Wasting Away On The Streets

I am a firm believer in believing in the good in something. Even when most things point to the negative, I always have a small, niggling doubt in my mind that hopes to justify the inappropriate and illogical. I believe things just do not suck by default and if they seem that they do, there must be a logical explanation behind it that may somehow make it easier to accept.

Sadly, this is not something I feel about the traffic situation in Dhaka.

In the past two days, I have spent on average 4.5 hours commuting to and from work. The map in my phone says the distance is approximately 8 to 9 km, and takes 19 minutes without traffic. Now since no one in Dhaka has ever fully accepted the words ‘without traffic’ as a truth [unless it’s three am], the estimates by the map is in all accounts, invalid. Even then the actual time should be somewhat closer to the estimate. It’s not even in the same continent as close.

The traffic situation prompts the urban, facebook-trigger happy commuter with a steady slew of frustrated status updates damning this City to hell and beyond. Some enterprising people put up updates to ask about the waiting time for a particular area in hopes to predict a faster route. Mostly it’s just anger and frustration and a hopeless desire to walk out of the vehicles and break someone’s windshield.

The opportunity cost is insane. Brace yourself for some intense second grade math. Two plus two four hours taken from twenty four. Five days a week. If we work fifty weeks a year [because who can skip work and get sick or go on vacation when so much time is wasted on the roads?] that is 1000 hours just coming and going from work. That is 60,000 minutes of one person’s year spent sitting inside a car or a bus or an auto-rickshaw. The most you can do in this time is listen to the radio, if you’re lucky enough not to drive, read a book, go through your phone and answer calls. Maybe bicker about the state of the world with your commute-mates.

The issue should not be whether we are making optimum use of our time while being stuck in traffic. Instead there needs to be an actual shift in not taking this horrible waste of time and money for granted anymore. I read up on cases where some cities of the world improved traffic conditions drastically by programs and initiatives. Unfortunately when I tried to imagine implementing those ideas within the context of Dhaka, I found that in most cases it would not work. It is not that there is no scope of change by following the programs of other cities. But the overhaul would need to be so major it would require the combined effort of the government, private enterprises, the commuters and a league of angels to bring about a significant shift.

I am not hopeful. The naïve, believe-in-the-best side of me has been horribly beaten down in this case. I realize how precious my time is. In the four hours I spend in the car, I may come up with the greatest novel ever written. Or I may just take a nap. Either ways it would be my choice to do so. I would not be a slave of a system which can arguably be considered one of the best, or should I say, worst examples of inefficiency and lack of planning and progress of urban transportation. I sound bitter and there will be people talking to me about headway by referring to upcoming flyovers being constructed and so on. But I say to them, as the traffic situation has gone from bad to disgusting, how many campaigns have you seen that promotes car-pooling, encourages use of public-transportation, encourages people to walk instead of taking their cars and enforces proper traffic laws? I’ve seen none so far, and I’ve been alive to wait for it for twenty six years. This is in a city with probably one of the worst continuous traffic conditions in the whole world.

There are many who say we as a people are incapable of improvement in certain aspects. We do not follow rules of the road and we drive like maniacs. It’s like blaming the kid who blows up a toilet for not knowing any better instead of the parents who never told him that this was not what good kids do. The people of this city do not have a special gene that makes us contribute to bad traffic. In a proper system, everyone will behave. But there needs to be a start somewhere. Someone needs to tell us – we are doing this, you can do your part by doing that. Case in point, there are no major traffic issues within the armed forces cantonment of the city. People follow rules because they are enforced. They do not magically turn into law-abiding citizens as they pass through those gates.

It’s not often I go about bringing a negative image of my country where the whole world can see it. My country has enough to deal with without me adding to the pile of damaging things it is known for. But I also feel I had to do something, even if that means five people read this and just empathize. Also, it’s been almost two hours that I’ve started for home, and writing seemed a better use of the time.

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