Of all the dysfunctions that plague the world’s megacities, none may be more pernicious than bad (really, really bad) traffic. Sitting still in Dhaka, where bad design takes on epic proportions.
I WAS IN DHAKA, which is to say I was stuck in traffic. The proposition might more accurately be phrased the other way around: I was stuck in traffic, therefore I was in Dhaka. If you spend some time in Bangladesh’s capital, you begin to look anew at the word “traffic,” and to revise your definition. In other cities, there are vehicles and pedestrians on the roads; occasionally, the roads get clogged, and progress is impeded. The situation in Dhaka is different. Dhaka’s traffic is traffic in extremis, a state of chaos so pervasive and permanent that it has become the city’s organizing principle. It’s the weather of the city, a storm that never lets up.
Dhakaites will tell you that the rest of the world doesn’t understand traffic, that the worst traffic jam in Mumbai or Cairo or Los Angeles is equivalent to a good day for Dhaka’s drivers. Experts agree. In the 2016 Global Liveability Survey, the quality of life report issued annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Dhaka ranked 137th out of 140 cities, edging out only Lagos, Tripoli and war-torn Damascus; its infrastructure rating was the worst of any city in the survey.
Like other megacities of the developing world, Dhaka is both a boomtown and a necropolis, with a thriving real-estate market, a growing middle class and a lively cultural and intellectual life that is offset by rampant misery: poverty, pollution, disease, political corruption, extremist violence and terror attacks. But it is traffic that has sealed Dhaka’s reputation among academics and development specialists as the great symbol of 21st-century urban dysfunction, the world’s most broken city.
It has made Dhaka a surreal place, a town that is both frenetic and paralyzed, and has altered the rhythms of daily life for its 17.5 million-plus residents. Not long ago, the Dhaka-based Daily Star newspaper published an article titled “5 Things to Do While Stuck in Traffic.” Suggested activities included “catching up with friends,” reading and journaling. […]