Dhaka's first metro rail to drive cleaner transport and jobs
Passengers ride the new metro rail in Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 1, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Md. Tahmid Zami
What’s the context?
Residents of the crowded city hope their new metro will help cut commuting time and pollution in Bangladesh's capital
- Bangladesh launches its first metro rail line in Dhaka
- Mass rapid transit system welcomed as safe and eco-friendly
- Improved transport like buses needed to complement rail network
DHAKA - Wasif Mohammad Abdullah, a 34-year-old banker, was thrilled to take his first trip this month on Dhaka's new metro rail line, while visiting the northern part of the Bangladeshi capital, one of the world's most crowded cities.
"I have a car, but I plan to use the metro rail for daily commuting as an affordable, convenient transport mode when the route extends to the southern part of the city where I work," he said, gazing at the city flashing by from the sleek new coach.
In late December, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the first section of the MRT Line-6, built by the government-owned Dhaka Mass Transit Company Limited, with financial support from the Japanese government.
The remaining part of this first elevated line is due to be completed in 2023, with plans for five more metro rail corridors to be built across the sprawling metropolitan region.
The rail system is expected to provide a safe and reliable transport option for the city's rising population of more than 20 million, up from 3 million in 1980, while cutting climate-heating emissions from vehicles crowding the roads.
Dhaka’s boundaries are rapidly expanding as new settlements are added to the outskirts, with the metropolitan development authority extending its area of jurisdiction by 96 sq km to 1,528 sq km in the latest strategic urban plan for 2016-2035.
Alongside its growth, Dhaka has seen extreme congestion in recent years, hampering mobility in the city.
The average driving speed has dropped to below 7 km per hour and 3.2 million working hours are lost each day due to congestion, according to a 2018 World Bank report.
The government's long-term development plan for 2021-2041 encourages rapid urbanisation and envisions 80% of the country's population living in urban areas in two decades' time.
To help cope with this influx of people, the metro rail is seen as the backbone of Dhaka’s future public transport system.
But experts say additional measures will be essential to integrate the metro system with other modes of public transport if the city is to become less congested and more livable.
Today, most Dhaka residents rely on buses, bicycles, cars and different types of rickshaws to get around.
While Dhaka is one of the world’s least motorised cities, with only about 127 vehicles per 1,000 residents, it is also one of the most densely populated, with an inadequate and unplanned road network characterised by traffic jams.
In early February, the High Court of Bangladesh directed the government to take steps to clean up Dhaka's air, whose quality ranks among the worst in various global reports.
"The heavy air pollution and heat-trapping often make Dhaka's streets feel like gas chambers, and the metro rail can be a major step towards allaying the problem," said Shamsul Hoque, a leading transport expert and professor at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET).
Transport, meanwhile, accounts for a little less than 10% of Bangladesh's greenhouse gas emissions, and the government has committed to cut the sector's emissions by just over 9% by 2030, including by embracing mass transit systems.
AKM Hafizur Rahman, deputy head of the Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA), said the mass transit rail system would reduce carbon emissions and curb sound and air pollution, driving positive environmental impacts.
"The metro rail is powered by electricity, and a considerable part of the lines will be underground, thus reducing the pollution on the roads," he said.
Hoque from BUET noted that the railway would indirectly bring down carbon emissions, as fewer vehicles on the roads cut fuel use and related emissions from petrol and diesel.
BUET research found that Bangladesh burns 40% more fuel than is needed due to traffic congestion, wasting energy and money.
The first metro rail route is expected to cut annual emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent by 500,000 tonnes by mid-century, through carrying 1.3 million people daily - most of whom would otherwise use cars or buses - according to the project's environmental impact assessment.
Overcrowded, outdated modes of transport lead not only to pollution, planet-heating emissions and lost working hours.
Sumi Nafis, a housewife travelling on the metro rail with her two young children for the first time, said women often face sexual harassment on Dhaka's congested buses.
“It feels like the metro rail is the safest mode for us, while in buses we face a noisy and crowded environment, along with rude behaviour by the staff,” she added.
Entrepreneur Masuk Ur Rahman used to commute to work using ride-hailing services, but now goes halfway on the new metro rail and the rest by taxi, cutting his transport costs by about a third.
Others who do not live or work within walking distance of a rail station will also need to use other modes of transport.
Rahman, of the DTCA, said that if bus routes were franchised out across Dhaka in coordination with the metro rail, people would benefit from seamless mobility without congestion worries.
Bangladesh's national climate action plan includes a goal of introducing electric buses - if international development partners provide financial support.
BUET’s Hoque noted that the government currently allows multiple bus operators to supply routes in a lease system where drivers compete for passengers, leading to poor service quality.
But as buses will still operate more than 40% of Dhaka's total trips even in 2035, improving the bus system will be necessary to maximise the potential of the metro rail, he added.
Unless the government integrates buses and other public transport with the rail system, congestion may persist as vehicles gather to pick up or drop off metro passengers, creating choke-points near stations, he noted.
Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, director general of the Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements, said similar public transport systems like light railways or street trams should also be considered for dense local neighborhoods.
"A mass transit system is a great, democratic equaliser and socialiser that breaks down the segregation of different social classes travelling on the roads, bringing them together in a shared system of mobility," said the architect and urbanist.
"We need more mass rapid transit for everyone."
Installing new, greener forms of public transport can also give local economies a boost.
Dhaka's 130 km-long metro rail system, due to be finished by 2030, is expected to create jobs for 12,000 engineers, Prime Minister Hasina said in a speech when inaugurating the first line.
Work opportunities will also come from operating and maintaining the metro rail, as well as station plazas that will house community spaces, parking, markets and other facilities.
An informal economy is already emerging along the new metro line, which runs from 8.30 am to 12.30 pm daily except Tuesday.
At Uttara North station, numerous auto-rickshaws line the roadside, waiting for passengers getting off the metro rail and jostling for space with shops and hawkers’ stalls.
Mohammad Badal, 39, set up his tea and confectionery tin-shade shop there a month ago, which he runs until noon before heading to his second job as a van driver.
"I am paying off debts that I accumulated during the COVID-19 pandemic, and brisk sales at the side of the metro rail station are good for me," he said.
"When my two little girls, who study in a seminary in the northern Gaibandha district, visit me in Dhaka, I will take my family for a ride in the metro," he smiled.
(Reporting by Md. Tahmid Zami; Editing by Megan Rowling.)
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