Developing Dhaka as a pedestrian-friendly city like Bogota


Bogota model: Developing Dhaka as a pedestrian-friendly city
In Bogotá, Colombia, more than 350,000 people bike to work daily on protected bike paths.
Traditional city forms offered people-friendly design that provided a healthy lifestyle through dense and mixed use neighbourhoods, adequate amount of public space (parks, public squares plazas) and pedestrian-friendly streets. Despite, the healthy living style provided by the traditional city form, city design started to change around 1950’s in America. To increase mobility and to promote road safety, planners and engineers decided to separate pedestrians from roadways and design high-speed roadways. Development projects built after 1950 such as residential, commercial and industrial in the western world were oriented toward facilitating easy automobile access. To enhance the movement of vehicles, public spaces such as sidewalks, parks, green spaces etc. were turned into roads. By giving priority to vehicles rather than humans, public spaces where residents once used to spend quality time were eliminated to make space for the movement of vehicles. This turned the once lively cities into mechanical cities, a city which only offers concrete and asphalt to the citizens. Even though, the goal of vehicle-friendly cities were to offer high-speed roadways, in reality traffic congestion increased due to ‘induced demand’ of roadway, which increased the overall travel time.

Planners have realised that traffic congestion deteriorates the standard of living. To provide a quality standard of living, cities need to be designed for the people like in the traditional city form rather than for vehicles. In many countries planners are now focusing on pedestrian-friendly cities by designing the right of way to provide priority to the people. They are focusing on designing and planning for sidewalks, pedestrian ways, bike lanes, bike paths, walking and biking trails etc. throughout the city. They have realised that to increase the liveliness of the city, to increase the vibrancy of the city and to reduce the air pollution of the city, there is no option other than to increase the mode share of walking and other non-motorised transport such as biking in the city. Many cities in the western world are moving towards a pedestrian-friendly city. Money is being spent to build continuous networks of sidewalks and bike lanes rather than highways and freeways. Instead of repairing old highways, cities are bringing them down to make room for sidewalks and bike lanes and green parks.

To increase the share of walking, besides building infrastructure facilities for walking, another important aspect that is necessary is to bring people, goods, opportunities and services within distances that are accessible by walking or other non-motorised modes such as bike or rickshaw. This can be done through compact, dense and mixed use developments. The tradition of living in single residential neighbourhood in America has created dispersed developments which has made distances between activity areas beyond the distance that people are willing to walk or bike. To increase the share of walking, besides building continuous network of sidewalks and bike lanes, some American cities are also moving towards dense and mixed use developments.

One of the activists of pedestrian-friendly cities is, Enrique Penalosa, former Mayor of Bogota, Colombia. As a mayor, Penalosa was responsible for several radical improvements to the city planning. He promoted a pedestrian-friendly city through a city model that gives priority to children and public spaces and restricts use of personal vehicles, building hundreds of kilometers of sidewalks, bicycle paths, pedestrian streets, greenways and parks. His model has changed the dynamics of Bogota and turned the residents of Bogota’s attitude from one of negative hopelessness to one of pride and hope. His model has earned him several international recognitions, one of which is the Stockholm Challenge Award.

Dhaka, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, has faced severe traffic congestion issues for quite some time. The uncontrolled population growth, unplanned spatial growth of the city, unplanned development, lack of a quality public transit system, insufficient amount of road network and insufficient infrastructure facilities for walking and biking are some of the main causes of this severe traffic congestion in Dhaka. People in Dhaka are losing their productive hours stuck in traffic everyday which is putting an adverse negative impact in the national economy. The standard of living in the city is deteriorating as well due to the traffic congestion as the transportation system is one of the key factors that determines standard of living in a city. The city has been identified as one of the worst cities to live for the last couple of years. For several years, the government has planned to build a mass rapid transit in the city to mitigate the traffic congestion in the city and to move towards a sustainable urban transportation system but due to financial constraints the plan has never seen the light of day.

Even though, in terms of population Dhaka is one of the largest cities in the world, it is, in terms of the land area, fairly small compared to other capital cities in the world. The urban fabric of Dhaka, which mainly consists of dense and mixed use developments, had made many trip lengths within walking distances or at least within distances that are accessible through non-motorised transport. It is believed that up to 60 per cent of the trips in the city are made on foot, which is very high compared to most mega cities in the region.

Although, a huge amount of the trips made in the city consists of walking trips, it is unfortunate that pedestrians in Dhaka has to go through unfriendly walking conditions due to the poor and unsafe walking conditions. Some of the reasons that is causing the poor walking conditions include – lack of continuous sidewalks, poorly maintained sidewalk, unclean condition, obstructions in the sidewalk due to illegal occupancy on the sidewalk (shops, vendors, car parking), air pollution, unsafe walking conditions especially at intersections, lack of pedestrian signals at crosswalks, lack of foot over bridges or underpasses at many of the major intersections, hijackers and muggers. The poor walking conditions on the sidewalks are sometimes forcing the pedestrians to walk on the road which is increasing their chance of being involved in crashes with vehicles. Precious life is being lost in the city due to the poor conditions that prevails in the sidewalk. Such accidents are not desirable because not only does it cause loss of life and limbs but it also has a negative impact in the economy.

The urban form of Dhaka makes it possible for more people in the city, especially women, children, elderly and people with special needs, to fulfill their travel needs by walking. However, the poor and unsafe walking conditions are preventing them from walking. The poor and unsafe walking conditions and the dismal condition of the public transit is causing many people in the city to use personal vehicles or other motorised transports to fulfill travel needs that can be made by walking. This is unnecessarily increasing the trips made by motorised vehicles and causing traffic congestion.

To alleviate traffic congestion and to move toward a sustainable built environment, expensive mass transit is not the only solution. Cities such as Bogota has demonstrated that building continuous networks of sidewalks and bike lanes costs much less than a mass rapid transit, but has the ability to improve the living standard in the city. Rather than building elevated expressway which will eventually worsen the situation as has been observed in cities in America or considering implementing mass rapid transit which may not be financially viable, the city of Dhaka should take advantage of the existing land use form by improving the walking conditions in the city to reduce traffic congestion. The main benefit of turning Dhaka into a pedestrian-friendly city is that, it will not require a huge financial investment and also will not require such long time to implement yet it has the capability to improve traffic congestion, improve air quality, provide more equitable access and mobility and most importantly provide a sustainable built environment.

Some of the actions that may be considered to build a pedestrian-friendly Dhaka city and to increase the share of walking in Dhaka include: (i) building a continuous network of sidewalks and foot paths; (ii) designing the sidewalk considering people with special needs (people in wheel chair); (iii) separating sidewalks from the road using barriers or landscaping; (iv) ensuring safety of pedestrians at intersections through clearly marked crosswalks, pedestrian signals, foot over-bridges or underpasses; (v) banning vendors or car parking on the sidewalks; (vi) relocating electrical poles or wiring from the sidewalk; (vi) provision of covered walkway; (vii) constructing walking trails through parks; (viii) cleaning and maintaining the sidewalk regularly; (ix) providing lighting on the sidewalk; and (x) providing security guards or CCTV cameras in the sidewalk as required.

Finally, to reduce traffic congestion, the long-term plan of Dhaka should be to reduce usage of motorised vehicles, this includes motorised public transport as well. Cities in America, year after year has demonstrated that highways and freeways are not the solution to traffic congestion as it is not financially viable, socially equitable or environmentally friendly. A mass rapid transit is a far better option but the financial cost associated with it may make it difficult for financially-constrained cities such as Dhaka to implement such system. The best solution for Dhaka to reduce traffic congestion is to move towards a pedestrian-friendly city by improving the walking conditions in the city utilising the land use of the city. This solution will be economically viable, equitable, and environmentally friendly, provide a healthy and vibrant community and most importantly, improve the standard of living of the city-dwellers.

The writer is a transportation engineer at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand.