models and designs for solving the perennial problems. The two-day event drew large crowds and the visitors engaged in lively debates and discussions.
Urban mobility and behavioral change
"Much infrastructure development is happening to tackle the mobility issues of urban transportation", said Chief Guest Dr Quazi Azizul Mowla. “However, none of them are pedestrian friendly”, he said. “It’s time to implement designs to make this a walk-able city".
“Dhaka is still an open canvas and that’s the beauty of it. We can still design it the way we want to,” says Rashed Hassan Chowdhury who recently won a competition on Urban Mobility organized by the government and whose plans will be implemented by the end of this year.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s student movement showcased in a dramatic manner the poor implementation of traffic rules and the lack of awareness of the general public to observe the regulations. As reaction to the protests, the traffic police has become more active and a novel push for implementing the rules is apparent.
“Still, most of the improvements are about facilitating movement of cars, busses and trucks", says FNF’s Program Officer Omar Mostafiz. “It’s very important to integrate the pedestrians into the equation”, he says. Learning from best practices from other countries could be a good start. “But in the end, only behavioral changes will solve the problems” Mostafiz believes.