Photo essay: Congestion, pollution, and road safety in Dhaka
Dhaka is the most densely populated city in the world, with 30,093 residents per square kilometre. Bangladesh’s capital has a vast history, with people living on the banks of the Buriganga River for more than a thousand years. It was a flourishing city in the Mughal dynasty. It’s been the capital of East Pakistan and boomed when Bangladesh gained independence in 1971.
Its megacity status was reached in the years thereafter, as Dhaka grew — mostly organically — and its development continues today. It’s a very congested city, regularly ranking as one of the world’s most polluted cities, and air pollution continues to rise. Because of congestion, traffic sometimes moves at just 5 km/h, and commuters frequently alight from their transport to walk to their destination. Alas, this isn’t without danger — there’s little to no regard for road signage, traffic signals, and pedestrian safety in Dhaka. The slow-moving traffic makes for unpredictable journey times. Commuting time can range from under half an hour to two hours, entirely dependent on the number of vehicles on the road on a given day.
With an average speed of 5 km/h in central Dhaka, accidents are rarely serious. Nonetheless, there are other risks: 94% of women commuting on public transport face verbal or physical harassment, and drivers are frequently aggressive.
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Road recklessness is visible on vehicles too. The majority of buses in Dhaka have dents, scrapes, and scratches. Moreover, vehicle condition is generally poor. Tyres are worn, engines are loud, and windshields are cracked. As a result of regular accidents, air pollution, and a lack of formal infrastructure, vehicle lifespan is short — just seven years. Despite the heavy traffic and frequent bumps, road conditions are remarkably good, and there are minimal potholes.
Bangladesh’s busy buses
There are several bus operating companies in Dhaka, distinguishable by operator name and bus design, and many bus companies are franchised to operate the same routes — from origin to destination. The franchise list maintained by the Dhaka City Corporation is out of date, with 143 bus operators or routes no longer operational — but new routes have sprung up. There’s a difference between local bus services and direct bus services. Local bus services allow passengers to board and alight anywhere along a route and are often cheaper than direct bus services because of slower travel time. They tend to be overcrowded and poorly maintained, especially compared to the direct bus services.
Direct bus services are somewhat more formal — they only permit hailing at designated stops, officially, but may pick up passengers anywhere along the route during off-peak times and when fairly empty. Almost all bus stations are informal, managed by one or two ticket vendors with small stalls or by bus operator representatives. There are no written timetables, and departures are called out by the ticket vendor.
Taking to the water
The Buriganga River continues to play an important role in Dhaka. A victim of immense pollution, the river is a bustling waterway and an alternative to the slow pace on the roads. There are nouka — rowing boats, motorised nouka — engine boats, and water taxis — fibreglass-hulled boats. Noukas are the cheapest but slowest and most perilous option, and there are tales of them tipping over when near large ships. Engine boats are simple but effective, and the water taxis are a modern, fast service in the Hatirjheel area.
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To board a nouka or engine boat, you have to pay a terminal entry fee to enter the harbour. This is separate from the actual boat ticket, and traditional harbours are informal areas with minimal infrastructure, meaning boarding isn’t always straightforward. The Hatirjheel water taxi, in comparison, offers a standardised ticket system and a more developed infrastructure, with walkways, passenger seats, and shelters operated by the Bangladesh Army.
An easier option for shorter distances
On-demand rickshaws are primarily used for shorter distances — either as a first or last mile mode of transport, or when travelling with heavy goods, or as a feeder service. These rickshaws have hoods, and women often use them instead of walking in dangerous districts. Most trips are up to 4 km long, and cost between 13–18৳ per km, on average. Easy bikes look similar to rickshaws, but are electric three-wheelers used for short distances outside of central Dhaka, with a capacity for five passengers. They’re often charged overnight (with a six to seven hour charging time) to ensure a full battery for the next day.
For shorter to medium distances, legunas are used. These are converted mini trucks that accommodate between 11 and 14 passengers, but they have a reputation for being unsafe and unstable — like the nouka, they have a tendency to tip over.
To reach Dhaka city — and the central train station of Kamalapur, rail services are used by commuters. On the northern line to Gazipur, there are both commuter and intercity trains, both of which stop at designated stations. However, the schedule is often unreliable, with trains often arriving a quarter of an hour earlier — or later — than the scheduled time.
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