Where is digital traffic management headed in Dhaka?
Helal Uddin Ahmed |
Mar 01, 2022 9:32:02 p.m.
Basically, there are four essential elements in a production cycle. These are categorized as follows: inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes. Although maximum importance is given to outputs and outcomes in developed countries, it is often the opposite in developing countries like Bangladesh, where development projects frequently go astray and get bogged down in inputs and outcomes. processes, resulting in the desired outputs and outcomes often being elusive or unachievable in the long term. This is best exemplified by the stalemate seen in digitizing Dhaka’s road traffic management over the previous two decades. As a result, almost everything related to road traffic management and control is still managed in the megalopolis by analog means instead of digital means.
The requirement to pay cash for the bus fare is a thing of the past in most major cities around the world due to the introduction of weekly, monthly or annual fast passes or cards. An initiative was also taken in Dhaka for this purpose seven years ago by targeting public transport with funding from JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency). But the impact of this initiative is still not visible in terms of results and outcomes. Similarly, an automatic traffic light control system has been installed at about 100 level crossings in the city. About Taka 2 billion was spent on their installation and maintenance. But metropolitan traffic is still controlled by hand-waving traffic police signs. As a result, many traffic lights have gone haywire over time, and vehicles are often seen moving when the signal is red but stopping when it is green.
Ironically, almost all relevant documents provided to customers by the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) have been digitized over the past decade. The driver’s license is now a smart card. The Blue-Book or vehicle ownership document has also been digitized alongside the vehicle license plates. Additionally, the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag has been introduced and centralized software is used to receive all kinds of taxes and fees from BRTA as well as nationwide coordination within the organization. . Notably, more than 30 billion taka is being spent on this digitization effort, most of which comes from the owners and drivers of over 4.50 million motor vehicles across the country.
When digital license plate along with RFID was introduced in Dhaka in 2012, it was claimed that computer servers would display all relevant information regarding vehicles whenever they passed through 12 points in Dhaka city. As a result, relevant officials could view the information of tax payment, suitability, route permit, etc. cars. Also, all owner information, including vehicle names, colors, etc., was supposed to be stored in a central database. Thanks to this, reminders could be sent by SMS regarding the renewal of road permits, driving licenses, etc. whenever deadlines approach. Also, legal action could be taken against any vehicle without stopping them on the road for violation of laws and rules; and lost vehicles could be recovered immediately by locating them quickly. But unfortunately, the situation on the ground is still no different than in the past, as commitments have not translated into digital actions. Knowledgeable observers believe that traffic managers still stick to their analog methods of controlling traffic, as the practice of bribery becomes difficult when digital means are applied.
Allegations of extortion in Bangladesh’s transport and communications sector are quite widespread. As a popular Bangla daily reported recently, around 20 billion taka is extorted in the country from this sector on behalf of transport owners, workers, law enforcement, local thugs and politicians. Of this amount, about 4 billion taka is collected in Dhaka alone. According to insiders, cash collected in the form of fares on public transport like buses is carried manually by transport workers while commuting between various destinations during their working hours. It therefore becomes easier for the extortionists to recover a slice of this money. Cash transactions could have been avoided if the fast pass system had been implemented, and extortion would also have decreased as a result.
A clearing house was established with the help of JICA in 2014 for automated collection of card fares. Passengers were expected to make payments via smart cards or fast passes on board public transport, including buses and trains, under the arrangement. Equipment and devices were then purchased for this purpose alongside the purchase of 60,000 fast passes, and the system was even introduced on some of the BRTC buses. But none of this initiative is now visible in the road transport sector, like the initiative to install digital traffic lights.
It can be recalled that about 1.90 billion taka has been spent over the past two decades on the installation of digital traffic lights at level crossings along with related infrastructure development as well as capacity building. 130 million taka was first spent in 2001 under the World Bank’s Dhaka Urban Transport Project to install such a system at 68 crossing points. The total amount spent was 250 million taka after taking into account infrastructure and training expenses. The purchase of the signaling system and the installation of a control room were carried out by the municipality. But road transport could not be compelled to obey and follow this system even for a month. Later, at some point, most of the traffic lights failed.
Subsequently, in 2010-2011, a traffic management component was added to the World Bank’s CASE (clean air and sustainable environment) project in Dhaka city. An amount of 1.12 billion taka was then spent on installing solar panels and timing systems on 70 level crossings in the city. In addition, digital display boards have been installed at 31 crossings, indicating road use and traffic procedures, relevant laws and rules, and penalty provisions for violations. Provision was then made for the movement of traffic by obeying signals on an experimental basis at certain locations during weekly holidays. But this initiative came to a sudden end when Dhaka’s traffic almost stopped after the system was launched on April 13, 2014.
The Dhaka Integrated Traffic Management Project, funded by JICA, was then launched in 2015, and is expected to continue until June this year. Modern equipment has been installed under this project at four busy crossing points by spending 520 million taka. The crosses are Gulshan-1, Mohakhali, Paltan and Phulbaria. Cameras were installed under the system to measure the number of moving vehicles. Traffic light durations were supposed to be determined from a control room based on traffic pressures from different directions. But although the duration of the project has been extended five times and the costs have increased three times, the townspeople have not yet received any benefit from this project in terms of results and results.
The disorder in the management of road traffic in metropolis Dhaka is not without cost. According to a 2018 study by the Accident Research Institute (ARI) of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), a total of 5 million working hours are lost every day due to traffic jams in the city. This translates into a loss of 370 billion taka every year. The study also revealed that the average speed of a motor vehicle in the city is now only 5 kilometers per hour, which is in fact equivalent to the walking speed of a pedestrian. In addition, an average of 300 people die each year on Dhaka city roads as a result of accidents, and a large proportion of the victims are pedestrians. Signal lights were installed at many crossings, but the necessary manpower was not prepared to operate them properly. Furthermore, many engineering flaws remain at these crossings, and simply installing lights without correcting these flaws will not bring the desired results.
Movement of vehicles respecting traffic lights, payment of fares by means of fast passes or cards, storage of all transport information in central databases for traffic control and enforcement laws and rules have now become the common norm or the set standard in most major cities around the world. But unfortunately, this has yet to materialize in Bangladesh due to the apparent indifference of the relevant authorities as well as the lack of transparency and accountability in administration and governance.
The focus seems to be only on inputs and expenditures, regardless of waste, but processes, outputs and outcomes tend to take a back seat. Things are unlikely to improve until people have a say in what is happening around them and there is transparency, accountability and democratic participation of citizens in all sections of society and of governance.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired supplementary secretary and former editor of the Bangladesh Quarterly.