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Vagabond Journey Travel Stories and World Culture


Hallstatt, China What Happens in China’s Western Style Replica Towns
Meixi Lake Ecocity. Image: Nick Holdstock. Can Ecocities Solve China’s Environmental Problems?
Street cleaner in front of a demolition site in Shanghai_DCE Clearing The Land: Inside China’s Mass Demolitions And Land Grabs


Meixi Lake Ecocity. Image: Nick Holdstock.
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China is building ecocities in droves. Dozens of these green-branded, new frontiers of urbanism are already in an advanced state of development and upwards of 200 more are on the way. In fact, over 80% of all prefecture level cities in the country have at least one ecocity project in the works, and it is estimated that over the coming decades 50% of China’s new urban developments will be stamped with labels such as “eco,” “green,” “low carbon,” or “smart.”

If any country is poised to lead the green urbanization movement, it’s China. This may seem counter-intuitive given the country’s recent environmental track record, but this is precisely why it is so: China really doesn’t have another choice. In its all out race to modernize, urbanize, and ascend economically, entire swaths of the country have been rendered ecological wastelands. The air is deadly, the soil is toxic, the water is undrinkable, the aquifers are being sucked dry, great lakes and rivers are disappearing, coastal wetlands have been decimated, and the cities themselves are becoming heat islands. Simply living in many of the China’s cities is a health hazard — and as awareness of this fact grows fewer and fewer people are willing to trade personal and environmental well-being for economic progress. China must do something about its cities.

To these ends, China is engaging in building legions of idealistic, completely new ecocities, which often go up as stand alone, self-contained satellite developments outside of much larger urban cores. Their aim is to mitigate the pernicious attributes of the current urban condition through creating smarter, better designed cities from the ground up — cities that are “designed, built, and managed at the absolute highest levels of efficiency,” according to Richard Brubaker, a professor of sustainability at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai.

Although the question must be asked: Is going out to the un-urbanized fringes — often to places that have never seen cities before — and clearing out massive swaths of farmland, demolishing rural villages, and relocating thousands of nearly self-sufficient peasants to build hundreds of new cities an effective way to improve environmental conditions? Are ecocities really the solution?

“The sustainability of cities is something we can work with, but building something from scratch and calling it an ecocity isn’t the answer,” Anna-Karin Grönroos, the director of Ecopolis, a documentary about China’s ecocities, stated decisively.

Richard Brubaker echoed this sentiment: “Will we ever have an ecocity? Like totally off the grid, everything natural? No. That will not sustain life for the billions that are going to move into the cities.”

In their current incarnation, ecocities are simply not effective engines for environmental betterment — even when built en masse, as they are being in China. They are just too small, not for enough people, too remote, too class exclusive and expensive, too prone to marketing gimmicks and economic/political subterfuge, and too self-contained to really have a decisive impact on the broader urban environment.

“If you go to China, the ecocity projects are autonomous entities, you always will find the project is just related to itself. The eco structure or water structure is not related to the outside,” said Joost van den Hoek, the director of urban planning at Urban Data.

The reality of the future urban condition in China are metropolitan areas of 10 to 50+ million people, not arrays of trendy upper-middle class satellite towns for 80 to 100 thousand. No matter how much green space Tianfu, Meixihu, or Nanhui have it’s all moot when mitigated against the broader urban matrix they’re soaking in, drowning them with excessive pollution of myriad varieties. At this stage, ecocities are not effective drivers of environmental change in their own right — regardless of how they’re marketed.

Although writing off China’s ecocities as nothing more than extravagant green-washing initiatives on an unprecedented scale isn’t completely accurate either. While some of the country’s so-called ecocities have failed miserably, being little more than “the same sprawling McMansions under a different name,” as put by Bianca Bosker, the author of Original Copies, there is another side to these places which, while far more subtle, could ultimately be far more beneficial.

“I think it is important to understand that there are two models of the ecocities,” began Eero Paloheimo, the visionary behind Beijing’s Mentougou eco-valley. “The first model is to do new cities that are different in all ways from the conventional cities, and then the bigger issue actually is to renovate the old cities so they get the new technology for traffic and all the infrastructure and the recycling and the building and so on. . . Ideally, the [eco] city will be a laboratory of clean technology.”

“In the greater scope of urban planning, the problem with ecocities has always been what are we going to learn in the ecocity that we can apply in the actual cities themselves?” Brubaker pointed out. “What are you going to apply at the city level when you’re building Chengdu and Xiamen and Hangzhou and Taizhou?”

Ecocities are catalysts for testing new designs, concepts, and technologies that are meant to improve the efficiency of urban space through reducing use, waste, and emissions. They are places for developing systems like seasonal energy storage and heat capture, rainwater collection, drinking water recycling and/ or desalination, gray and black water systems, urban agriculture, sky gardens, distributed energy plants, waste energy recovery systems, thermal insulation, traffic-less downtowns, new modes and methods of public transportation, as well as increasing dependence on renewable, low polluting energy sources, like wind and solar on the city scale. They are live test cases where all of the above can be introduced and tested, brought into the public consciousness, and then trickled across to the broader city beyond, gradually blurring the dichotomy between ecocity and conventional city beyond recognition.

If nothing else, China’s ecocities show us what’s wrong with our existing cities and set the bar a little higher for all other cities, everywhere.

“[Ecocities] should be the petri dish by which all lessons for the megalopolises are learned and scaled,” Richard Brubaker stated. “If we’re not learning anything and we’re not scaling anything then the ecocity is a distraction.”

A version of this article was originally published on CityMetric.

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Economics Is The Story Of Everything

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In 2011 a reader sent me a message that basically said the following:

“I don’t know how you can expect to make money writing for poor people. If you want to make money you have to write for people who have it.”

He was right, and I knew it. Up until that point I was writing for a target audience who wanted to travel the world with very little money — for poor travelers, like myself. These are people who don’t really buy anything, they don’t invest anything, they are about as economically defunct as a 21st century human can be. Who would dare pay me to reach this bunch of miscreants?

I knew then that what I was doing wasn’t going to work out for the long term. Sure, I made enough money to get my family and myself from place to place, but that was about it. Each day was a struggle — I’d open my earning reports and hope that there would be enough in there to get me through the day. If I was going to make enough money as a writer to allow me to actually do it as a livelihood I would need to make some adjustments.

If you want to make money, be useful.

This was the main thing that I took away from well over a decade of traveling and doing odd jobs, freelance work, and writing vigorously just to make enough money to keep traveling.

It was clear then that I simply wasn’t being useful to the right people.

A few years later I found myself working as a financial journalist. The transition was sudden. . . and rather accidental. A freelance position at a top Hong Kong newspaper was offered to me.

I can’t say that at this time I was looking to delve into this branch of my profession. It seemed a little stiff, sterile, perhaps not suitable for a vagabond whose modus operadi consisted of walking around in the streets talking with people rather than sitting in an office looking over charts and graphs. But I took the opportunity anyway. It was something new . . . and it paid well.

I went out and bought a new set of clothes, and set out to Shanghai to gather information for my first articles.

I didn’t know what I was getting into.

I found myself spending my time talking to people who had money. A door opened and I was able to walk into a world that had previously remained concealed from me. I’m a traveler, I thrive on uncomfortable social circumstances where there is a stark contrast between the cultural landscape and myself — circumstances where attention is heightened and each interaction is stimulating beyond the substance of the words alone. I feel comfortable in this place — basically, it was the same game I’ve always played.

Travel is fundamentally about access: access to places, access to people, access to events. This is, ultimately, what makes the profession valuable. This also happens to be what’s of value in journalism. On one evening in early 2014 these two sides came together and I saw how directly one could benefit the other.

What I didn’t expect was how much I enjoyed the work.

Why wouldn’t I enjoy it?

Economics is ultimately the story of everything. I quickly found that I could write about pretty much anything I wanted and it could be molded to fit within my editorial bounds.

I previously viewed economics as a singular subject, as something that could be isolated from culture, history, politics, or even travel. But it’s actually the fundamental framework for just about every sphere we interact in. Almost everything can ultimately be deduced to economics. What happens in this realm is going to have a knee-jerk reaction on and permeate through everything else.

Although it’s cyclical. To be able to write well about economics you need to have a deep knowledge of culture, history, politics . . . It was the all-inclusiveness of it that really got me. Each day was a foray into the Wild West of trying to figure out how this world works. I could travel, research interesting topics, and have access to people and places that I wouldn’t have had access to before. I liked this.

Even the raw rudiments of the subject I was beginning to find fascinating. Everything is cause and effect, there is an upstream reason for every downstream metric, and finding what they are presented a new form of exploration.

Economics is the story of everything, and that is what makes it . . . fun?

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Pickpocket-Proof Travel Shirt

Wade Shepard in The Asian Age newspaper
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This is the pickpocket proof travel shirt to go along with the pickpocket-proof travel pants that I reviewed a few months ago. They are both made by Clothing Arts, an innovative company whose niche is making superior quality, well-designed, incredibly secure travel clothing that actually looks good. These clothes are decked out with well-thought-out safeguards against theft — secret pocket, etc — and can be worn on safari or in the office with your self respect kept firmly intact.

Watch the video review below.

To get this shirt, go here.

Wade with an exec from The Asian Age newspaper in Dhaka.

Wade with an exec from The Asian Age newspaper in Dhaka.

pickpocket proof shirt

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‘Mad For Land’ In Bangladesh

Dhaka Consulate Zone
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Would you believe it if I told you that the price for a plot of land in Dhaka is around the same as in New York City or London?

This was difficult for me to believe as I walked through the streets there. The place looked very much like a developing country that could be had at a bargain — like a flea market or second hand goods shop. There was shit falling apart everywhere, big holes in the sidewalks, traffic so congested that it moved in a singular gelatinous mass at a pace slower than the average adult can walk. But there are no bargains to be had there when it comes to property.

According to the city’s urban and regional planning department, land prices have risen by more than 300% between 2000 and 2007, then at least another 350% by 2013 (and probably another one or two hundred percent since then).

“They are mad for land here. Everybody wants to get a piece of stock in the new country,” an English tech rep who had been based in Dhaka for the long haul explained to me.

This has lead to one of the highest wage-to-housing cost ratios in the world. Bangladesh’s median income is like 50-100 times lower than New York and London, but a piece of property costs about the same.

While in China, another country with an incredibly imbalanced wage-to-house price ratio, people can still afford to buy houses (90% home ownership rate), in Bangladesh it’s another story. Only 60% of urban houses in Bangladesh are owned by the people who live in them, and in Dhaka this rate is just 30%. Even in Calcutta, people statistically have a much easier time affording a home.

The rents are not cheap either. On average, people in Dhaka spend around 35% of their total income on rent.

Why is land so expensive in a country where almost everything else is relatively very cheap? The answer is simple: A) A lack of viable investment options push people into the property market, B) A massive influx of new wealth for a small segment of the population has caused a drastic disparity between the upper, land holding class and everybody else, and C) Investing in property is one of the prime ways of laundering illicitly received funds.

“Bangladesh has a really big black economy,” the tech rep explained. “So when you make money in it what are you going to do with it? Put it in the bank where everybody can easily find it and where it will depreciate? No, you buy land. They do this and the price just keeps going up and up and up. The land that this building is on would probably sell for $30 million.”

We were sitting in a relatively small, single tower apartment block in the Gulshan area of Dhaka — one of the most costly parts of the city, true, but $30 million is still an incredible price to pay.

“With the price of land being so high how can any developer make a profit building anything?” I asked.

“They don’t care about making a profit,” the tech rep replied. “They build because they need something to do with all their money.”

The tech rep then told me about a five star hotel at a golf course that he knew the background story of. He described the place as being immaculate, full of imported marble and just about every other luxury. The only thing that this place lacked were guests.

And the hotel had absolutely no problem with this at all.

“The only function it serves is to turn black money into white money,” the tech rep explained. “They need to be open to keep up appearances but they actually don’t want any guests to come. When they do happen to show up it’s turning white money into white money and they can’t launder as much as they would otherwise.”

This is a hallmark economic transaction of developing countries throughout Asia. We walk by these empty hotels, resorts, etc . . . and we mock them and call them failures and say things like, “How could they be so stupid as to build this here!?!” But we so often completely miss the point.

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Impressions Of Dhaka

Dhaka streets
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When I was on the plane descending down into Dhaka it occurred to me that I hadn’t really thought about the place too much. I have this experience surprisingly often. I figured that Bangladesh would be a slightly more depressed, more natural disaster ravaged version of India. I figured that the culture would be basically the same — a little more Muslim, a lot less Hindu, same, same South Asia. After all, not too long ago they were part of the same country.

However, after I stepped off the plane it did not take long before it became apparent that comparing Bangladesh to India was like comparing Germany to France. Sure, globally speaking they’re relatively similar — the countries are nearby, they share a border, have an overlapping history, the people look and dress kind of the same, eat similar foods . . . but for anyone who’s ever actually been there, the similarities quickly give way to the differences.

There is a real good feel in Bangladesh. The country is an absolute mess, the cities are perpetual salvage projects — the people cram all in together because the traffic is too bad for them to viably spread apart (otherwise it would take all day just to get to work), there are giant holes in the sidewalks revealing deep drops into treacherous storm sewers below, the police are in the business of bribes, but there is just this feeling of engagement that you really become aware of when you walk around here.

By engagement I mean it is easy to connect with other people, that you’re a part of the cityscape, that you’re — for lack of a better way of putting it — in touch.

In some cities of the world people just don’t really look at you as you move through the streets; your presence doesn’t seem to register in their consciousness. You can move through these places as though you’re watching them in a movie, that you’re not really there — and you may as well not be for all anyone cares. Social engagement becomes a challenge, and the fruits of travel are more difficult to obtain.

While in some other cities you feel hunted — hunted by touts, scammers, people trying to sell you shit, and others who have no qualms about sacrificing all semblance of self-respect because you ultimately don’t matter. You’re just a customer, and these places are more or less giant shops.

Bangladesh is right in the middle, right in that sweet spot that could be called genuine.

Nobody really bothers you in Dhaka. People look at you — a foreigner — but they often do so while smiling. People make eye contact when you pass in the streets, smiles and head nods are reciprocated, and sometimes strangers offer a polite hello. This place is, to put it simply, cool. Even in the central inferno of the capital city, Bangladesh walks slow.

There is no real tourism industry to speak of here, so you’re not demoted to money on legs. You’re just a person, and you’re treated like it. You can stop at a tea stall on a street corner, get a cup from the kid selling it there, and have a chat with the people who are hanging out. They don’t expect anything from you other than conversation. This anecdote, really, is the definition of good travel.

That said, the horrid state of traffic in Dhaka meant that I walked everywhere I could, and I quickly found that the benefit of this wasn’t just because it was faster.  There is good action everywhere here: colors, a melee of architecture, age-layered buildings, a kaleidoscope of faces, unexpected findings, and probably more memory-searing, WTF? kind of scenery per kilometer than almost anywhere else in the world.

“We get a lot of photographers here,” a friend in Dhaka told me. “Apparently, the word got out that you can point a camera at anything here and it will be a good picture.”

I like this place.

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It’s Not The Right Time In Azerbaijan

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I set up an interview with the director of a major logistics zone and SEZ in Baku. I arranged a time, computed the time difference, then confirmed.

“Just a note: this year we didn’t change our clocks to summer time, so the difference between us is only 8 hours,” the director wrote to me.

What was he talking about? The time on my Google calendar said that Azerbaijan is nine hours ahead. How could Google not know what time it is there?

Azerbaijan decided to cancel daylight savings time this year. The stated reasons are because they feel it’s biologically detrimental to human health or something like that. Whatever, the reason why they did this is not what’s of significance here.

What is interesting is that the official time in the country is no longer coordinated with anybody’s cloud-connected clocks. Google calendar, iPhones, iPads, BlackBerries, Android-based smartphones, laptops, smart watches, internet browsers — pretty much anything electronic jumped ahead an hour for a daylight savings time that wasn’t.

“So there was a confusion regarding the time for a day or two,” the director said. “When you look at your clock or watch and it shows six o’clock when it’s really five o’clock. So you may want to leave work early,” he joked.

The people of Azerbaijan adjusted to this pretty quickly, but this has caused a minor riff in how Azerbaijan — a keystone country on the cusp of Asia, the Middle East, and the West — interacts with anybody on the outside. Before any kind of meeting can be set up or event can be arrange it has to be communicated that the time our machines give us for Azerbaijan isn’t really the time it is there.

Our devices that we meticulously program to think for us and make our lives easier can become far more of an inconvenience if we actually trust them. While humans can simply adjust to arbitrary changes, our devices cannot. We use these things that we call “smart” because they’re supposed to be smarter than us, how how smart can something really be if it can’t even tell what time it is?

Ultimately, the moral to this tale is the same as in any human vs. machines story:

Humans are unpredictable, and unpredictability is something that machines have no tolerance for.

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The New Travel Strategy

Wade Shepard
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I have two modes of operation now: information collection and information processing. I travel in two month bursts through multiple countries doing research, interviews, and collecting content, then I sit in a room for the next month writing about it all.

One mode cannot exist without the other, and it’s really not efficient or effective to try to do them both at the same time.

I used to travel and publish continuously, but both of these activities were far less demanding then than they are now. I would travel slow, spend a month here, three months there, two weeks back here, and write and publish as I went. I took out time each day where I would sit and work, processing my notes into blog posts and articles.

Ultimately, I now basically do the same thing, only the two phases of this operation have now been separated. I travel fast, rarely spending over a few days in each location, and fill my days with meetings, visits, and other on-the-ground, intel collecting activities. There isn’t much time to sit inside and write — it’s full blown contact all the time. Then I return to a base of operations, write, and publish.

As I previously explained in an interview on RolfPotts.com:

I eventually realized that if I was ever going to successfully complete larger projects, such as books or working for larger publications, I was going to have to start setting up longer term bases of operation — places that I have all set up and fully stocked that I can come back to after research trips and jump right into writing. So I now rent out apartments by the year within regions that I’m focusing on. I spend around ten days to two weeks per month out traveling, experiencing what I’m writing about first hand, and then the rest of the month in the home base researching, writing articles, blog posts, and chapters for books, as well as setting up projects for the next time I’m out traveling. Of course, these bases of operation have a tendency of being on the beaches of subtropical islands.

These two separate phases suit my character. I’m most comfortable waking up in the morning, beginning one thing and doing that one thing until I go to bed at night. The vacillation of these phases keeps that “one thing” fresh and engaging. I go out and travel hard until I’m worn and weary and ready for a break, then I find a room to hid in, where I work until I can’t take it anymore.



Where the base of operations that I set up in are located is almost irrelevant. The only thing I do there is sit at a desk, staring at four walls and a laptop. Honestly, the less interesting the place is the better.

The irony of travel writing is that it’s best done from a desk.

More from the interview on RolfPotts.com:

When in interesting locations the last thing you want to be doing is spending time in your room on your laptop. But if you don’t put in that time then you’re going to be vastly unprepared to do anything of significance when in the streets. Setting up research projects, getting in touch with the right people, scheduling interviews, and doing pre-contact research takes a massive amount time, but it’s an integral part of travel writing. While, conversely, you need to be out in the streets talking to people to really get to know a place and obtain the depth of experience needed to write deeply about it.

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New Silk Road Documentary

The tracks leading to China on one side and Europe on the other at Kazakhstan's Khorgos Gateway, one of the premier projects of the New Silk Road. Image: Khorgos Gateway.
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It’s now official enough to start talking about a little: I’m now assisting with a big, seven part documentary series about the New Silk Road. It’s called The Best of All Worlds, and is being made by Malcolm Clarke, Yi Han, and Lorenz Knauer — big documentary film makers who have won numerous awards . . . like Oscars.

I was very familiar with the films that Yi Han in particular had worked on. As far as documentaries about China go, they are modern classics: The Last Train Home, China Heavyweight… Malcolm Clarke doesn’t need my introduction, and Lorez, well, he spends his time hanging out with Jane Goodall.

So I knew who they were when they first reached out to me 10 or so months ago — which is interesting because the only thing that I’d published about my New Silk Road project at that point was a blog post that simply stated that I was doing it. Apparently, one of their researchers found it and got in touch. I took that as a very good sign that their research team works with a very fine toothed comb.

It started out as a research partnership. We’d both be traveling the same routes researching the same thing for the next couple of years, so why not work together? I’d share my notes and contacts with them for their film and they’d share their notes and contacts with me for my book.

Then it grew from there. We talked a little. We talked some more. We met up in Montreal a few months ago. We went back and forth on my role. I was invited in to be a researcher. I asked if I could be included in the film. They said maybe.

Partially, I wanted to be in the film because it would be a good promotion for my book, partially because it sounded like fun, and partially because I’ve always told my wife that I was going to be featured in a documentary someday and she never believed me.

My official role is Senior Research Consultant. Basically, I do anything I can to help and hopefully there will be an opportunity or two to learn a few things along the way.

“You’re poor, that’s why you can do what you do,” Malcolm said to me at one point during our meeting in Montreal. “If we were to send someone out to do research like you’re doing it would cost a ridiculous amount of money. That’s why we need people like you.”

I don’t feel as if I’m being taken advantage of when I hear people say this. I’ve heard this often, and I know this is my wild card.

I can travel cheaper and stay longer than anybody. I don’t require an expense account. I don’t clip receipts and push for reimbursements. I fund myself because I have the means to make travel profitable. I can go anywhere, stay for as long as I want, live cheap, collect experiences, observations, information, and at the end of the day I usually have more money than when I started. Travel has transitioned from an expense to an investment. Each day on the road I’m acquiring something that I can resell at a higher price. This is my business, it’s my competitive advantage, it’s what I can offer that others can’t — it’s my way of being useful.

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Dhaka traffic
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My first day in Dhaka I thought that I would act professional and hire a car to go to my meeting. But this plan backfired fabulously. Rather than zipping across the city at a speed worthy of a vehicle propelled by an internal combustion engine, a half hour later I found myself sitting at an intersection hardly two blocks from where I was picked up.

All around me was a melee of gridlock. A battle scarred bus to my right would creep forward a tire rotation every two or three minutes, a tuk-tuk driver to my left stared idly into the screen of his phone, while my driver engaged in an extended haggling session with a street vendor over the greasy front axle he was trying to sell to people sitting in idle vehicles. Nobody was going anywhere. I inched my way across Dhaka, ultimately covering a few kilometers in nearly two hours.

Talking about how bad the traffic is in Dhaka seems to be the new way of saying hello. Where the usual stop-and-chat often consists of saying something like, “Oh, it’s a lovely day, isn’t it?,” in Dhaka it’s more like, “Oh, today’s traffic is so bad, it took me over two hours to get to . . .”

Dhaka has been called the traffic capital of the world, and the World Bank has asked if it is even possible to build the city out of its traffic congestion. The traffic problem in Dhaka has been going on for 10 to 15 years. This is nothing new. The start of the globalism age dumped an overflowing deluge of cars into streets that simply were not made to contain them. Carrying capacity was quickly met, then exceeded, then exceeded some more until the city became what it is today: completely broken.

“Dhaka is a totally unplanned city,” spoke the marketing director of the Asian Age newspaper as we sat entrapped in their company vehicle in a stagnant puddle of un-moving traffic later on that day.

Dhaka traffic (2)

My first couple trips around Dhaka I made a newbie faux pas by asking in advance how long the rides should take.

“It could take a half hour or it could take two hours. There’s no way to tell.”

This was always the reply.

Complaining about the traffic in cities undergoing the first wave of globalization can come off as cliche. The traffic is bad everywhere in South and Southeast Asia. But the traffic in Dhaka was really something special. Easily, it was the worst that I’ve seen in 16 years of travels that have often been centered on developing countries.

The place just doesn’t work.

This isn’t only a major impediment to life but business as well. This isn’t a place that you can fly into, have a business meeting, and then fly out. No, it can seriously take a quarter of a work day just to get downtown from the airport. It is simply impossible to get anybody or anything around this city efficiently — including workers, who must cram into the urban core because they can’t live in the suburbs if they want to make it to work at some point during the day. You can’t quickly get products in and out, the entire supply chain of the place is perpetually disrupted. You can’t even plan a meeting and expect it to actually begin anywhere near the start time.

“If you have a meeting at 10 am nobody is going to show up until noon,” an English businessman based in the city told me. “They’re all going to blame it on the traffic.”

Workers here often find themselves stuck on the road instead of inside their offices during work hours, and many have simply adapted by working in their cars. A friend there told me that he specifically hired a driver just so he can get work done in the passenger seat when stuck in traffic for hours and hours. The mobile office here is being taken to an entirely new level.

Dhaka traffic (3)

There are financial repercussions to this traffic as well. In terms of pollution and delays alone, the cost of Dhaka’s traffic congestion is estimated to be $3.8 billion per year.

If you ask someone in Dhaka what the country’s biggest issue is they probably won’t say sweatshops or sanitation or education or any of the other things the NGOs like to go there to fix, but traffic. Dhaka’s traffic problem isn’t something that the people there are so accustomed to that they view it as normal — no, they know it’s fucked; they know that cars are supposed to move faster than pedestrians.

There will be 21 million trips made in Dhaka today. Buses, cars, tuk-tuks, bicycle rickshaws, and pedestrians all compete for road space. Navigable sidewalks are rare — even where there is a separate sidewalk it is often used as parking space for cars or is in such disrepair that it is more dangerous to walk on it than in the road.

As I sat in traffic at an intersection in the consulate zone I was able to make a video of some guys installing an electrical line from start to finish. They were pulling wires directly over the cars without regard for the fact that they were mobile entities that could move at anytime. The entire installation process took around 10 minutes, but they didn’t seem worried that they were working right in traffic. They knew we weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

I watched as pedestrians were able to move around the car I was sitting in and on towards their respective destinations, and I found myself envious. The next time I go somewhere here, I promised myself, I too will walk.

It was faster.

Dhaka is probably the only city in the world where being given a lift is an inconvenience.

Dhaka traffic (4)

Flyovers are the great solution the government has come up with here. So huge concrete elevated overpasses are being constructed all over the city. They are national projects and seem to be used as a way of showing “the people” that their government is responding to one of their biggest needs. All over the partitioning walls of these construction sites are pictures of the president and slogans about glorious futures and all that.

However, many urban designers and lay people in Dhaka seem to view these fly-overs as redundant and obsolete half measures rather than a true fix for the core problems.

“The problem is all the trucks and buses on the road but the trucks and buses are too heavy to go on the fly overs, so why build them?” one resident queried.

According to a blogger at the World Bank, adding these fly-overs may even intensify the problem:

For many years, many cities in the world did try to build more roads to relief traffic jams after motorization took place. However, no city has been able to build itself out of congestion. In fact, allocating more urban land to roads means you have to reduce the portion of land allocated for other urban functions, such as housing, industrial, commercial and entertainment. What has also been widely recognized is that building more roads does NOT reduce traffic congestion. It would actually induce more motorized traffic and thus create more traffic congestion.

The irony of Dhaka is that it’s rapid development and progress has led to its biggest barrier to development and progress. This is a city that has developed itself into gridlock, and unraveling this knot defines the place at this juncture.

Dhaka traffic (5)

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I was a guest on an episode of Skylines, the new CityMetric podcast, that was published on Friday. I talk a little about China’s new city building movement as well as how the ghost city narrative was created. I get a little . . . well, dynamic at times — it’s easy to get excitable when you finally have the opportunity to actually talk about you’ve been researching for three years. You can listen to the podcast below.

CityMetric is the urbanism site of the New Statesman. I’m their defacto China correspondent, and write a monthly article for them.

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