View From the Protests: Dhaka Should Go Car Free

For nearly two weeks in Dhaka, movement around the city—which is always difficult because of the intense traffic congestion—has ground to a halt for other reasons. On July 29, a bus driver slammed into a group of school children, killing two and sending several others to the hospital. Immediately after the incident, students poured out of the schools and into the streets to protest.

For a while, normal activities ceased; no one could get to our building in the Rayer Bazaar neighborhood of Dhaka. In our immediate area it was quiet but at first I was told not to go out. We have had to cancel several programs because we were too close to protests for people to reach us. Students were stopping private vehicles and demanding that drivers take stranded travelers to their destinations. On the one occasion I did have to cross town, I arrived in record time as there were no buses and vastly fewer cars than usual on the streets, but there was also fear because of occasional outbreaks of violence. There have been reports of rubber bullets being fired and injured protesters being hospitalized.

However, many people seemed to feel the students were doing a good job controlling the traffic and that things were more orderly. The students have been organizing the traffic, insisting that people stay in straight lines (neither lanes nor traffic lights have yet taken off in Dhaka other than a few more organized parts of the city). They have demanded to see people’s driving licenses, turning the driver over to the police in the frequent cases when a driver had none. Buses stopped plying the streets for several days and drivers without licenses also stayed home, but the protests continue as students clamor for their nine demands to be met.

Among their demands are: the death penalty for anyone killing someone in a road crash; the construction of a bridge or safe conditions for students to cross the streets near the site of the deaths; speed bumps where accidents are common; buses must stop when students signal; reduced fare for students; remove unfit cars; no driving without a license; and an apology from the Minister who reportedly smiled when he first mentioned the crash.

Protesters fill the streets in Dhaka on August 5, 2018. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

The students are not alone in their anger: Ask a hundred Dhaka residents what they like best about their city and you may get a hundred different responses. Ask them what they like least and probably all will say the traffic. Over the last few years, in addition to disgust with the ever-worsening traffic there is anger and grief at the ever-increasing road crashes and resulting injuries and deaths.

The students are young, and anger and grief lead people to demand solutions, but the quality of the solutions can depend on the level of understanding of the root causes of the problem: There is near universal acceptance of the dominance of streets by motorized vehicles; the request is that they move through the streets without killing people.

This approach is encapsulated in the common demand for road safety, which normalizes roads (and motor vehicles) as the main form of transport, shuttling other means into the insignificant category of “alternatives.” I prefer the term “safe travels” which contains the idea that trams/rail, walking, cycling, and water transport can all be far safer than motorized vehicles on roads and highways.

Another problem with the focus on safe roads is that it ignores all the other problems associated with the use of motor vehicles in cities like Dhaka. Even if we could dramatically reduce road deaths through such means as speed bumps, it would do nothing to reduce the many other problems such as congestion, air pollution (which contributes to approximately 122,000 deaths a year in Dhaka according to some estimates), noise pollution, and the waste of money and urban space.

Solutions need to take into account existing evidence of what works and what doesn’t. Take the idea of bridges for pedestrians to cross the street. There are multiple problems with that approach. Bridges can’t be built everywhere; a few scattered around will give drivers the impression that the roads belong to them and that they needn’t look out for pedestrians. It is important to look at the reason pedestrians die on the streets (on average one pedestrian dies each day in Dhaka and according to some estimates approximately 4000 pedestrians are killed per year in the country). A significant percentage are not crossing the streets, but rather walking along them due to damaged footpaths or blockage on them by parked cars, moving motorbikes, or construction waste. Others die while waiting, as were the students, for a bus.

A way to make it safer for pedestrians to cross is to make it clear through design and policy that pedestrians belong in the street and that it is vehicles which are invading our space, by having level crossings that cars must drive up and over. But a more radical solution does exist, and given the severity of the problems caused by cars and other motorized vehicles, it seems warranted—in fact, it seems the only possibility for a healthy future life and environment. This system of relying on motorized vehicles isn’t working: It can take two hours to travel fewer than ten kilometers in Dhaka. Epic traffic jams regularly occur, with people reportedly spending 45-90 minutes at a single intersection.

We could end our obsession with motorized vehicles and instead promote non-motorized (what I prefer to call fuel-free) transport in cities with exceptions for trams, inter-city rail, and a few electric vehicles for emergency services such as ambulances and fire. More people walking and cycling would mean fewer crashes, less congestion, better health (fewer non-communicable diseases and less obesity), cleaner air, quieter cities, and more convivial, functional communities.

Big solutions are not easy. Neither is losing a loved one. Although I have a few quibbles with the students’ nine-point demand, I empathize with their anger and desperate need to see a solution enacted. Many of those in Dhaka have lost a loved one through a road crash; I lost one of my interns, a university student in our car-free cities group. Virtually anyone who leaves their home suffers from the intense congestion that is a direct result of a car-based system. The millions of dollars the government spends on transport only aggravates the situation by prioritizing private motor vehicles which worsen the situation for efficient modes. If the government spent more on improving and facilitating public transit, walking, and cycling, all the space that is devoted to cars could give way to parks and other urban amenities; many existing playing fields are frequently taken over by car parking or temporary car sales.

The first step towards a city free of most motorized vehicles is to understand that such a solution is feasible and necessary. The goal should be to eliminate, not just reduce, road deaths. It is time to agree that, in a city in which it is quicker to walk than to travel by car, and that does not have a functional transport system, it’s not only safer, but practical to get rid of (or dramatically reduce) the use of motorized vehicles.

Difficult? Yes. But surely not as difficult as continuing to mourn the senseless loss of young lives while getting stuck in endless traffic on our way to discuss solutions to the problem.

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