Mobility in a megacity: Dhaka

The ability to be mobile is of invaluable importance to life in the twenty-first century. Yet, space to move about is becoming more and more limited. Today, more of us live in cities than in the country.[1] Urbanisation is the process in which the number of people living in urban areas increases compared to the number of people living in rural areas.[2] What is driving this explosion in urban living? Better overall life prospects including job possibilities and medical provision, certainly. But what happens if it all becomes too much and a city cannot carry its overwhelming load of people anymore? In the following, blog.alphabet.com investigates the mobility problems faced by Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

Dhaka can only survive on rickshaws

The BBC has published an interactive map showing worldwide urban growth between 1955 and 2015.[3] Interestingly, the movement towards cities is most dramatic in the developing countries with African cities growing the fastest and Asian cities the biggest. However, the megacity – by definition an urban metropolitan area with a population exceeding 10 million[4] - used to be a mainly American and European invention: in the 1950s New York, London, and Paris dominated the megacity scenery.[5] Today, on the other hand, megacities have emerged almost everywhere. Sprawling, sieving, polluted, and cramped with ten, fifteen, or even thirty million people: new megacities are complex and fragile environments seemingly permanently on the brink of collapse. The problem is often the speed by which emerging megacities grow. In 1990 the population of Dhaka was estimated to be around six million.[6] In 2010, however, only twenty years later, the metropolitan area of Dhaka had exploded to more than fifteen million inhabitants. The problem: the infrastructure did not grow at the pace by which the population increased. This becomes obvious when comparing the number of train lines present in 1990 to the number in service today. The interesting result is: Dhaka still operates only two train lines serving the entire urban area.[7] Hence, Dhaka has become notorious for one of the most congested urban environments in the world.

How do people move along in such conditions? As is the case in many other Asian megacities, people rely on a more traditional way of mobility: the cycle rickshaw. Around 400,000 cycle rickshaws are put to use everyday, which is by far the highest amount in any city in the world. As clever as this agile vehicle might be, it limits its inhabitants to cover greater distances. Thus, many people in Dhaka have to face socioeconomic issues because the jobs that they could fill to make a living are simply too far away to reach. The Asian Development Bank and the World Banks have a great interest in initiating and implementing urban transport projects: one example is the Dhaka Bus-Rapid-Transit, which is supposed to be a sustainable urban transport system. The bus will cover about twenty kilometres of total distance and is hoped to improve traffic flow on the busy roads to the airport.[8] The World Bank is currently trying to realise a number of projects aimed at improving the overall transport situation. Among the issues being tackled are safer sidewalks for pedestrians, the rehabilitation of flood damaged roads, and the installation of numerous traffic lights for better traffic coordination.[9] These and other projects spread the hope that Dhaka will be able to continue breathing as one of the fastest growing cities in the world.

Sustaining mobility in a megacity

Dhaka is by far not the only example. There are many other megacities such as Mumbai, Jakarta, or Karachi, which face the exact same problem. Yet, megacities, especially those emerging ones, are among the most exciting places on earth. They are political and cultural centres; in short, this is where the action takes place. But they will come to a total arrest, a state of stagnation, if there is not more innovation and investment into realising sustainable mobility. They must assure what everybody came for in general: to move forward in life.

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