When I first visited Bangladesh in 1994, one of my observations was how little human life is valued; the thought struck me most when watching pedestrians weave between trucks, buses, and other vehicles to cross the busy roads. So it comes as no surprise that on average, almost every day a pedestrian dies in traffic in Dhaka. Open The Daily Star (an English language daily) for 6 March, 2012, and on the front page you'll see an article "3 killed in city road crashes." Two of the three were killed crossing a road, and one when he slipped while trying to get on a bus and was then hit by another vehicle.
Nobody has outright stated that pedestrians are the problem, but the implication that pedestrians are an obstacle to the free movement of cars has certainly been there. The usual government response to pedestrian deaths on roads is to erect high cement barriers on the median, or worse, place barbed wire, which is often invisible from the sidewalk, making it that much more dangerous to cross.
However, things do not always go badly. Look at that same newspaper, and just above the article about "road crashes" (otherwise known as slaughter of pedestrians) is an article about the High Court ordering the government to get motorcycles off the sidewalks. The decision was issued on 5 March 2012 in response to two writ petitions. I don't know how things get done in other countries, but here, writ petitions are an excellent way to move an issue forward. The High Court seems to operate independently of the rest of government and often takes a strong stance in the public interest.
In this case, the most talked-about aspect of the ruling is that the government must ensure that sidewalks are free of vehicles, particularly motorcycles. But the decision does not stop there. It also demands that the government paint zebra crossings at various intersections within 15 days, and provide information on cycle rickshaw bans and on the number of motorized vehicles in the city. It also raises the possibility of providing sufficient segregated paths for pedestrians and non-motorized vehicles
In arguing for the case, Professor Sarwar Jahan of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology cited research prepared by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) showing that while rickshaws occupy 40% of road space, they move almost 54% of passengers; cars take up 39% of road space but transport fewer than 9% of passengers. Similarly, bicycles utilize only 1.7% of road space to move 2.5% of passengers. Citing this evidence, Professor Jahan stated that "It is thus clear that cars, not rickshaws, are the main culprit [of traffic congestion]."
It took years for my colleagues at WBB Trust (Work for a Better Bangladesh) to convince journalists, planners, and some government officials that it is cars, not rickshaws, that cause the congestion. I still remember the first seminar we had with journalists back in 2004. They stared at us in amazement as we made our case. Afterwards, they commented that they know us well and we always tell them the truth, but in this case, everything we were saying directly contradicted all that they had ever heard. But slowly, with years of patience and hard work, we saw a change: newspaper and other coverage began to point the finger not at the much-maligned rickshaw but instead at the car. And perhaps payback is now imminent.
Important as it is, the case itself is nothing on its own; laws already exist to ensure pedestrian rights and keep motorized vehicles off of sidewalks. The big step comes with implementation. For that to succeed, publicity is vital. Fortunately the media has already played an important role, with the decision being widely announced in electronic and print media. I wrote in my blog today about confronting a motorcycle driver on the sidewalk this morning; he had heard of the case, though he chose to flaunt it. A policeman took over so I walked away, only to be stopped by a couple of young men who asked me if I had heard of the High Court decision. The word is out on the streets: the government (and thus the public) should no longer tolerate motorbikes on the sidewalks. With some hard work, we might expand that to an even more important message: pedestrians and rickshaws are a vital part of the city's transport system and should be cherished, not despised.
We still have a long way to go, but the day may be approaching when human life and the basic rights of movement without pollution are valued here...and if here, why not everywhere?
For more information, please see The Daily Star, 6 March 2012
Photos by Maruf Hossain and Ziaur Rahman Litu