Thinkers in quest for a way through gridlock

August 31, 2010

It was really fascinating to watch in Ekushey TV news on Friday and Saturday nights (August 27 & 28) in two consecutive episodes a taxi driver named Mohammad Ali analysing to a BUET teacher a marvelous solution he derived from his 5-year long research based on his hands-on experiences to ease the notorious gridlock of Dhaka traffic system. Mohammad Ali studied up to Class V in a school and he has been scratching a living as a cab driver for a long time.
Every job has its difficulties and frustrations; but Mohammad Ali’s frustrations due to loss of earnings caused by everyday traffic gridlocks in almost every main road in the city were simply unbearable. Mohammad Ali often thumped his steering wheel in sheer frustrations as of late he had to wait for hours in the midst of traffic jams in the city. At the end of the day his earnings as a consequence of slow motion of his taxi was too meager to make ends meet.
An expert on transportation Dr. Shamsul Haque, who is a teacher of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), was flabbergasted by Mohammad Ali’s elaborate and detailed mappings of all the roads of Dhaka city and his ingenious loop-based detouring arrangements he suggested with clear graphics and diagrams to avoid traffic jams, especially those cataclysmic jams at the crossroads during rush hour traffic.
Surprisingly, as Dr. Haque was narrating as a guest speaker in the Ekushey TV newsroom, there was a queer similarity between the plans Mohammad Ali had drawn and the patterns of vehicular movements in the modern roads in countries like Australia and Thailand, though Mohammad Ali has never seen any other city in the world except the city of Dhaka. “Mohammad Ali is a gifted thinker indeed”, said Dr. Shamsul Haque.
With people getting richer and the urban lifestyle changing very rapidly residents at Dhaka city are stamping their feet in frustrated rage as there seems to be no relief in the offing from the horrendous traffic gridlocks that are paralysing people’s movement with vehicles spending on an average seven and a half hours everyday in traffic jams from 8.00 am until 8.00 pm.
According to a study, the annual economic loss from the gridlock on Dhaka’s four key roads alone amounted to Tk 96 billion—a staggering amount that equals one-third of the country’s annual development expenditure.
There are manifold reasons behind such traffic problems in Dhaka city. One of the main reasons is ‘too many cars for too few roads’. According to the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority, in 2008 nearly 20,000 new vehicles hit the streets of Dhaka, which has grown from a population of 200,000 in 1974 to about 13 million today.
There are many families living in the city who are maintaining four cars: one for the master for his office work, the second one for the madam for her socialization, the third one for children for their commuting between home and school and the fourth one for the servants for their moving around to buy a pack of cigarettes for the master or to carry clothes to the laundry shops. After all, running errands in cars burning CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) fuel is way cheaper than in rickshaws that nowadays are hiking exorbitant fares to compensate their losses due to traffic congestions. Many of these families having more than one car in their private transport pool belong to a new breed whose wallets have suddenly been fattened by bribes and black money.
Of late, executives working in different public enterprises and state-owned banks have been granted interest-free car loans with monthly maintenance allowances ranging from Tk 25,000 to Tk 40,000. Hundreds of such lucky and happy bureaucrats and bankers have bought a great number of cars in the recent months causing a sudden surge in demand and supply of reconditioned cars and adding fuel to flames of traffic congestions.
It is reported that the Chittagong port has been awash with thousands of reconditioned cars imported mostly from Japan. According to some estimate, everyday about 50 cars are hitting the city roads in Bangladesh; but I guess many times more than that figure are joining the caravan of new cars hitting streets to choke up the already congested roads.
Some believe not less than 500 families are relocating from rural areas and district towns to Dhaka city everyday to settle permanently in their newly purchased apartments or homes in the capital. The first thing these new settlers do contemplate about is a car that can run on CNG.
Traffic seizures in cities and towns in Bangladesh have been a commonplace and we have to learn to live with it. Ridding Bangladesh of traffic congestions may not come soon enough for people who are increasingly getting used to a lot of luxuries and creature comforts.
But, taxi driver Mohammad Ali thinks otherwise. To his viewpoint, the present defective traffic system, not the ever increasing vehicles hitting the roads, is responsible for our traffic plights. He thinks traffic gridlocks are mainly created by traffic signals and the vehicles crowding the intersections. “The first thing to be done is ban ‘Taking right turn’ in all the main roads”, Mr. Ali suggested during his appearance in Ekushey TV news. Mohammad Ali is confident that traffic paralysis in the city would disappear within three months if his plans are followed. Dr. Haque also endorsed Mohammad Ali’s conviction pinpointing how by introducing U-loops at 70 junctions of the city roads equipped with close circuit cameras and by erecting long dividers on points where the traffic is mostly snarled up the abnormal traffic congestions can be dispelled at almost no cost and without any physical presence of police personnel to coordinate the traffic movements.
We are not alone in facing gridlocks in our roads and highways. No matter how modern or scientific is their traffic system many transport authorities in many developed countries are also sweating buckets in grappling with their traffic deadlocks.
Last week, a traffic jam stretching more than 60 miles in China entered its ninth day with no end in sight. Cars and trucks had been slowed to a crawl since August 14 on the National Expressway 110, the major route from Beijing to Zhangjiakou. Officials expect the congestion to continue until workers complete construction projects along the road on September 13. Chinese state media reported that the drivers are gradually becoming accustomed to the severe delays.
Three decades of unprecedented economic growth transformed China from a nation of bicycle-users into the world’s largest car market, overtaking the United States for that honor last year. The number of vehicles sold last year in China has risen to 13.6 million, a dramatic rise of 45 percent since 2008.
Commuters in Beijing are dependent on nine subway lines and hundreds of bus-only lanes, but an increasing number of the city’s 17 million population are using cars. Traffic snarls in Beijing nowadays lasts as long as five hours on average and there is little chance of an immediate relief from traffic annoyance with a continuous rise in car-ownership of people enjoying hefty rises in their earnings that are being spurred by their country’s 10%-plus annual economic growth.
Frustrations at times mother inventions. Like Mohammad Ali, the taxi driver from Bangladesh, one Song Youzhou, an entrepreneur from China, has also sweated days and nights in quest for a solution of the traffic gridlock in his country. Song Youzhou is attracting worldwide interest in his futuristic answer to city gridlocks: a 43-meter long ‘straddling bus on stilts’, with an elevated passenger section having a capacity for about 1,200 passengers, allowing it to pass over vehicles stuck in the road below—a cheaper, greener and faster alternative mode of transport for commuters to leapfrog the horrendous traffic jams that increasingly are bringing many cities in China to a grinding halt.
The world would have been a darker place to live in if people like Mohammad Ali, the taxi driver, and Song Youzhou, the entrepreneur, did not spend their days and nights always thinking to invent devices to serve the mankind. And one does not have to be a scientist to be an inventor.
Albert Einstein was not a genius when he began his schooling; but a scientist was born inside him perhaps on the day when his imagination was sparked with a sense of wonder at a compass his father presented him when he was only six years old.
In 1921, a 14-year old boy Philo T. Farnsworth, as he was breaking up soil with his uncle’s horse-drawn harrow, gazed at the plowed rows of dirt behind him, when a vision of excited electrons danced in his mind, a magic moment when one of the century’s greatest inventions—Television—was conceived in his mind. Farnsworth did not complete college.
Albert Einstein and Philo T. Farnsworth were not serious students adorned with a number of academic degrees. But, they were the visionaries; they were the thinkers. They are definitely the rare people still towering above the vast sea of humanity, upon whose shoulders we are viewing the world of wonders of science. Perhaps that is why Albert Einstein once said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

 

Courtesy of The Financial Express

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