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City Places for City People
Banning Common Sense: Dhaka and Its Cycle Rickshaws

by Syed Saiful Alam (May, 2011)

A new wave of rickshaw bans has just occurred in Dhaka, Bangladesh--a city where cycle rickshaws are not quaint holdovers but a vital element of the transportation network. How appropriate were those bans? How sound are the arguments against cycle rickshaws?

The cycle rickshaw has for decades been attacked by the media and others in Bangladesh as being slow, causing traffic jams and thus congestion, being an inhuman occupation for the pullers, and holding Dhaka back from modernization. Just how true are those claims?

First, does the experience with cycle rickshaw bans to date suggest that such bans effectively reduce traffic congestion? On the contrary--even government reports show that cycle rickshaw bans do nothing to improve traffic, and sometimes traffic speed even further deteriorates following rickshaw bans. In addition, people’'s travel cost as well as time increase. Are VIP roads free of traffic congestion? Will the government blame cycle rickshaws for congestion until there are no cycle rickshaws left, and then what will they blame?

Cities around the world with no cycle rickshaws waste millions of dollars in lost time and wasted fuel due to traffic jams caused entirely by cars. Why are we so eager to join them?

Are cycle rickshaws slow? Government reports indicate that in many cases, it is faster to walk than to take a bus. Average car speed in many Asian cities is no greater than the speed of a cycle rickshaw. The fact that cars can on empty streets move faster than cycle rickshaw is meaningless in Dhaka traffic situations, except in the danger it implies: when cars race on empty roads, they regularly kill pedestrians. How many fatal accidents are caused by cycle rickshaws ?

Meanwhile, congestion makes cars slow; too many cars cause congestion. Cycle rickshaws not only do not kill pedestrians, but they play a very important role in reducing pollution, as they themselves are completely emission-free vehicles, even when stuck in traffic.

It is not just the (potential) speed of a vehicle that matters; vehicles also take up space when parked. Cars are typically parked for most of the day, so the road or other valuable urban space they occupy is the space not only on the streets when moving but space for parking space.

Imagine taking a series of short trips around Dhaka by car: everywhere you go, you must park the car somewhere. Although many apartment units now have car parking, they do not allow visitors to use the spaces, even if the lot is empty. So parked cars clutter the streets. As an alternative, we could work on turning our city into a series of high-rise parking lots (as Bangkok has done, much to the detriment of its liveability), or we could maintain a city with many urban amenities by reducing car parking and making conditions good for taking short trips by rickshaw, which require little space when parked and in any case spend most of the day carrying people about.

How inhuman is the business of pedaling a cycle rickshaw? It might not be a profession most of you reading this article would like to have, but neither is it likely you would wish to spend hours a day standing in water, bent at the waist, transplanting rice. The measure of whether a profession is inhuman is not whether or not we are willing to engage in it, but rather what those working in it feel about it and what their alternatives are.

Cycle rickshaw pulling is a huge source of needed jobs; the pullers themselves clearly prefer it to begging or starving. Further, unlike many other professions, it is fairly well-paid, involves a good deal of independence, and gives the pullers a chance to choose their hours and to rest when they wish. It is thus far less inhuman than many other professions. What is inhuman is denying people the right to earn a living.

How well can we manage without the cycle rickshaw in Dhaka? It is important to remember that many trips taken are short. Does it make sense to wait 10-20 minutes for a bus in order to travel 3 kilometres? What if you have many destinations: say a woman taking her child to school, going to a shop, visiting a relative, going home, then going back to pick up her child? If she had to buy separate bus tickets for each trip segment, the expense would be exorbitant. No wonder 41% of trips to take children to school occur by rickshaw; it is a safe, convenient, and affordable form of door-to-door transport.

As for walking as an alternative, we are all for it: but first there needs to be a better environment for walking. The problems faced by those on foot in Dhaka are numerous: footpaths in bad condition, often occupied by parked cars, and used at times by motorbikes; lack of safe street crossings; bad smells due to the lack of public toilets; lack of safety at night; and the exposure to continual fumes and noise from the traffic on the streets. Cycle rickshaws provide a fairly pleasant alternative to the dismal business of walking in Dhaka; it is unfair to the middle class to take away that option in the assumption that they should either buy a car or suffer on buses, which themselves involve a number of obstacles to comfortable travel and of course only operate on certain routes, causing problems for those traveling with children, carrying heavy items, and so on.

Speaking of the popularity of cycle rickshaws , it is helpful to compare the percentage of trips that occur by rickshaw versus car. No measures have been taken to ban cars from narrow lanes, despite the obvious fact that cars create congestion in the lanes, blocking the easy movement of hundreds of people traveling by cycle rickshaw. Far from it: the building code is insisting on the provision of ever more car parking, providing incentive for ever more cars, even on narrow streets. But how popular is the car versus theCycle rickshaw?

According to the latest government figures, for overall trips in the Dhaka Metropolitan Area and Dhaka City Corporation, 4-5% are made by car versus 29-39% by cycle rickshaw. As mentioned, 41% of trips to school occur by rickshaw; only 4% are taken by car (yet cars already create hideous congestion around schools and during the times when children go to and from school). While car use is far higher among the wealthy (here defined as those earning over 50,000 taka per month), at 18% of trips, that figure is still dwarfed by rickshaw trips: 35% of trips taken by the wealthy are by cycle rickshaw. That is, cycle rickshaws account for twice the number of trips as cars even among the wealthier, and up to ten times as many trips overall. If it is so important to ban vehicles due to the congestion they create, why on earth is it the rickshaw that is being banned?

Finally, are cycle rickshaws an antiquated vehicle that should be relegated to the past, or instead a glowing emblem of modernity? The most modern, attractive, liveable cities are mostly in western Europe. A significant portion of trips in those cities – say, 30-50% or more – occurs by bicycle. European cities, as well as growing numbers of cities in Australia and North America, promote the bicycle in order to reduce traffic congestion, fumes, noise, and travel expense, and to increase the attractiveness and liveability of cities.

What after all is a cycle rickshaw but a three-wheeled bicycle. Given the related catastrophes of climate change, peak oil, obesity, and lack of physical activity, governments around the world are trying to get people out of their cars. It is the low-income cities of the world that are heading in the opposite direction, laying out the red carpet for cars while making life difficult and unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists. Why are policymakers in Dhaka insistent on making things worse for the city rather than better? If we really want to reduce traffic congestion, we must do what city after city around the world has been forced to do: actively work to reduce travel by car and increase travel by other means.

Years ago, an international transport expert referred to Dhaka’'s modal share as “enviable”: few cars and many rickshaws. Rather than appreciate what we had and work to make things even better, we are instead working to increase traffic congestion, noise, fumes, and expense, and to make moving about the city more difficult for the non-car-owning majority.

It is also interesting to note that the latest rickshaw bans occurred after government decisions to limit car use through a variety of measures. To the best of our knowledge, none of those measures has been implemented to date, while other measures to encourage car use continue. What was done instead, despite significant media attention over the last few years to the problem of private cars, was to ban rickshaws from various streets. Clearly the decision was based on prejudice, not any technical understanding of the situation. It allows the government to say that it is doing something to improve traffic, while only making matters worse, because politically it is difficult to put into place measures to reduce the vehicle preferred by a tiny portion of the most wealthy and powerful.

But it is wrong to believe that only cycle rickshaw pullers are upset by the bans. Dhaka residents have long suffered for the various bans that have been put into place over the years: witness the long lines of people attempting to go to and from New Market by cycle rickshaw, or the anger of women in focus groups discussing the rickshaw bans on Mirpur Road. Of course people want safe, convenient, comfortable transport. People also vote. It is not wise to anger the masses through such wrong-minded decisions.

It is time to raise our voices in support of smart traffic planning: to ensure that all people, not just those with a car, can move about safely and conveniently; that non-polluting modes are given priority; and that international experience in addressing traffic congestion is put to good use here. It is time to say no to further rickshaw bans, to overturn the recent ones, and to work together to make Dhaka a city in which people can move about safely, comfortably, and conveniently on foot, on 2- and 3-wheeled bicycles (including rickshaws), and on public transport. We would all benefit from the improved air quality, safety, and convenience.

Syed Saiful Alam