Dhaka city commuters are likely to get about 4,000 new buses in near future. Both the Road Transport and Bridge Minister Obaidul Quader and Mayor of the Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) Annisul Huq have been repeatedly announcing this for the last couple of months. In fact, putting the new fleet of buses in service is a plan of DNCC Mayor which was unveiled immediately after the Mayoral election in 2015.
According to media reports, a study has been done and a plan already designed in this regard. The core element of the plan is: replacement of the existing 194 bus routes with six basic routes and existing 6,000 buses and minibuses with 4,000 new buses. Moreover, there will be six holding companies and these will replace the current 150 small companies. The new buses will be operated with colour code as is done in many developed metropolitan cities.
To make the plan a success, the mayor has already sat with the bus owners, the major and strongest stakeholders of the sector. They have apparently expressed their willingness to support the initiative.
While the move is welcome to ease the daily commuting distress and traffic chaos in the capital city, some critical questions are needed to be answered and explained to the commuters, the ultimate consumers of the service.
A TEST CASE: A test case is already there with new buses. Titled 'Dhaka Chaka', a bus service commenced in August 2016 in the capital's Gulshan area. Two routes are there: North-South (Police Plaza to Gulsahn-2 circle) and East-West (Gulshan Notun Bazar to Banani). All the buses are minibuses, air-conditioned (AC) and the fare is fixed at Tk15 per passenger. Though the buses are giving some respite to the regular commuters in these areas for a year, a lot of shortcomings are there.
The number of buses is insufficient, especially during peak hours. One has to change the bus if he or she wants to go to one route from another. For instance, if anyone wants to go to Banani from Police Plaza, he or she has to get down in Gulshan-2 and board another Banani-bound bus. Within a short distance, such changing of bus is irritating and time consuming. There should be some buses to ply dual routes in a circular way. Again, besides AC buses, there should be some non-AC buses and fare should be adjusted accordingly.
Reviewing the experience of Dhaka Chaka may be helpful in understanding the patterns of demand and supply of bus services in confined areas. In fact, Dhaka Chaka is operating like a feeder service without adequate link with the other existing services.
SOME QUESTIONS: It is still not clear what type of new buses will be put into service under the grand plan. Mainly, two types of buses are now plying the Dhaka roads. These are: minibuses and regular buses. Beside these, Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation (BRTC) has a few double-decker buses in its fleet. Almost all the buses are single-door and most of them have steep floor. These add woes to the passengers.
Whether the new buses will be of similar model or not is a critical question. A move is already there to bring unique model buses. A Chinese company has already expressed its interest in this regard and proposed to supply 4,000 electric buses. Again, if the new buses are like the ones now plying in the Dhaka Chaka fleet, it will not be effective to reduce sufferings of the regular commuters. These buses, imported from India, are more suitable for short routes and luxury travel.
If the buses are of unique model, chances are high that a single supplier will do a big business. In such a case, there might be a scope for over-pricing or compromising the quality of buses.
The ground reality, however, indicates that it will be difficult to arrange unique model bus in Dhaka. Several interest groups are already active to get a share of the pie. Different routes may get buses with different models or different companies may purchase different types of buses.
Another critical question is who is going to finance the new buses? Ideally, the new holding companies should invest in the venture. The government may provide some support with low-cost bank loans.
What will be the role of the BRTC under the new arrangement is also another question. Currently, BRTC is running a few AC, double-decker, articulated and non-AC buses in Dhaka. Of these, double-deckers provide good service while non-AC low-floor buses provide the most comfortable access facility. Problem with BRTC is that it is forced to squeeze services under undue pressure from the private operators. Moreover, corruption and irregularities are allegedly rampant in the state corporation.
Rearranging the current bus routes is another challenging task. Effective service of the new buses is highly dependent on proper route arrangements. Due to density of population and unplanned growth of Dhaka, currently there are around 200 routes and some of the routes are overlapped and criss-crossed.
The bus fare will also be an issue. The current fare structure is flawed and in many cases it goes against the interest of the consumers. By providing new buses, the operators may demand unreasonably high fares.
STRONG POLITICAL WILL: It is not possible to press all the new buses into service at a time. Existing buses have to be replaced phase-by-phase. So, it will take a long time to having all the new buses on the streets of Dhaka.
Finally, it is the political will that is very much required to mitigate the woes of the Dhaka commuters. The plan of new buses with rearranged routes and limited holding companies will be successful only if there is a strong political will to back the move.