Of all the dysfunctions that plague the world’s megacities, none may be more pernicious than bad (really, really bad) traffic. Sitting still in Dhaka, where bad design takes on epic proportions.
I WAS IN DHAKA, which is to say I was stuck in traffic. The proposition might more accurately be phrased the other way around: I was stuck in traffic, therefore I was in Dhaka. If you spend some time in Bangladesh’s capital, you begin to look anew at the word “traffic,” and to revise your definition. In other cities, there are vehicles and pedestrians on the roads; occasionally, the roads get clogged, and progress is impeded. The situation in Dhaka is different. Dhaka’s traffic is traffic in extremis, a state of chaos so pervasive and permanent that it has become the city’s organizing principle. It’s the weather of the city, a storm that never lets up.
Dhakaites will tell you that the rest of the world doesn’t understand traffic, that the worst traffic jam in Mumbai or Cairo or Los Angeles is equivalent to a good day for Dhaka’s drivers. Experts agree. In the 2016 Global Liveability Survey, the quality of life report issued annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Dhaka ranked 137th out of 140 cities, edging out only Lagos, Tripoli and war-torn Damascus; its infrastructure rating was the worst of any city in the survey. Like other megacities of the developing world, Dhaka is both a boomtown and a necropolis, with a thriving real-estate market, a growing middle class and a lively cultural and intellectual life that is offset by rampant misery: poverty, pollution, disease, political corruption, extremist violence and terror attacks. But it is traffic that has sealed Dhaka’s reputation among academics and development specialists as the great symbol of 21st-century urban dysfunction, the world’s most broken city. It has made Dhaka a surreal place, a town that is both frenetic and paralyzed, and has altered the rhythms of daily life for its 17.5 million-plus residents. Not long ago, the Dhaka-based Daily Star newspaper published an article titled “5 Things to Do While Stuck in Traffic.” Suggested activities included “catching up with friends,” reading and journaling.
The first chapter of my own Dhaka journal begins in March of last year, on a highway that runs south from Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport into the center of town. If you do a web search for this stretch of road, you may come across a Facebook page titled “Highway to Hell, Airport Road.” graphs posted online reveal the nature of the hell, aerial shots capturing a scrum of automobiles strewn at odd angles across eight lanes of road. It looks like a Matchbox set that has been scattered by an angry toddler: the morning commute as a cosmic temper tantrum.
These images had me prepared for the worst. Yet on my flight to Dhaka I was told that the traffic in the city would be unusually light. For weeks, Bangladesh had been gripped by a hartal, a nationwide general strike and “transportation blockade.” The hartal, called by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was an effort to pressure Prime Minster Sheikh Hasina into holding new elections. The strike had disrupted everyday life in the capital, with street demonstrations and sporadic violence causing Dhaka’s denizens to curb their normal routines. It had accomplished the seemingly impossible, breaking the logjam on Dhaka’s streets. A Bangladeshi on my flight explained the situation. “In Dhaka, you have either horrible traffic or really horrible traffic,” he said. “But with the hartal, there will be almost no traffic. Traffic will be O.K.”
Horrible traffic, really horrible traffic, almost no traffic, O.K. traffic — it takes just a few minutes in Dhaka to realize that these are not scientific terms. When my plane touched down I caught a taxi, which exited the airport into a roundabout before making its way onto the infamous highway. There, unmistakably, was a traffic jam: cars and trucks, as far the eye could see, stacked up in a configuration that bore no clear relationship to the lanes painted on the blacktop. My cab nosed into the convoy. Whereupon a crawl commenced.
The traffic rolled south for 20 seconds. The traffic stopped. My cab idled for a couple of minutes at a dead standstill. Then, for mysterious reasons, it crept forward again. Occasionally, the traffic would flow unimpeded for a minute or so, reaching a clip of perhaps 15 miles per hour. But soon we’d lurch to a halt again. It was the kind of stop-and-go routine I’d experienced on American interstates, the “bumper-to-bumper” conditions that traffic reporters describe on news radio, shouting something about a jackknifed tractor-trailer over thumping helicopter rotors. In this case, though, the problem was not an accident. The problem was Dhaka.
It was hot and I was jet-lagged. I dozed off. When I snapped awake, about an hour later, the congestion had thickened and the scenery had turned frantic. We were in the heart of the city now, penned in by surging pedestrians and hundreds of vehicles competing for space on a wide road called Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue. There were passenger cars and puttering three-wheeled auto-rickshaws. There were buses so vacuum-packed with passengers that many riders were forced onto the exterior, clinging to open doorways and crouched on rooftop luggage racks. There were cargo tricycles, known locally as “vans,” heading to markets bearing heaping payloads of bamboo, watermelons, metal pipes, eggs, live animals. And, of course, there were the iconic Dhaka passenger vehicles, bicycle rickshaws. Officially, rickshaws are banned on major thoroughfares like Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue, but there they were, in vast phalanxes, their bicycle bells pealing above the roar of the traffic jam.
Eventually, my taxi reached a roundabout, and we turned left onto another thoroughfare, the Panthapath Tejgaon Link Road. There, the cabdriver executed a U-turn and a tricky sequence of maneuvers to win a place in a feeder lane that permitted entrance to the driveway of my hotel. The lane was empty: our final hundred yards of terrain to travel, and our first stretch of open road. The distance from airport to hotel was eight and a half miles. The trip had taken two and a half hours. We wheeled into the hotel’s driveway and the cabby spun around to offer his verdict. “Some traffic,” he said. “Not so bad.”
“BANGLADESH IS NOT so much a nation as a condition of distress,” wrote the journalist William Langewiesche in 2000. It sounds like an overstatement, but to behold the gridlocked streets of Dhaka is to see distress in action, or rather, in inaction. The stalled traffic in the capital city is symptomatic of the nation’s broader woes, in particular population growth, which is moderate by the standards of the developing world, but disastrous given the size of Bangladesh.
Fundamentally, traffic is an issue of density: It’s what happens when too many people try to squeeze through too small a space. Bangladesh is the 12th most densely settled nation on earth, but with an estimated 160 million citizens it is by far the most populous, and the poorest, of the countries at the top of the list. To put the matter in different terms: The landmass of Bangladesh is one-118th the size of Russia, but its population exceeds Russia’s by more than 25 million.
Bangladesh’s density problem is magnified in Dhaka, in part because, practically speaking, Dhaka is Bangladesh. Nearly all of the country’s government, business, health care and educational institutions, and a large percentage of its jobs, are concentrated in Dhaka. Each year, 400,000 new residents pour into the capital, a mass migration that has made Dhaka the world’s most densely settled megacity, and one of the fastest growing.
The town that those millions inhabit almost completely lacks the basic infrastructure and rule of law that make big cities navigable. There are just 60 traffic lights in Dhaka, and they are more or less ornamental; few drivers heed them. The main problem with Dhaka’s anarchic streets, though, is that there aren’t enough. The Daily Star has reported that just 7 percent of Dhaka is covered by roads. (In places like Paris and Barcelona, models of 19th-century urban planning, the number is around 30 percent.) Footpaths are also an issue. There are too few sidewalks in Dhaka, and those that exist are often impassable, occupied by vendors and masses of poor citizens who make their homes in curbside shanties.
The usual solution to congestion in cities like Dhaka is to move commuters under the streets rather than over them. But Dhaka has no subway, and no concrete plans to build one. The problem is compounded by the growing status-symbol appeal of private transport: a vogue for automobiles among Dhaka’s middle classes that is adding tens of thousands of new vehicles to the city’s streets every year.
By the government’s own estimate, Dhaka’s traffic jams eat up 3.2 million working hours each day and drain billions of dollars from the city’s economy annually. Traffic takes another kind of toll on the lives and minds of Dhakaites. “The city is atomized,” says Sarwar Jahan, a professor of urban and regional planning at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. “People cannot socialize because of the traffic problems. You can only occasionally go to a friend’s house or relatives. It simply takes too long.”
It is wrong, in other words, to speak of Dhaka’s traffic as an inconvenience; even “crisis” is too mild a term. Adnan Morshed, an associate professor of architecture and planning at the Catholic University of America, has called Dhaka’s congestion “a vast urban pathology” that “continues to kill.” Bangladesh’s thriving textile industry has given the nation’s economy a jolt, but analysts warn that if the capital cannot solve its traffic and infrastructure problem, such gains will prove fleeting — that progress itself may grind to a standstill. Jammed-up roads are the indelible image of Dhaka’s agony. They may also be its single greatest cause.
DHAKA’S TRAFFIC OVERLOAD is a sensory overload. You can smell and taste it: The exhaust fumes tickle your nostrils and coat your mouth, leaving an acrid taste on your tongue. You can — often, you must — reach out and touch the traffic, executing defensive hand-check maneuvers to ward off vehicles and fellow pedestrians as you scramble across packed streets.
But the traffic hits you most forcefully in your ears. Some historians claim that the city’s name derives from the dhak, a big drum with a clattering sound. True or not, there’s no mistaking the pounding that the city gives to your auditory nerves. Traffic is Dhaka’s deafening music, a dissonant theme song of shouting drivers, rumbling engines and, leading the attack, honking horns: vocals, bass, ill-tuned brass.