Brought up as a sheltered Dhaka diva, I more or less always had access to car. What started out as a privilege, over the years, has turned into a debilitating dependency. It has only deteriorated over the last couple of years, since the ban on rickshaw on most streets. More often than not,when ventured out without a car, I came home with a story about being stranded, for hours, in middle of a noisy puzzle, waiting for a CNG. The next day, I was back lining up for the car with tail between my legs. And that makes me wonder-for whom Dhaka is designed? Is it for those and only those who can afford a car? Is it for the gas station owners? Or is it like North America, where most cities are designed for Shell, or Exxon, or Mobil?
Then came this on the web: a proud attempt to make pedestrian crossing safer. That’s a novel “development”! With my very limited understanding, it seemed like what it is-a very expensive band-aid. What problem is it solving? That what looks like a 100 feet wide road cannot be crossed safely with simple traffic rules?
In my layman curiosity, what problems are flyovers, escalators, elevated highways solving? They may be useful when traversing a long distance like Gajipur to Mirpur but what about the in between distances? Say from Kakoli to Mauhaakhali ? What happens when you change your mind and need to get down on Kakoli instead of Uttora. If you are already on the flyover, you can’t; even though Kakoli,Mauhaakhali,Uttora go along the same line. True, flyovers are also for public buses but intracity passengers would have varied needs for different lengths of distances-shorter and longer. This makes flyovers particularly beneficial express lane only for cars- cars afforded by 1%, while leaving the other 99% in a convoluted mess of public transportation.
If the question is “what problem are the flyovers solving”, the typical answer would be-traffic jam. Yet, according to Enrique Peñalosa, the visionary who solved Bogotá’s very similar traffic situation in just two years: “what creates traffic is not the number of cars but number and length of trips. More infrastructures added, traffic worsens”. “Only way to solve traffic jam is to restrict car use”, he adds.
He proceeded solving this issue in two layers: by setting up Bus Rapid Transit System or BRT and by restricting car use. Modeled after Curitiba‘s transport system, BRT works more like a subway on wheels than traditional bus. These buses have exclusive lanes. Commuters buy tickets and then wait in the station. The station door opens simultaneously with the bus door.
Just like in Bangladesh, bus had stigma in Bogotá, an image of transportation for the poor. He raised the bus status, named it ‘Transmilenio”.
Unlike underground metro or flyovers, this system is more flexible and cost effective. It can be expanded or reformatted as needed. At the cost 25KM of subway, 400 KM of BRT can be laid out. Where typically metro can cover 5% of the city, BRT covers 85% of the city while shaving off hours from commuting. It has track record of 80% reduction in road accidents.BRT can be implemented much faster, especially helpful in Bangladesh where subsequent government always tend to shelve previous government’s initiatives.
On second layer, Peñalosa restricted car use. Most obvious way of restricting car use is restricting parking. This policy had impact in more than one ways. Typically cars have a detrimental effect on cities. Besides pollution and congestion, cars mean segregation and own brand of isolation; as aptly expressed by the 3 year old daughter of Mikael Colville-Andersen (urban mobility expert and CEO of Copenhagenize Consulting ) “Daddy, cars are silly, because you can’t see the people in them”. However, it is not about eliminating cars and expressways but it’s about reshuffling their status on the priority list.
Peñalosa democratized the whole transportation system by supplementing BRT with expansion of sidewalks and bicycle lanes, in only TWO years.
Implementation of BRT is not without challenge. It needs road space. Room that has to be taken back from cars, which typically occupy 70% of the street (again by only 1% of the population). It needs substantially trained workforce, a non-existent resource in the sector. Possibility of ruffling some very powerful feathers. Peñalosa was almost impeached taking this initiative. There is issue of integration with other regular bus system. It may also hamper interest of almighty public transport authorities like “Bangladesh Road Transport Workers’ Association” or “Bangladesh Bus-truck Owners’ Association” that often resist change to protect their short term interest.
Why an interior designer worries about the food system or urban blueprint? Because, our existence is synergistic. A well planned city has the possibility of being an extension of the living room for its residence. It may encourage smaller residential footprint thus leaving more green space for edible gardens. Protected bicycle lanes would mean bicycle garage and inclusion of shower spaces in offices. Car garages may be turned cohousing style recreation room. It is the concerted effort from all parties that make up an inclusive, egalitarian and sustainable city. A city that is designed for all, including those on the other side of the car window.