Improving Dhaka traffic with the power of kindness

About a month ago, students in Dhaka city led massive protest on the streets demanding safer roads and stricter traffic laws and punishments. The protests were sparked by a bus accident that killed 2 students. But road accidents in Bangladesh are very common. More than 4000 people died last year from road accidents alone. Clealy something is horrendously wrong with our roads.

I’m not going to pretend that I know how to fix the problem, because Dhaka’s screwed up traffic system is a result of numerous intricate problems that intertwine and feed into each other to make a huge jumbled mess. I have difficulty explaining the traffic situation to my friends in the USA, because the vehicles and road infrastructure are not the same between BD and the West. There’s buses, cars, CNG autorickshaws, rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, trucks, and goddamn Leguna’s – all of which have different driving speeds but drive in an intermingled manner on the same road. A lot of roads are damaged and need repair. Buses are dilapidated and hold up traffic to pick up passengers at random places. Police will accept bribes rather than arrest/fine drivers without licences. Rickshaw drivers are illiterate and poorly informed on traffic laws. Pedestrians literally walk in the middle of the road even if there’s footpaths (sidewalks). Motorcyclists take to footpaths to get ahead in traffic. And we haven’t even touched the topic of daily harassment women face in public buses and on roads. All of this combined, you get unbearably chaotic roads and the 2nd most unlivable city in the world.

Traffic management in Dhaka is an exponentially worsening problem. I’ll be the first to admit that I have it pretty easy, as I study abroad and only have to experience this mess for a month every year when I visit home. It’s hard to adhere to proper traffic laws when the entire system is against you and incentivizes the law-breakers. Motorcyclists arguing back when you call them out for driving on footpaths; long lines of vehicles driving on the wrong side of the road so you can’t even call them out cuz you’re clearly outnumbered; your own friends and family dissuading you from using the foot-over bridge to cross the road because jaywalking in a busy road is still quicker – it’s very frustrating to go against the grain every day. So it would be hypocritical of me try to lecture you on abiding proper rules when you live this nightmare everyday. But what I would still like to offer is a mindset to deal with the problem.

The student protesters tried and fixed the broken road system… for 2 days. I was hurt to read facebook posts complaining that as soon as the protests were dismissed, traffic went back to its disorderly state and that the students’efforts were all in vain. But their efforts weren’t in vain – they showed us that a change is possible when it comes from a place of positivity and compassion, which the students showed. Of course the change didn’t last, it was just 2 days. 2 days is precisely the number of days I flossed my teeth before giving up on it. People take over a month to build habits.

But giving up completely is not an option. We must keep fighting the good fight, even if that means going against the grain every day. Keep doing what’s right, even when nobody notices your efforts, because you’re still being a good citizen. Even though any one of you may not change the system entirely, you can bring one or two people to follow traffic laws, and you’ll have done your fair share. You can do this using empathy and polite conversation with your drivers, friends, family. For example, when using Pathao, I force my drivers to never drive on the opposite lane. At the end of the ride I thank them with a smile for following the laws and tip them. If you’ve made them smile, they’ll tend to keep up the good work – simple as that. When alone on rickshaws I (sometimes when I’m feeling it) strike up conversations with the puller. This young rickshaw puller who I met before Eid initially rode recklessly. We got talking and he shared with me how he eloped with his now-wife when he was in 8th grade, and that they have a little daughter. I explained to him “if you keep riding recklessly and God forbid something happens to you, your little daughter will be fatherless and without financial support.” He was moved by what I said and promised that he’d keep his family in mind when on the road. I gave him 50 taka tip for his daughter’s Eid gift – he hesitated but then accepted with a genuine smile. I changed his attitude towards driving safely… I had done my part that night.

It takes empathy to induce positive emotions and change someone’s deep-seated attitudes/habits. There’s often people who scold, insult, shout at, or even beat drivers/riders on the street if they’ve done something wrong. This only makes people more bitter and non-compliant. If you beat a ricksha-wala, he will feel resentment towards you. If you respect him, he will respect you too and do what you ask. Shame rarely works in changing people for the long run, empathy and respect works better. It’s harder and takes more effort to have these long conversations with people than to snap at someone. Don’t add fire to the already stressed out people of the city. Have those conversations when you can, show compassionate understanding when you can – you have my respect for doing so.

And even if you can’t change the people around you, just abide by traffic laws yourself – and that in itself is a huge achievement. Remember that every time you’re using the overbridge to cross a busy road you’re reducing the risk of a collision. Whenever you’re in a vehicle and have the choice to either stay stuck in a congested road or follow the other 6 rickshaws down the wrong side to take a short cut and shave time off your commute, remember that the right thing to do is often the harder thing to do. Do not be tempted into breaking rules because ‘others are already doing it’ – instead, use your patience and compassion to be the inspiration that people need. And most importantly, if you screw up once or twice, go easy on yourself. Mistakes happen. But don’t give up fighting the good fight.

The fire of a revolution is not dead as long as even a small ember is alive.
Be that ember.

Writer: Debopriyo Biswas

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