Dhaka: Urban transport is a complex problem, we need to rise to the challenge

Dhaka is home to 17 million people, expected to grow to 27 million by 2030. The city sees about 60 new private cars on the road every day. According to the Atlas of Urban Expansion, the share of built-up area in Dhaka occupied by roads in 1990-2014 fell to 12%, compared to 21% in the pre-1990 area. Between the same two periods, the average road-width reduced by half, with 56% of the roads being less than 4 metres wide. Last year, The World Bank highlighted the fact that the levels of traffic congestion in Dhaka means that the average driving speed would soon drop to 4 km per hour, which is slower than a person can walk. No surprise then, that collectively, commuters in Dhaka lose a total of 3.2 million working hours each day on the road.

The insufficient road network, lack of parking space, missing traffic lights, etc leads to a sorry state of affairs on the roads of Dhaka that tax-paying citizens have to confront every day. As noted by (Hobbes, 2014):

“Like many developing-country capitals, Dhaka’s infrastructure doesn’t match the scale of its population. Just 7 percent of the city is covered by roads, compared with around 25 percent of Paris and Vienna and 40 percent of Washington and Chicago… Dhaka also suffers from the absence of a deliberate road network, feeder streets leading to arterials leading to highways. There are 650 major intersections, but only 60 traffic lights, many of which don’t work.”

The Government of Bangladesh has responded mainly by focusing on improving the city’s infrastructure – a basic requirement. The Strategic Transport Plan for Dhaka (originally in 2005 and revised in 2015) suggests policy coordination within the metropolitan area; integration of an urban development master plan and urban transport master plan; development of hierarchical road network and road classifications to guide design (and parking provision); promotion of integrated urban and transport development, particularly transit-oriented development.

More recently, the government has proposed reviving waterways, elevated transport corridors, modern modes of rapid mass transport systems, etc. This commitment has been backed by significant budget allocations. The Perspective Plan 2021 moots the introduction of Bus Rapid Transit with high capacity dedicated bus lanes. It also gives emphasis to the introduction of a rail-based mass transit systems as part of the long-term integrated transport strategy for Dhaka Metropolitan Area. It also suggests the construction of an overhead monorail system, elevated expressway and circular waterways around Dhaka.

The importance of these infrastructural advancements is indisputable. This article is about the challenges that hinder institutional reform.

The implementation challenge – a background

Laws exist that cover all aspects of road traffic management in Dhaka. Institutions responsible for enforcing rules exist. But implementation remains a problem. Ensuring compliance with laws is an uphill battle. Public and private vehicles that are unfit for the road ply unhindered. Drivers without proper driving licenses run riot. This is hardly an atypical case.

A common notion in public policy is that policymaking and implementation are divorced from each other, in the sense that politics surrounds decision-making activities (to be carried out by the elected political leadership) while implementation is an administrative activity (to be handled by bureaucracies, such as the agencies responsible for controlling traffic in Dhaka). However, researchers have found that such distinctions are not helpful in understanding policy implementation in developing countries.

The political leadership is surrounded by multiple interests, each competing for their attention and/or patronage. The typical political response is one of selective patronage dispensation. Populist policies that are aimed at winning the masses are usually born here, and even when policies being advocated may not entirely be populist, their implementation is hurried through an ill-prepared bureaucratic frame.

On the other hand, an ideal bureaucracy is an efficient implementation machine. Impersonal bureaucracies, comprised of appointed officials are supposed to possess technical knowledge and skills of professional organisation. The components of a bureaucracy are defined not by individuals, but by positions that make up the structure. Max Weber conceptualised bureaucracy as the supreme form of organisation, where bureaucrats are expected to be true to their position and follow the hierarchy and the rules that govern the organisation. However, in several cases in the developing world, the bureaucracy is an integral part of political machinations. The frontline workers, who are essentially the face of the state to its citizens are motivated by political considerations that compete with the ideal of an impersonal bureaucratic imperative.

The interaction between the bureaucracy and the political leadership remains an important topic of public administration research, as we try to understand how to truly “influence policy” and initiate lasting reform as outsiders. One of our primary concerns must be to understand better, the constituencies that the political leaders and bureaucrats are interested in. In dealing with traffic issues in Dhaka, what can we do to expand the scope of political constituencies to an extent that bringing about reform becomes an urgent prerogative? At the same time, what can we possibly do to encourage the bureaucracy to discharge their duties?

A wicked problem

Urban traffic is a wicked problem – in theory, the technical fixes are known; however, in practice, it is a complex and ever-changing context with multiple manifestations of the problem, varying levels of information, and has the involvement of numerous stakeholders with competing priorities.

In Dhaka, the factors that determine the nature of traffic (other than physical infrastructure itself) may be broadly divided into two categories: first, design issues – systems and processes that are supposed to work to enable smooth traffic on the road, such as issuances of route permits for public transport, vehicle fitness permits for private and public vehicles, and driving licenses. Second, are the on-road behaviour of different actors involved, such as vehicle drivers, pedestrians, two-wheeler riders, rickshaw pullers, etc; visible signs that traffic regulations are in place, such as functioning traffic signals at intersections, traffic police; and enforcement of regulations by those responsible.

The combination of factors that contribute to the traffic chaos overlaps quite neatly with other manifestations of poor governance, such as corruption, and weak institutional checks and balances. It is also a good indicator of the extent to which a society is ‘rule-abiding’ in nature.

To describe just one aspect of the problem: There are six agencies of the government under different ministries which are directly engaged in managing the affairs of Dhaka city’s transport sector: Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP), Dhaka City Corporation (DCC), Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA), Dhaka Mass Transit Company (DMTC), and RAJUK. Two of these agencies are engaged in developing traffic and road infrastructure, while two other play regulatory roles in the domain of urban transport management, and one agency is entrusted with the coordination of policies on matters of urban transport. This scenario of overlapping jurisdictions – prone to both blind-spots and turf-wars – contributes to a general environment of low mutual accountability. Moreover, institutional capacity, to both regulate and enforce, is limited, and vested interests rule the roost.

Take the example of how route permits are issued: The Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) issues route permits to run commercial vehicles such as buses. The BRTA awards route permits on the recommendation of Regional Transport Committee (RTC) headed by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. The 10-member committee also includes representatives from Bus Owners and the Bus Employees Association. The representatives of bus owners usually have strong political connections, and jostle for control over the most profitable routes. Bus routes are supposed to be issued only after going into detailed assessments, but this is rarely the case.

Ideally, route permits should only be issued after a thorough assessment of the existing bus density, travel demand, time per trip, passenger capacity of the vehicle, estimation of vehicle emissions, etc are taken into account. At present, the BRTA lacks the ability to undertake these assessments, and as a result, leaves the system susceptible to being influenced.

This is a good example of how the interaction of political players and bureaucratic agencies produce perverse outcomes that lead to declining standards of public service.

Can social accountability mechanisms make a difference?

Previous technocratic approaches have not been successful. Studies in the past that recommended rationalising the award of bus routes through a transparent mechanism or projects that installed modern vehicle inspected centres were eventually not implemented. Similarly, technical fixes, such as vehicular pollution meters and clean fuel options exist but have not solved the problem. It appears that a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches is required.

This is where ‘social accountability’ mechanisms might have a role to play. Social accountability refers to a set of approaches that seek to foster accountability through enhanced civil society engagement, as opposed to relying merely on top-down rules-based enforcement. From what we have seen of public demonstrations demanding better conditions on the roads of Dhaka, there is an opportunity for the government to act quickly to engage people in this reforms process. One of the ways of doing that is to initiate a process where public feedback can be incorporated directly into day-to-day management, and periodic review exercises. Bangladesh is a thriving hub of technological innovation – creating tools that enable an easy two-way flow of information from citizens to the authorities can make a difference.

However, traditional power structures are well-entrenched, and in the short-run, a more vocal civil society will lead to an escalation of tensions on the roads. This will need to be managed carefully. It is also important not to give in to purely short-term reactionary tendencies – government institutions are remarkably resilient to change. Unless the proposed steps are able to take deep roots in the institutional culture, and are complemented by an ever-vigilant civil society, the chances of slipping back into the old ways of working will remain high.


The state of road traffic in Dhaka is a wicked problem. A combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches need to be put in place. For the Government of Bangladesh, this is also an issue fraught with challenges – on one hand, public support ought to be guaranteed if they achieve moderate success in decongesting roads, and making them safer for all commuters; but on the other hand, there are powerful interests at work that will face disruption, and will not remain silent. The challenge will be to find a win-win solution through a combination of enforcement and civic engagement.

What is known is that this cannot be delayed any further. Public sentiment is firmly in favour of reform, and that should win the day.


This was first published in Policy Insights, published by the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh.


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