In Bangladesh, Cycling to Break Free of Dhaka's Notorious Traffic

Traffic jam is a regular feature in Dhaka city. Image by Firoz Ahmed. Copyright: Demotix (25/7/2012)

Traffic jams are a regular feature in Dhaka. Image by Firoz Ahmed. Copyright Demotix (25/7/2012)

Dhaka is a city rich in history, having been established more than 400 years ago. It is the capital of Bangladesh, with nearly 18 million people residing in its 350 square kilometers.

It is also one of the most unlivable cities in the world, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, and its extreme traffic congestion contributes a lot to this fame. Any visitor to Dhaka will be quick to notice the backed up lines of cars moving at a crawl. The city simply can’t handle the increasing volumes of traffic, and it is a source of stress for many.

Now, some people are finding relief by cycling to break out of the traffic deadlock.

One of them is Palash Ranjan Sanyal. He wrote on the Dhaka Tribune blog:

One morning, I was waiting for to take a rickshaw to the university I attended and I was getting late for the exam that had been scheduled for that day. I waited, waited and waited…

Then suddenly I had the idea that I could use my bicycle. I did that and it took me only ten minutes to get the university, a journey that would usually take about half an hour.

That was it. The start. From that day, I cycle everywhere. It saves enormous amount of time and money. Some days, I do not have my wallet on me and I don’t even notice it.

Riding a bicycle is also the preferred alternative for blogger Sandhi [bn]. He wrote at cadetcollageblog:

ঢাকা শহরের অবস্থা দিন দিন যেদিকে এগুচ্ছে, বাসে বা রিক্সায় চলাফেরা করাটা যেমন কষ্টসাধ্য, তেমন ব্যয়বহুল। আর জ্যামে বসে থেকে তো নাভিশ্বাস উঠে যায় মানুষের। তার মাঝে আমার সাইকেলখানা যেন স্বর্গের বাহন রূপে দেখা দিল। হল থেকে ক্লাস, রাত-বিরাতে বাইরে খেতে যাওয়া, গৃহশিক্ষকতায় এত কম সময়ে, কম কষ্টে সহজে পৌঁছানোর এত সুন্দর উপায় খুঁজে পেয়ে আমার জীবনে যেন স্বস্তি নেমে আসল।

Day after day Dhaka is becoming a hellish city where moving by rickshaw or bus is difficult. It’s also costly. Most of the people feel severe stress when they are sitting in the middle of the road because of a traffic jam. In these circumstances, my bicycle seems like a gift from God. Now going to class from my hall, going outside for a midnight snack or for tuition has become much easier thanks to my bicycle. I’m happy to have discovered this beautiful solution.

A cycle procession on Dhaka University campus, for World Cycling Day 2012 and demanding a lane for cycle riders in the Dhaka streets. Image by Firoz Ahmed. Copyright Demotic (18/9/2012)

A cycle procession on Dhaka University campus for World Cycling Day 2012 and to demand a lane for cyclists on Dhaka streets. Image by Firoz Ahmed. Copyright Demotix (18/9/2012)

Bicycle revolution

Bicycles have been used in Dhaka for years. But the “revolution on two wheels” began in 2011.

Mozammed Haque, the founder of cycling association BDCyclists, is a prime figure behind this revolution. He is a software engineer by profession. During his daily commute, he used to waste one to one and half hours each day due to traffic congestion, so he decided to travel to the office by bicycle.

Soon, his colleagues and others joined in. They formed BDCyclists, which has been mainly active on Facebook. In three years, more than 35,000 members have joined the group to discuss things related to cycling and to network among themselves. From the website of this community:

We are neither an elite athlete group, nor people who are training to compete in races. We are just general people like you who is either a student, a service holder, a business person having a common goal of staying healthy in this stressful Dhaka life and ride for recreation, health, and sheer fun.

Bdcyclists organizes several bicycle rides every week, with titles like bike Friday, critical mass, joshila Saturday, BDC nightriders, beginner’s lesson, and annual grand race. The 10-20 kilometer rides attract as many as 4,000 cyclists.

Now, Bdcyclists is campaigning to turn Dhaka into a “bicycle city” within the next few years. Blogger Aminul Islam Sajib shares how he enjoyed his first session with the BDCyclists community:

I’m not a rider yet, still I feel like starting to get out. I haven’t begun cycling yet, still I had so much fun at today’s session that I can actually imagine how fun it would be to go out on an actual ride.

Here is a video on YouTube shared by Iqbal Hossain, a member of the community:

Girl power

In a country where girls are leered at when they are simply walking down the street, it’s truly inspiring that BDCyclists have more than 100 active female members who take ownership of the streets alongside their male counterparts on bicycles.

Blogger JaJabar Backpacker [bn] lives outside Dhaka and is a teacher by profession. She wrote about her experience with bicycles in Sachalayatan:

আমাদের আবাসিক এলাকার কাছেই আর একটা এলাকা আছে, সেটা ঠিক বস্তি নয়, দিনমজুর-গেরস্ত নানারকম মানুষ থাকেন। কেউ কেউ মোটামুটি ভালোই জীবনযাপন করেন, গরু-ছাগল পোষেন। গত বছর নতুন সাইকেল কেনার পরপরই ঐদিকে গিয়েছিলাম রাস্তা এক্সপোর করতে। বারদুয়েক চক্কর দেয়ার পরে তৃতীয়বার দেখি টিন-ছনের ঘরগুলোর কাছে একটা ছোটখাটো জটলা। সেখানে ছোট-বড়-বুড়ো সকলেই আছেন। আমি কাছে যেতেই হাসি দিলো কয়েকজন, কোনরকম ঠাট্টা নয়, উত্সাহজনক হাসি রীতিমতো।

Near our residential quarter we have an area where working people live. But this is not a slum. Some of them have fairly good living standards. They raise cattle. Last year, I went to explore this area with my new bicycle. After going round the area twice, I noticed that some people had gathered and they were watching me. When I came closer to them, they greeted me with encouraging smiles.

The growing demand for bikes has increased twenty fold, and the government has welcomed the trend. What Dhaka needs now are dedicated bike lanes, a tough request when swarming pedestrians and street vendors occupy the footpaths and even spill over into traffic lanes.

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