“Inclusive transport system a must for city commuters”

Wafiur Rahman
Wednesday, September 27th, 2017


Dr Binayak Sen observes that a mass transit system is simply overlooked by Bangladesh’s class and status-oriented urban society devoid of true democratic spirit


Democracy in ancient Athens was defined by its exclusion of slaves from the very definition of demos. Democracy in Bangladesh is defined by the preservation of acute social segmentations in the sphere of public urban transport. Class difference in our society is starkly visible when you look at the public transport system in Dhaka or any other city for that matter in Bangladesh. The more a mass transit system is inclusive, the more a society is democratic and the higher the level of equity. Even in a highly developed country like the United States, there are buses, metro-rails, and trains which are used by commuters of all classes of society to reach their destination and for example, a World Bank official would go to his office in Washington DC using a public transport. That is not the case in Bangladesh.


Speaking to Dhaka Courier, Dr Binayak Sen, Research Director at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), he stressed on the imperative requirement of a mass transit system, which is necessary to decentralise Dhaka and motivate Dhaka’s employed to come to work from their homes in adjacent cities. He shared his thoughts on a few aspects regarding this in this exclusive interview, which is as follows.


What is your opinion about our public transportation system?


If you judge our public transport, it is the most class-driven system. Every class in Dhaka has its distinct transport – a lower income man or women goes to workplace on foot, a lower middle class person by a rickshaw, a middle class gentleman by an auto-rickshaw and an upper class representative by a private car or jeep. They will not mingle with each other, going shoulder to shoulder while using the public transport. That is not the picture in London, New Delhi or even Kolkata, cities that have mass transit systems. The issue of inclusive public transport system is important for economic growth both because it reduces transaction costs, but also because it helps to raise the savings rate of the nation. With good public transport, a large section of the middle and upper classes will not have same the incentive to buy cars as before; they would rather invest more in human capital or businesses. But, this is not just an aspect of economic growth, but also a key indicator of inclusiveness of our democracy.


How important is inter-city connectivity in this regard?


When we think about public transport, we focus only on within the city commuting, not inter-city connectivity – something that the capital city of Sri Lanka, Colombo has. Many of Sri Lankan civil servants come to their office from adjoining township and there is a service called The Gale Express—a commuter train running morning and evening between Colombo and Gale. The same is the case with New York, where the people come from and go back to Long Island or Washington where the commuters move to and from suburban Virginia or Maryland.


In our case, we just forget or ignore the matter of inter-city connectivity while talking about Dhaka city’s transport system. For instance, connectivity of Dhaka with Narayanganj, Gazipur and Mymensingh should be developed further so that the working people could come to and go from Dhaka without having the compulsion to stay in the expensive metropolitan city. Such facility will not only reduce population pressure on Dhaka’s limited physical space and reduce the pace of slumisation, but it will also allow the commuters to stay at their sweet homes at a more affordable rental arrangement and lower cost of living standard. For improving the traffic situation plagued by congestion, inter-city road is critically important.


I would also suggest the same thing for cities like Khulna where rail and riverine transports could equally be used for easing pressure on the metropolis. Many people who work at the Khulna industrial belt can go to Jessore or elsewhere by commuter rail and river transport evading the highway towards Khulna city. Water transport can also be used for carrying goods or leisurely travelling by people using the river facility around Dhaka. This, I am sure, is possible in many other towns across the country.


Can the MRT salvage some hope?


Metro rail system is another solution to the problem of meeting our public transport requirements. We had committed a historic mistake by not developing the system in the 1980s or 1990s when there were initial talks and buzz. We have lost two decades – a period within which we could have solved our transport problems and improved the system further. Still, it is better late than never.


I am told that the construction of flyovers at some physical points may pose engineering hindrance to an effective metro rail. It is expected that the government’s relevant agencies would maintain coordination while pursuing development so that the future potential of metro rail is not destroyed in any way.


We should also use the option of existing rail network and also set up (where possible) an alternative, parallel line to the existing train route to facilitate commuters to move between Gazipur, Tongi, Motijheel and Narayanganj. This potential has not been utilised yet. Our inaction on many fronts of the public transport system to create an effective system of rapid mass transit (RMT) is partly shaped by a kind of pre-existing semi-feudal thinking. We still like to preserve class exclusiveness and social hierarchy status even though we often talk about transiting to Middle Income status. As a result, we are not pursuing an inclusive development aimed at providing people of all strata with a similar transport system. The same semi-feudal mentality is carried over to public education and health where there are social segmentations by mode of delivery and service type.

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