Getting Out of a Jam in Dhaka

By Graham Dwyer

Bangladesh’s capital has some of the worst traffic in the world but a new rail system that will be able to carry an estimated 60,000 people an hour is providing hope.  

Photos by Graham Dwyer

Dhaka, Bangladesh, is the vibrant home to 18 million people, and some of the most notorious traffic in Asia. It is certainly some of the noisiest I have ever heard. One ranking put it as the No. 1 traffic blackspot in the world.

So, what’s been going wrong, what are the choke points, and what’s being done about it? As a first-time visitor, I decided to find out…

Riding around Dhaka, it does not take long to get the feel of the city’s rhythm. There are a lot of relatively clear stretches of road, punctuated by the most horrendous choke points. Roundabouts and intersections are particularly bad. Buses are so scarred they look like they have been in a war zone.

"The BRT line can transport 20,000 people per hour. And 60,000 people will be able to travel per hour on the MRT line 6,which will be completed in 2021." 

Mohammed Nazrul Islam, Secretary of Road Transport and Highway Division

Traveling even relatively short distances can take hours. That means a daily nightmare for commuters.

"Today I started 2 hours earlier but still I had to wait a lot of time on the road because there was too much traffic, and I was 30 minutes late," says Sayed Rabbi, an engineer.

In a global index released by an organization called Numbeo this year, Dhaka ranked as having the worst traffic in the world. That was taking into account such factors as volume, time lost and commuter dissatisfaction.

"If Metro rail came to our home, and to other countries like in Bangladesh, it would be very much easier for people who travel in public transportation," says Prioti Rafa, a student.

The authorities hope that the answer is coming in the form of a new Mass Rapid Transit system and bus rapid transit system under construction.

"The BRT line can transport 20,000 people per hour," says Mohammed Nazrul Islam, Secretary of Road Transport and Highway Division. "And 60,000 people will be able to travel per hour on the MRT line 6, which will be completed in 2021."

"We are hoping through this people-friendly mass transit system that people will switch to mass transport services rather than use private vehicles," he said. "Then we can see a change in our daily traffic congestion compared to now."

Six MRT lines are planned to open between 2021 and 2035, and ADB has provided a grant to help plan the system. The next step proposed is a detailed design of Line 5-South. Hopefully, once this is complete, we will be able to finance the Dhaka Line 5.

A good transportation network also needs good traffic management. So that’s another area where we are working. I have spent a lot of the last few days stuck in slow-moving or even non-moving traffic. A lot of hopes are riding on the new metro.

If it is delivered as promised, the people will be happier, the streets clearer, the air cleaner, and it will be good for the climate too.