Concern over poor air quality and traffic congestion in South Asian cities including Dhaka; action must gather momentum

  • New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Bangladesh Road Transport Authority, and Work for a Better Bangladesh Trust organise a workshop in Dhaka on Air Quality and Sustainable Transportation Challenge in South Asian Cities

  • Public transport, walking, and cycling are the strengths of the region. Pro-car policies can destroy this advantage and lead to enormous pollution, ill health and fuel wastage

  • Both Dhaka and Delhi need second generation action, including scaling up of public transport, integrated multi-modal transport options, car restraint and walking for clean air

Dhaka, April 30, 2013: Cities in South Asia including Dhaka and Delhi, while having taken some significant steps to control air pollution face newer challenges. The only way they can address the twin challenges of air pollution and congestion is by protecting their inherent strength in sustainable commuting practices – public transport, walking, cycling and compact city design. They need urgent action to accelerate technology leapfrog, scale up public transport, integrate multi-modal transport options, and encourage car restraint, walking and cycling.

This has emerged out of the workshop conducted in Dhaka by the New Delhi-based research and advocacy organisation, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) along with the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority, and Work for a Better Bangladesh Trust. Experts from CSE and Dhaka addressed the assembled audience.

The meeting was organised to find solutions to the daunting air pollution and mobility challenges facing our cities. The dialogue unveiled the unique challenges and the emerging good practices to draw lessons for a roadmap for the region. This is a part of the dialogue series that CSE has initiated across the South Asian region to focus on country-specific solutions of local relevance and interest.

Speaking on the occasion, Anumita Roychowdhury, CSE’s executive director-research and advocacy, said: “Most cities like Delhi, even while taking steps in meeting air quality challenges, are making terrible mistakes in promoting cars that negate their efforts. Dhaka is more fortunate. Its strength remains in its huge base of zero-emission non-motorised and sustainable public transport. It just has to recognise and act upon this immense advantage and strength.”

The challenge

  • In the grip of multi-pollutant crisis: Killer particulate levels have begun to increase. Winter pollution is more severe. While particulate levels remain significantly elevated, levels of nitrogen oxides also show a rising trend. Short term peaks of ozone are reported to be high.
  • Serious public health impacts: A jigsaw of evidences has emerged over the years that bring out the seriousness of the public health risk. A World Bank study shows air pollution kills 15,000 Bangladeshis each year. Bangladesh could save between US $200 million and $800 million per year, about 0.7 to 3.0 per cent of its gross national product, if air pollution in the country's four major cities was reduced. Around 6.5 million people in those cities suffer each year. Vehicular air pollution is a major cause of respiratory distress in urban Bangladesh. According to the National Institute of Diseases of Chest and Hospital (NIDCH), nearly seven million people in Bangladesh suffer from asthma; more than half of them are children. A BUET study has shown lung function impairment in traffic policemen.
  • Vehicles are a major cause of concern: Vehicles emit significant amount of pollutants. The relative share of the vehicle segments to different pollutants varies.  Available evidences show that petrol- vehicles and auto-rickshaws spew 85 per cent carbon monoxide and two-stroke auto rickshaws emit 50 per cent of unburned hydrocarbon from all vehicles. Diesel buses and trucks emit 84 per cent of NOx and close to half of total particulate matter.  Sulphur dioxide emissions from vehicles are not very significant.

Action has begun
Dhaka has already initiated a wide gamut of measures. It has

  • phased out leaded petrol in 1999
  • introduced a very large CNG programme
  • introduced unleaded gasoline from July 1, 1999
  • notified lubricant standards in 2001
  • banned two-stroke three wheelers in 2003
  • banned imported reconditioned cars older than five years
  • banned commercial trucks in Dhaka city during day time (8 am-10 pm)
  • banned trucks older than 25 years and buses older than 20 years from 2002
  • introduced ambient air quality standards
  • introduced EURO I for new diesel and EURO II for petrol vehicles from 2005
  • introduced in-use vehicle emission standards from 2005.

In fact, CNG is one of the most successful programmes with more than 70 per cent of the city’s fleet running on clean fuel. Studies carried out in Dhaka have already shown that the CNG programme has helped prevent 4,260 premature deaths annually in the city. The health cost savings is close to 1 per cent of the GDP.

The phasing out of two-stroke vehicles from Dhaka in 2003 had led to a remarkable drop in PM2.5 (particulate matter) levels -- from 266 micrograms per cubic metre (mg/cu m) in 2003 to 147 mg/cu m in 2004. But like the other mega cities in the region, Dhaka’s air pollution remains elevated. Dhaka and all other key South Asian cities will have to act fast to recover the right to clean air again. This gives immense confidence for future action -- if we act, we will see results.

Dhaka faces the second generation challenge.

  • Explosive increase in vehicle numbers: Growing congestion is crippling cities. The annual vehicle registrations have increased by 2.7 times since 2005. As of 2011, Dhaka has registered about 6,76,306 vehicles with annual registration of about 71,344 vehicles during 2011. It means 195 vehicles are being registered per day. Studies show private cars are 27.1 per cent of the fleet but cater to only 5.1 per cent of total trips. This is not sustainable.

Opinion poll: What people of Dhaka are saying about the growing problem of pollution and congestion

CSE and Work for Better Bangladesh Trust is carrying out an opinion survey of select group of stakeholders in Dhaka to assess the public perception of the growing problem and the nature of intervention needed. About 80 per cent of the survey respondents travel daily by bus, or use cycle rickshaws and walk; 20 per cent use cars. A snapshot of the ongoing survey brings out the following:

About air pollution and health

  • Majority -- about 60 per cent -- say there is no change in Dhaka’s air quality; it is as polluted as ever; 40 per cent say air pollution is worsening.
  • 87 per cent say air pollution is increasing because of growing number of vehicles. About 13 per cent say industrial units are responsible.
  • 74 per cent have said that air pollution causes respiratory problems and respiratory symptoms have increased in frequency in the last two months.
  • Nearly 80 per cent have said that their doctors have mentioned that air pollution aggravates respiratory problems.
  • Nearly 40 per cent have said that they face more respiratory-related discomforts during winter.

About city bus services

  • Access, ease to use and convenience of city bus services – 53 per cent respondents rated it as poor and 47 per cent as average
  • Availability of bus services – 73 per cent rated as average and 27 per cent as poor
  • Quality of bus services – 87 per cent rated as poor
  • Reliability and punctuality of bus service -- All respondents rated it as poor
  • Safety – 53 per cent rated as poor and 47 per cent as average
  • Overall satisfaction in city bus service – 67 per cent rated it as poor and 33 per cent as average

About walking and cycling facilities (pavements, footpaths, cycle paths)

  • Availability of walk paths – 67 per cent respondents rated it as average and 33 per cent as poor
  • Ease of use and convenience – 60 per cent respondents rated it as poor and 40 per cent as average
  • Continuity (access encroached or obstructed) – 60 per cent rated as average and 40 per cent as poor
  • Availability of safe crossings at grade – 73 per cent respondents rated it as poor and 27 per cent rated as average
  • Security from crime – 80 per cent rated it poor and 20 per cent as average
  • All respondents said facilities are poor in terms of disabled-friendly infrastructure
  • Cycle parking facilities – 53 per cent rated it poor and 47 per cent rated as average

About intermediate transport options (auto rickshaws/taxis)

  • Access, ease of use and convenience – 47 per cent rated it as average and poor. Only 7 per cent found it good
  • Availability of services – 53 per cent rated it as average and 47 per cent as poor
  • Reliability – 53 per cent rated it poor and 47 per cent as average
  • Safety – 53 per cent rated it as average and 40 per cent as poor
  • Overall satisfaction – 47 per cent rated it as average

The survey brings out overwhelming support for public transport

Where must cities go from here?

  • Nurture strength of Dhaka -- overwhelming use of public transport and non-motorised transport: CSE’s review of available information brings out the strength of Dhaka. More than 90 per cent of the daily travel trips in Dhaka are bus, walk and non-motorised trips. Less than 10 per cent of the trips are car and two-wheeler trips. In fact close to 60 per cent of the trips are zero emission trips as these constitute walk and cycle rickshaw trips. This is the low polluting and low carbon mobility that needs encouragement.
  • Dhaka must not repeat the same mistakes as Delhi: Pro-car policies and investment in car-centric infrastructure can undermine the current strength. Car-centric policy is steadily marginalising and edging out the bus and non-motorised trips. In Delhi, bus ridership has dropped from 60 per cent in 2000 to 40 per cent now while its Master Plan has set a target of 80 per cent of public transport ridership by 2020. Both the cities are paying a very high price of congestion. Traffic jams lead to fuel wastage, more pollution and serious economic losses. A normal commuting time of half an hour has increased two-hours during peak hours. The difference between peak and non-peak hour is nearly disappearing.
  • Need a public transport strategy: A study carried out by the Asian Development Bank has shown that an increase in bus share from 24 per cent to 60 per cent saves fuel equal to 15 per cent of the fuel consumed now and save a lot of money to the nation. Also this can free up road space equivalent to removing 78,718 cars from the roads of Dhaka. Plan cities for people, not vehicles. Design roads for public transport, cycling and walking. Not cars. This is the option for the city to cut killer pollution, crippling congestion, expensive oil guzzling and global warming impacts of vehicles.
  • Control fuel guzzling: In South Asia, the markets are shifting steadily towards bigger cars. In Dhaka cars are predominantly big. This can seriously threaten energy security. It is evident from global studies that show even a 10 per cent increase in large vehicle sales can roughly result in a 2 per cent deterioration in fleet fuel economy. This means roughly, an additional 17,500 barrels of oil that will be consumed annually by those 10 per cent large vehicle sales. Cities need to fuel efficiency measures and standards to conserve fuel.
  • Only more roads are not the answer: Delhi has not been able to solve its problem of pollution and congestion by building more roads and flyovers for cars.  Delhi is most privileged to have more than 21 per cent of its geographical area under road space. Delhi has built the maximum roads and flyovers. Yet its roads are totally gridlocked. Peak hour traffic has even slumped to below 15 km/hour. Cars and two-wheelers in Delhi occupy 90 per cent of the road space but meet less than 20 per cent of the travel demand. More roads are not the answer.
  • Personal vehicles occupy maximum road space in Dhaka: A study carried out by WBB Trust shows that cars occupy 60 per cent of the road space. Share of cycle rickshaws have dropped dramatically as they are being barred entry in many roads.
  • Car-centric infrastructure threaten walking and cycling infrastructure: In South Asian region there is growing obsession with signal free corridors, elevated expressways to give cars the advantage. People are being forced to use foot overbridges to allow cars free movement. Non-motorised vehicles are being withdrawn from main roads to make space for cars. Bus routes are being curtailed. These are against the principle of sustainable mobility. Cities need to scale up infrastructure for public transport, walking and cycling. They need to follow compact city design to keep distances low.
  • Growing parking pressure: Personal vehicles demand enormous land area for parking. According to the CSE’s estimates annual registration of new cars in Dhaka created demand for additional land for parking equal to almost 80 football fields. How can the city commit so much of public space for parking and compromise on the other requirements for public amenities? The DNCC plans to establish as many as 70 parking lots in different areas within its limits aiming to ease acute gridlock in the metropolis. But only supply of parking spaces will not solve the problem.

The way ahead

  • Dhaka still has the chance to plan its future growth differently: Cities need to make maximum investment in redesigning their existing road space and travel pattern to provide the majority of the people (more than 90 per cent of people in Dhaka use public transport and non-motorised transport) affordable and efficient mode of public transport that can be an alternative to personal vehicles. Dhaka must build on its strength. Reducing personal vehicle usage, upgrading public transport, walking and cycling, and leapfrogging vehicle technology are the key options left for us
  • Reduce dependence on cars:.  Scale up and accelerate bus transport reforms. Integrate public transport, para transit systems and non-motorised transport. Cities need to integrate bus, cycling, walking and para-transit systems.
  • Build pedestrian infrastructure: Design pedestrian guidelines for approval of road projects and enhancement of the existing ones. Without proper walking facilities public transport usage cannot increase.
  • Introduce a parking policy to reduce congestion.
  • Use tax measures to discourage personal vehicle usage and inefficient use of fuels

Plan cities for people not vehicles: Design roads for public transport, cycling and walking. Not for cars. This is the option for the city to cut killer pollution, crippling congestion, expensive oil guzzling and global warming impacts of vehicles.

For more details, please contact Souparno Banerjee at