Sunday, January 13, 2013

A continuation from Syed Saiful Alam's previous post, originally published as a comment on 8th July 2012.

"Finally, are rickshaws an antiquated vehicle that should be relegated to the past, or instead a glowing emblem of modernity? The most modern, attractive, liveable cities are mostly in western Europe. A significant portion of trips in those cities – say, 30-50% or more – occurs by bicycle. European cities, as well as growing numbers of cities in Australia and North America, promote the bicycle in order to reduce traffic congestion, fumes, noise, and travel expense, and to increase the attractiveness and liveability of cities.

What after all is a rickshaw but a three-wheeled bicycle (imagine trying to cycle through wonder people prefer rickshaws!). Given the related catastrophes of climate change, peak oil, obesity, and lack of physical activity, governments around the world are trying to get people out of their cars. It is the low-income cities of the world that are heading in the opposite direction, laying out the red carpet for cars while making life difficult and unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists. Why are policymakers in Dhaka insistent on making things worse for the city rather than better? If we really want to reduce traffic congestion, we must do what city after city around the world has been forced to do: actively work to reduce travel by car and increase travel by other means.

Years ago, an international transport expert referred to Dhaka’s modal share as “enviable”: few cars and many rickshaws. Rather than appreciate what we had and work to make things even better, we are instead working to increase traffic congestion, noise, fumes, and expense, and to make moving about the city more difficult for the non-car-owning majority.

It is also interesting to note that the latest rickshaw bans occurred after government decisions to limit car use through a variety of measures. To the best of our knowledge, none of those measures have been implemented to date, while other measures to encourage car use continue. What was done instead, despite significant media attention over the last few years to the problem of private cars, was to ban rickshaws from various streets. Clearly the decision was based on prejudice, not any technical understanding of the situation. It allows the government to say that it is doing something to improve traffic, while only making matters worse, because politically it is difficult to put into places measures to reduce the vehicle preferred by a tiny portion of the most wealthy and powerful.

But it is wrong to believe that only rickshaw pullers are upset by the bans. Dhaka residents have long suffered for the various bans that have been put into place over the years: witness the long lines of people attempting to go to and from New Market by rickshaw, or the anger of women in focus groups discussing the rickshaw bans on Mirpur Road. Of course people want safe, convenient, comfortable transport. People also vote. It is not wise to anger the masses through such wrong-minded decisions.

It is time to raise our voices in support of smart traffic planning: to ensure that all people, not just those with a car, can move about safely and conveniently; that non-polluting modes are given priority; and that international experience in addressing traffic congestion is put to good use here. It is time to say no to further rickshaw bans, to overturn the recent ones, and to work together to make Dhaka a city in which people can move about safely, comfortably, and conveniently on foot, on 2- and 3-wheeled bicycles (rickshaws), and on public transport. We would all benefit from the improved air quality, safety, and convenience."

Syed Saiful Alam
Environmental Activist

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