Overcrowded roads in South Asia: Defusing the time bomb



The mobility management of goods and people in South Asia has become a burning issue today with overcrowded roads reaching a point of saturation, mainly in major cities. Overcrowded roads are simply a symptom of a larger issue of overpopulated cities and unplanned urban development. It is too serious a structural issue to be left with traffic lights and traffic police on the streets. Managing mobility is a critical aspect of overall socio-economic planning and overall national security. The Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) focused on this burning problem in its monthly webinar, in order to promote a discourse to approach solving the problem in a holistic manner. The webinar focuses on how to defuse the time bomb and make the roads viable lifelines for socio-economic development of South Asian societies.

The distinguished panel of the webinar consisted of four speakers from four South Asian countries. Dr. Jayalath Edirisinghe, Senior Lecturer in Civil Engineering, University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka; Dr. Shaheen Afroze, International Research Committee, RCSS Colombo & Former Director Bangladesh Institute of International Security, Bangladesh; Dr. Shahid Hashmat, Former High Commissioner of Pakistan to Sri Lanka; and Dr. Shanthie D’Souza, Founder & President of Mantraya Foundation, Visiting Faculty & Member of Research and Advisory Committee, the Naval War College, Goa, India.  Prof. Gamini Keerawella, Executive Director, RCSS, moderated the webinar. During the webinar, the speakers as well as the participants identified the common problems the mega cities, urban and semi-urban cities of these four South Asian countries face in terms of mobility management and possible solutions that takes an integrated approach to solving.

Bangladesh is the 12th most densely settled nation in the world. Its density problem is magnified in its capital city Dhaka, in part because, practically speaking, Dhaka is Bangladesh. Nearly all of the country’s government and non-government offices, vital services and organizations and a large percentage of its jobs, are concentrated in Dhaka. With 18 million people today, Dhaka is called a ‘boomtown”. It has a thriving market, a growing middle class and lively cultural and intellectual life, explained Dr. Afroze. The capital’s growth partially represents the progress of the Bangladesh economy, which has grown at over 6.5% annually since the last decade.  The Bangladesh economy is the 30th largest in the world in terms of purchasing power parity, and is considered to be within the next 11th emerging market economies in the world. Although Bangladesh has been developing in many different sectors, the roads and infrastructure are still underdeveloped and remains as one of the top challenges in Bangladesh. Population growth, and rapid and ongoing urbanization along with rural-urban migration in Bangladesh are putting tremendous pressure on infrastructure and service provision in the urban areas causing overcrowded roads and a host of other social and economic issues. Since transportation infrastructure is weakly supplied, and demand for travel is rapidly growing, people are investing in private vehicles. As a result, number of vehicles and freights are increasing. According to 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. World Bank reports that in the last 10 years, the average traffic speed in Dhaka has dropped from 21 kilometres per hour (kmph) to 7 kmph, and by 2035, the speed might drop to 4 kmph, which is slower than the walking speed. To ease the problem, the government has undertaken both short and long-term projects, which are at different stages of implementation.

In comparison Sri Lanka too faces the similar challenges said Dr. Jayalath, with the country having to manage 18.59% of urban population. The public transportation is not compatible with the increasing concentration of population in urban areas with public sector contribution to transportation services predicted to go down to 6 percent by 2022. This shows that people are moving away from using public transport contributing to the ever increasing traffic congestion in Sri Lanka. This results in increased number of private cars, while increased mix traffic and public gathering on the road, he highlighted are main causes of traffic congestion at the moment. He pointed out however, that traffic congestion in Sri Lanka is primarily due to the misbehavior of the drivers and their undisciplined nature that violates traffic rules.

Dr. Shahid Hashmat too agreed with the views shared by the previous two speakers highlighting the increasing population is one of the main issues in several mega cities in Pakistan. He pointed out that the apart from the issues brought forth for discussion by the previous speakers, the overcrowded roads is a malice of ill-planned organizations and ill-engineered infrastructure, while that have extended the issue to lack of good transportation and transit facilities. The increasing number of vehicles joining the streets he said is a traffic issue, while it is also an environmental issue.

India has a good road network and a development of the road system has been priority of the government with 1.7 trillion spending on infrastructure. India too faces similar issues, elaborated Dr. Shanthie D’Souza. The roads and traffic in South Asia is the main artery and lifeline of economy. The current traffic congestion and road networks in South Asia increased opportunity and time cost. Dr. Shanthie D’Souza pointed out the importance of management mobility in South Asia, mainly India, country being the 2nd largest road network only after United States. The incapacity to manage the issue has come to appoint of saturation impacting the economy, lifestyle and quality of life of the South Asian people, with traffic in South Asia increasing exponentially. The road density is 4.87 kilometer of road per 1000 people in India and according to 2017 survey 85% of the road traffic is passenger traffic. Though road development is a key priority of the government with allowing infrastructure development through foreign investment, the hinterland road development has not been aimed at commercial opportunities. Further the road construction are not qualitative undertakings and incomplete. The lack of usage of public transport add more vehicles to the traffic while the traffic congestion it cause is becoming a huge environmental issue with Delhi city being an example of environmental pollution caused by traffic. Then the added issue the speaker highlighted is the road accidents, where WHO has identified India of having high number of fatal road accidents. The lack of sufficient road and transportation services do add for the opportunity cost and time cost of a country and increasing environmental issues.

During the discussion it was pointed out that the problem traffic crisis is a serious issue that have aggravated with lack of coherent policies and policy implementation, political animosity in implementing policies of previous governments i.e. cancelling of the Light railway project in Sri Lanka by the current government, is a very recent occurrence of this behavior. While the politicians and lack of governance system are part of the problem, the increasing issue aggravates other related issues including decreasing psychological well-being of the people and levels of pollution in the urban settings. The speakers cited these problems also indirectly and directly impacting overall health of the urban population across South Asia.

Then there is a need for timely interventions. The speakers from four South Asian countries complimented each other’s suggestions on solutions for this problem. Among these, the most emphasized interventions included hygienic, advanced and efficient public transportation facilities, well designed transit facilities in mega cities, proper transportation related infrastructure, and urban planning and management of urban lands to reduce congestion and concentration of services provided in the urban areas. The importance of introducing alternative private and government owned solutions i.e. carpooling, car sharing; 5th generation technology used in transportation sector; technical and non-technical interventions i.e. education and training for drivers, general public, and pedestrians, and the strengthening of traffic police for strict implementation of traffic rules are some of the integrated interventions that the speakers brought forth as parts of an integrated solution.

Emphasis was placed on the development of a system where the issue is approached using four key technical aspects in mobility management. It includes ‘Engineering, Education, Enforcement and Encouragement that enables a holistic solution, according to Dr. Jayalath. Along with that how alternative modes of transportation like the canals and other waterways can help solve the issue brining back a transformed mode of transportation used in the Dutch era during Dutch colonization of Sri Lanka was also discussed. The point brought forth by speakers on psychological discomfort that leads to road rage was also considered an issue that requires an immediate solution embedded in the aforementioned interventions. According to them, this can be addressed by promoting ethical driving, proper traffic management, and overall management of public consciousness through education that will ease this issue’s economic aspect along with its many social complications.

The webinar ended on appositive note encouraging an integrated approach to address all the issues and problems pertaining to overcrowded roads in South Asia. It was suggested that this should cover educational, planning, policy, political and technical aspects where rethinking in planning and implementation needs to be depoliticized and modernized, setting mid and long term goals in the process.


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