It is easily conceivable that BBC would run a special feature titled “Dhaka: The City That Once Was” in 2071 as it celebrates 100 years of independence of Bangladesh. Dhaka’s livability, or lack thereof, is already a subject of much interest. But how do we avoid that near-certain predicament 50 years down the road? What can we do today?
Private cars occupy more than 60% of road space in Dhaka, carrying less than 6-8% of commuters. Conversely, public transportation takes up about 7% of road space. Vehicles currently move at a sluggish pace of 7km/h on average, and are estimated to reach human walking speed at 4km/h by 2035. Over 3.2 million work hours are lost daily due to traffic congestion – amounting to an economic loss of USD3.75 billion per year according to World Bank. Though several flyovers have been built and more are on the way, these mostly cater to the 6-8% of commuters. There are Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) projects planned to decongest Dhaka, such as the Metro Rail Project, estimated to move 60,000 people every hour. At best, these measures can keep the problem temporarily at bay. Public projects are often intricately tied up in vested interests. Urban planning and transportation are no exception.
Globally, there are numerous interventions to deal with transportation issues and improve livability of cities, such as Hyperloop One. Hyperloop One, expected to be ready for use by 2021, is essentially a high-speed mass transit system similar to modern maglev trains, both using magnets for propulsion. Hyperloop One, however, is expected to be significantly faster, energy-efficient, environmentally friendly with lower costs of construction and maintenance compared to modern high-speed trains by some estimates. At an estimated cost of USD7 billion for a 100-mile long track, Hyperloop One could potentially connect Dhaka to Chittagong in 23 minutes.
Considering the problems that Dhaka faces, the local interventions (either proposed or currently underway), and global efforts in the realm of urban planning, we built three scenarios for Dhaka for 2071, with a focus on transportation and livability (Figure 1). These scenarios are stories of the future, rooted in the needs of tomorrow and unbridled by the limitations of today, written in 2071.
“Dystopia”, explores a catastrophic future state leveraging current trends in development. “Dhaka-fiction” envisions relocation of the capital to a purposely built modern city. And finally, “Dhaka Urban Network (DUNE)” ventures into the realm of specialized clusters surrounding Dhaka and dares to imagine the use of Hyperloop for limited purposes. The three scenarios are described in greater detail below (Figure 2).
Dystopia may seem very pessimistic: we believe the dark undertones are not a result of malicious machinations but rather myopia and inertia. The current patchwork and incremental approach to planning only increases Dhaka’s vulnerability to natural and social catastrophes. Dhaka-fiction has a dreamy futuristic flavor to it, but the entire purpose of this scenario is that in 2100 Dhaka-fiction may look like the most logical (least fictional) and highly probable scenario in hindsight. DUNE appears to be an excellent scenario on the surface (Figure 3), but requires an unprecedented focus on planning, coordination and implementation by numerous stakeholders.
SCENARIO 1 : DYSTOPIA
- Unplanned growth continues as Dhaka Structural Plan (DSP) is unlikely to be fully implemented
- 72,000 buildings were at risk from earthquake (2016); the figure escalated to 300,000 in 2030
- An 8.2 magnitude earthquake damaged a thirdof the city
- Ongoing projects of DSP and Strategic Transportation Plan such as MRT project were postponed until further notice
- Allegations of corruption in mobilization and distribution of relief aid stopped donor funding
- 20% of the city had to be repurposed as camps, leading to slummification of Dhaka
- Climate change exacerbations started a massive exodus of people from coastal regions to Dhaka
SCENARIO 2 : DHAKA-FICTION
- Dhaka’s population grew to 35 million by 2035
- Government moved the capital to 40 miles north of Dhaka after a democratic referendum
- Secretariats and government offices were moved to the new capital; this did not prove difficult since a fully digitized Governance system was already in place by 2045
- Top 20% income group were incentivized through tax breaks to relocate to the new capital
- Rapid decrease in number of cars as well as reduction in traffic congestion in Dhaka
- After circular Hyperloop became a reality in 2025, Dhaka became the 12th city in the world to build a city-wide network of Hyperloop
- Average speed of traffic increased to 50km/h
SCENARIO 3 : DUNE
- Dhaka Urban Network (DUNE) was developed, consisting of a network of small urban centers around the area previously known as Dhaka Metropolitan, now known as the Core in 2071
- Distributed relocation of homes, schools, healthcare facilities, superstores etc. to the urban centers reduced population in the Core
- 6 MRT lines spiral the Core; river and public bus accelerate movement within the Core
- Industrial parks outside Dhaka, are connected to Payra and other deep-sea ports via Hyperloops
- From Dhaka, a Hyperloop line to Payra costs USD15 billion and to Chittagong USD11 billion: this USD27 billion cost is equal to the amount of economic loss due to traffic congestion in Dhaka in 7 years
We do not recommend any of the scenarios, but wish to emphasize on the need for simulating how the problems of today might translate into the realities of tomorrow. Many organizations, like the World Economic Forum, use scenario-based approaches to plan for the problems of tomorrow. While many of the ideas and scenarios might seem too far-fetched, there are examples of projects such as “Ecotopia 2121” that envision cities 100 years from now. It is never too late to think differently.