In Bangladesh, a rickshaw ban for major Dhaka city roads spurs protests and debate

Rickshaw of Dhaka recorded at Guinness World Records 2015 making heading "most cycle rickshaw in one town". In Dhaka city about 6 Lac rickshaw available.15 million people are living in Dhaka city and 40% people travelling in the city by rickshaw. Image by blackthorne57 used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Rickshaws in Dhaka. Image by blackthorne57 used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is known as the bicycle rickshaw capital of the world. In the past five decades, rickshaws have been integral to Dhaka's commuting and short-distance travel. Dhaka is one of the most densely populated cities in the world and it has long struggled to handle the increasing volumes of traffic.

ban on rickshaws from traversing three major expressways came into effect starting on 7 July in an attempt to address the increasing traffic congestion in the city. However, the ban was met by protests from rickshaw pullers and some commuters. The decision to ban bicycle rickshaws from some major roads has caused many to debate the traffic issues affecting the capital and question the lack of alternatives for commuters.

Eco-friendly, but a traffic nightmare:

There are an estimated 600,000 rickshaws in the city, though less than 100,000 are licensed. They are eco-friendly, slow, and less prone to accidents. But the mixture of rickshaws, auto-rickshaws (or three-wheelers), motorcycles, buses, and cars on the road makes for chaotic and unpredictable traffic. There are often no separate rickshaw lanes separating this slow traffic on most of Dhaka's roads.

Rickshaw traffic in Dhaka. Image via Flickr by Sandro Lacarbona. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The authorities barred all cycle rickshaws and other unauthorized motorized rickshaws such as battery-operated rickshaws in three important roadways and decided to replace them with extended bus service.

Is a ban on rickshaws the solution?

Subsequent to the announcement, public controversy surfaced as several thousand rickshaw-pullers took to the streets to protest and others expressed concern through their social media platforms. For several days, the demonstrators occupied major roads causing severe congestion that spilled over into nearby areas.

The Rickshaw-pullers are saying that the ban was passed without providing an alternate income or income rehabilitation program for them.

Besides rickshaw-pullers, the owners who make a living from renting these three-wheelers also joined the demonstrations and held press conferences putting forth an ultimatum for the official withdrawal of the ban. They complained that the authorities did not talk to them and arbitrarily imposed the bans.

Commuters also expressed their frustrations regarding the difficulties they will face while traveling, suggesting other measures that could have been taken instead of (or prior to) imposing the ban out of the blue, such as providing a rickshaw lane or creating better public transportation systems, while limiting the number of private cars allowed on the road.

Facebook user Dewan Maruf Shuvo writes:

রিকশা বন্ধ হয়ে গেলে আমি চড়ব কিসে, এটা যেমন চিন্তার বিষয়। তেমনি এই লক্ষ লক্ষ মানুষের কর্মসংস্থানের কথাও চিন্তা করা লাগবে।

If Rickshaws are banned I need to find out what alternative ways I can commute. And we need to think of alternative incomes of these hundreds of thousands of people (rickshaw pullers).

In a separate argument, experts and urban planners stressed having an “integrated communication system” based on multi-mode transport, stating the need for adequate alternatives to rickshaws as a mode of public transportation.

Bangladesh Institute of Planners (BIP) organized a press conference in the capital to collectively discuss the outcomes of the announced ban. At present, rickshaws account for approximately 40 percent of Dhaka's transportation methods, its usefulness contributes to its widespread popularity.

Although making roads off-limits to rickshaws can be a temporary remedy, traffic congestion will not ease up if the restriction is not imposed on private cars.

On the other hand, people supportive of the decision laid out a different set of arguments in favor of the ban on social media platforms.

Facebook user Sumon Khan wrote:

#রিকশা জাস্ট মেইন রোডে চলাচল নিষেধ করা হয়েছে। মেইন রোড থেকে ২৫/৩০ ফিট ভিতরে গলি রয়েছে সেখানে চালানো তো নিষেধ করে নাই। তাই না জেনে মন্তব্য, সমালোচনা করা ঠিক না।

The Rickshaw ban is only meant for the main roads. There are many lanes and sub-lanes where they can still ply (in short distances). So get all the information before criticizing something.

Mohammad Tauheed, a TED Senior Fellow and the Academic Coordinator at Bengal Institute myth busted some of the opinions floating on social media:

রিকশা মিথ

১. রিকশা জরুরি:
মোটেই না। ? হাঁটুন! ঢাকা শহরের সকল রিকশায় চড়া দূরত্বই হাঁটার যোগ্য দূরত্ব। [..]
২. রিকশা গরিবের বাহন:
রিকশা ভাড়া উবার প্রিমিয়ামের কাছাকাছি এখন [..]
৩. রিকশাওয়ালারা গরিব, অসহায়:
রিকশাওয়ালারা তেমন গরিব নয়। তাঁদের মাসিক আয় ২০ হাজার টাকার উপরে, যা অনেক চকচকে অফিসে নতুন যোগ দেওয়া স্নাতক বেতন হিসেবে পান না। [..]

Rickshaw myths:

1. Rickshaw is necessary:
Not at all! ?Just walk! The short distances you ride on rickshaws are walkable.
2. Rickshaws are commuters for the poor:
Rickshaw fares these days are are close to the rate of Uber Premium.
3. Rickshaw pullers are poor, helpless:
Wrong. They are not that poor. Some of them earn more than 20,000 BDT (USD $237) per month, which is more than the salary of a graduate joining a new job.

The authorities have urged the rickshaw-pullers to stop protesting and invited them for more discussions. They also vowed to make Dhaka rickshaw free in the next two years.

The 20.10 kilometers long Dhaka's Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) metro rail service is expected to open on 2021. Until then, the solution to the complex traffic problem in Dhaka would remain elusive.

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