Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine, 12 August 2011


Dhaka’s traffic conditions need no introduction; suffice to say that the World Bank ranks the capital’s levels of congestion as one of the world’s worst, and Dhaka dwellers agree.  A recent study conducted by the World Bank found that 93 percent of respondents rate traffic in Dhaka as a serious problem.

Much has been written on the environmental effects of snail-paced traffic, such as the wasted fuel that increases air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions.   Much less, however, is known about its psychological effects on commuters.  Although Australia seems an unlikely country to turn to for information, as their average commuter spends just three hours and thirty-seven minutes commuting to work each week, The Australia Institute’s 2005 report “Off to work: Commuting in Australia” contains several interesting findings applicable to Dhaka (if we amplify them a little).

“Off to work” identifies the highly negative impacts commuting has on our health.  The definition of “health” in this report is not limited to physical ailments; rather a broader definition is adopted, such as that used by The World Health Organisation, which defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

One of the biggest impacts commuting has is on our psychological, emotional, and physiological wellbeing.  The study found that, “Commuting strain is associated with feelings of nervousness and tension, physical pain and stiffness, irritability and fatigue, and poorer performance and satisfaction at work. Traffic congestion and crowding intensify all these effects.”  Raised blood pressure, musculoskeletal disorders, lowered frustration tolerance, and increased hostility and anger were also frequently cited by the study’s respondents.

When I asked Joe Havely, a former Dhaka resident, to describe his emotions during traffic jams, and what he does to stay calm, he replied, “Answer 1) murderous. Answer 2) By murdering someone.”  Nazmun Aquib takes a different approach, “I stay calm because I always keep earphones in my pocket and plug them with my cell phone and lose myself in the world of music.”  Other Dhaka commuters cited surfing the internet, meditating, reading or chatting on the phone as time-passing and/or rage-controlling techniques.

Sometimes though, when road conditions are particularly bad, it’s difficult to engage the mind in even the simplest activity (or to enjoy it).   If your vehicle (let’s say it’s a CNG as opposed to an air-conditioned car) hasn’t moved for 35 minutes and you’re in the proximity of a large pile of garbage, surrounded by disfigured beggars and street hawkers, it’s 34 degrees with humidity at 87 percent, you’re choking on exhaust fumes (which add a few extra unwanted degrees) and listening to incessant honking and shouting while observing dangerous and often selfish manoeuvring – and you’re going to arrive late to that meeting, you may feel like Laila Akter.

“Nothing helps me to stay calm while sitting idle in a jam,” she told The Independent.

“Listening to music, facebooking …nothing helps.  Every passing minute just makes me more and more angry with this horrible city. But a nice long shower after coming home does help with the headaches.”

The study found that people who experience the heaviest delays on a routine basis report “higher general levels of stress, lowered life satisfaction, more hopelessness, less social support, and a less positive problem-solving style. They also report lower achievement motivation, less confidence, poorer attitude to fitness, less time spent at work, and more indicate more time spent at home, but higher levels of home stress.”

If this were not alarming enough, the study notes that people who spend large amounts of time commuting, “come home late, grumpy and worn-out, with little physical or emotional energy to participate in family life, friendships or other relational activities.”  In a study by Putnam in 2000 contained in “Off to Work”, it was estimated that “each additional ten minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by ten per cent.”  Furthermore, people who spend a large amount of time commuting were less satisfied with the amount of free time they have.

“Commuter pain” doesn’t bode well for the workplace either.  It was found to increase lateness, absenteeism, staff turnover, and low job satisfaction.

Perhaps saddest of all are the effects of high density traffic on children. According to the Franklin Institute, “Even chronic low-level noise from local traffic raised levels of stress hormones in children, as well as their blood pressure and heart rates.

“When children have no control over prolonged exposure to noise, it can lead to “learned helplessness” syndrome – a condition linked to forms of depression and to poverty.  The study was the first of its kind and discovered that, “girls exposed to the traffic noise become less motivated, presumably from the sense of helplessness that can develop from noise they couldn’t control.”

A UK study cited in the Australian Institute’s report found that one in three children involved in road traffic accidents suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for around two months after the incident. “The child’s perception of the accident as life-threatening was the most important determinant,” states the study. And according to the Australia Institute, “the more time parents spend travelling to and from paid work, the less time they spend caring for and interacting with their children.”

Back in 2010, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina acknowledged that a mega-city such as Dhaka requires enough roads to occupy 25 percent of its total space, but that only seven percent is allocated.  While the Australia Institute states that there is no “one size fits all” solution for congestion, building more roads seems vital.  Not only will this make us smile, but there are economic benefits too.

A study by the University of California found that cities “with sluggish commutes — usually an indication of economic prosperity — tend to have slower subsequent job growth. The findings suggest that more efficient public infrastructure projects, while costly, can spur local economic growth.”

However until the time for drastic change arrives, our only consolation is that the Green Transportation Examiner regards congested roads as the “tragedy of the commons.”  We’re all in this together.