In the past two years I’ve lived in Bangladesh, I’ve spent a lot of time riding on rickshaws. I ride them to get to the center of town for shopping. I’ve ridden them for a hour to get from a town to the border. When my hand was broken, I would go 40 minutes on them to get to the Bogra office. It’s a bit difficult sometimes to negotiate a fair price but when I sit on a rickshaw I think it’s a great way to travel. It allows you to sit and think, it’s more peaceful than riding in a car and more environmentally friendly. Sometimes it’s a bit bumpy but for the most part it’s an enjoyable way way to travel. The biggest frustration is the cars which honk at you. They make so much noise and are smelly and go so fast. It’s easy to get angry at them.
Rickshaws are somewhat controversial in Bangladesh. I sometimes ride in a car, and riding in a car one seems to wait on rickshaws a lot. Bangladeshi’s, especially wealthy ones, really dislike rickshaws. They view them as symbolic of a poor underdeveloped country. They are very understandably perceived as the source of delays and traffic jams. Interestingly enough the people who have studied transportation claim that moving people is a function of space and speed. Using those metrics Rickshaws are actually quite a bit more efficient than cars at moving people around.
I haven’t had to drive a rickshaw to earn my keep, so I don’t think I can fully tell that story, but I can tell you that the mechanics of the rickshaw aren’t ideal. Because it’s converted from a bicycle the geometry is wrong, the seat is in the wrong place and the handle bars are difficult to turn. The gearing of the drive train is also wrong. It’s generally 61 gear inches which means that it feels like pedaling up a hill in your highest gear. When all of this comes together you have a machine which is really hard on the pullers body. Gill Bedford one of my coworkers in Dhaka worked with Rickshaw pullers and tells me that it’s a job you can do for 15 years. After that your body is broken.
If we step back from the situation a bit we can start to understand the socio-economic situation that puts rickshaws, cars and busses together. Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world. There are a few city states more densely populated, but as country it’s the most denses. One hundred and sixty four million people living in an area the size of Illinois. 80% of the population works in agriculture and 70% of the land is used for agriculture, so roads are made as narrow as possible and in that space traffic patterns seem to be based on the game of Chicken.
So here are several different ways to look at at situation. Where you sit affects how you think and that place might be creating problems for someone else, just as they might create problems for you. Ek hate tali baje na – You can’t clap with one hand.