Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Think your commute is bad? Be glad you don’t live in Bangladesh.

Dan Kitwood

Dhaka, Bangladesh is among the world's most congested cities. With 7 million residents, only seven percent of the land is covered with roads. (As comparison, about 25 percent of the land in Paris is covered in roads, as is about 40 percent of the land in Washington, DC.) The whole city only has 60 traffic lights — and they don't all work.

Michael Hobbes works on human rights in Bangladesh, among other places, and in an essay for The New Republic, he says that "whenever I ask people in Dhaka what their main priority is, what they think international organizations should really be working on, they tell me about the traffic." Traffic, he argues, isn't just a nuisance. It's "one of the defining development challenges of our time."

Much of the problem in Dhaka comes from the rickshaws crowding the road. But any attempt to herd them into a single lane, or limit their use, will be a political nightmare. "One and a half million people drive rickshaws for a living, plus another few hundred thousand own and repair them."

Another option might be making cars pay more to use special roads — and then using that money to build the necessary infrastructure. But, Hobbes writes, "car owners are a small part of the population, but a highly influential and politically necessary one. Having a car-and a driver, of course-is a major perk of being a government official or business executive." They don't take well to higher taxes.

Meanwhile, there's the paradox of infrastructure investment to worry about: major transportation projects take a long time to complete, and during that period, they often make traffic much, much worse.

The result is that little can be done. But Hobbes' piece makes an important point (and don't miss the photos!): too often, people hear about "development challenges" and they imagine the horrors of extreme poverty, like malaria and starvation. But the world has more than halved the number of people living in extreme poverty since 1990 — and experts increasingly believe it's possible to end extreme poverty altogether by 2030. Most of the world now lives in middle-income countries, and a large majority of the world will soon live in cities. If those middle-income countries are to become rich, and if their residents are to have good lives, then traffic is one of the central developmental challenges of the coming decades.

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