The Traffic Ecosystem of Dhaka
A few weeks ago, I hit a goat with my bicycle.
Let me preface the aforementioned incident with an explanation. Danielle and I use bicycles as our primary mode of transportation through the gritty streets of Dhaka. When we first purchased our bikes in October, each time I wheeled onto the street my heart would pound with excitement and my bloodstream would course with adrenaline. Now, almost a year later, each time I pedal onto Dhaka streets, my senses still heighten to an almost supernatural level of sensitivity. I keep my head on a swivel, listen for the slightest changes in the noise around me and even rely on rancid smells to alert me to incoming gutters.
The more I pedal through Dhaka’s traffic, the more I realize that it functions a bit like an ecosystem. There are unspoken rules that result in a sort of food chain that I thought could be useful in cataloging my Dhaka street experience. I wish I had some animation skills, so I could create something more visually appealing, but I suppose language will have to suffice. Here is the Dhaka Traffic Food Chain…in text form!
1. The Environment: The streets in Dhaka are filled with trash of various sizes and smells. The streets have massive cracks, deep pot holes and copious amounts of junk. Oozing gutters filled with sewage line the roads, police barriers bristling with barbed wire jut out randomly into the street. These and a myriad of other random obstacles could lead to your downfall if you don’t pay close attention. I suppose that, in our food chain metaphor, the state of the Dhaka’s infrastructure could be interpreted as, you know, volcanoes, meteorites and other catastrophic stuff that can have grave consequences if you are not sufficiently evolved.
2. Buses: Buses are the apex predator of the Dhaka ecosystem. Their size, aggressiveness and skull-shattering horns are the road equivalent of a megalodon! A bus will not avoid you; you must avoid it! Seriously, Dhaka has one of the highest traffic accident fatality rates on earth, and I suspect that buses are the primary culprit. I have experienced few things more terrifying than a bus sneaking up a few feet behind me and then blasting its horn. In these moments, my heart stops and I literally go into survival mode like the small fry that I am. Afterwards, I check the seat of my bicycle. And feel lucky my underwear remains unsoiled!
3. Begging Elephants: For real. These elephants are trained to beg and accept money from passing cars. They don’t tend to mess with buses but beware the windscreen of your vehicle if you refuse to fork over cash. These elephants are essentially in the business of blackmail: give us money or lose your windshield. Hence, their place near the top of our ecosystem’s hierarchy.
4. Cars: The next level of our Dhaka Food Chain is plain old cars. Vehicle drivers in Bangladesh appear to have no qualms about running you over. I’ve been hit on my bicycle, albeit gently most times, on close to a dozen occasions with no apologies or even a glance to see how I fared. Once, an aggressive driver almost knocked Danielle off her feet as she was walking, and he berated us for hitting his car!
Dhaka vehicle drivers are also selfish and will often stop traffic for half a kilometer rather than let another car turn or back out of a parking space. As a result, a chorus of horns sing communal displeasure and frustration. The noise levels of Dhaka traffic are astounding. An independent study measured average daytime noise pollution from traffic at from 83-108 decibels. For comparison, a commercial jet emits 110 decibels during takeoff. Cycling in Dhaka is loud! If buses are the megalodon of Dhaka in our little allegory, then everyday cars are the, you know, normal sized sharks. Sharks that scream. Loudly.
5. CNG: The algae-green CNGs that pepper Dhaka roads are, for me personally on my bicycle, the least of my worries. They are the tuna or swordfish of Dhaka’s roads, a force to be reckoned with if threatened but relatively benign if left to their own devices. As tuk-tuks, they have the dual advantage of mobility and speed – I don’t often run into conflict with them as I pedal around town. However, their growl adds to the chaos and noise and confusion.
6. Rickshaws: The 500,000 rickshaws operating daily in the city cannot be described as anything but a massive school of herring. Herring with small sharp teeth. This analogy holds true not only because there are so many of them, but because they have no engines to warn of their arrival and seem to move in ways that appear pre-orchestrated. The rickshaw wallah’s just know how to move in the traffic; watching hundreds of them move together simultaneously is strangely mesmerizing, much like watching a school of herring in a Blue Planet documentary.
For me, however, rickshaws tend to be my biggest threat because, unless the wallah chooses to ring his little bell to alert me to his presence, they expect you to react to their movements and choices rather than paying attention to your actions. They can be insanely aggressive. Much of the danger comes from being forced into vehicular traffic by overly enthusiastic wallahs jockeying for position but I’ve also been knocked off my bike, once into a car, by rickshaws. Perhaps a rickshaw is so close to a bicycle that there is some ambiguity as to who top dog in the food chain is but, in my books, the rickshaw comes out on top.
7. Me! Whoo! I’m here! This is me in the food chain! Now that I know my place, I can survive accordingly. Hopefully.
8. Pedestrians: Pedestrians are the only sentient participant in the Dhaka traffic food chain who are below me in the dominance hierarchy. They are the plankton of the streets. They are everywhere. It is difficult to walk in Dhaka without bumping into others at every turn; the same principal holds true for biking here. Luckily for me, so long as I ring my bell loud and clear, the pecking order holds, and I cruise on my merry way.
9. Goats: And now, the one you’ve all been waiting for. Goats. And other animals such as chickens, cows, the occasional sheep and, on one special occasion, a vibrantly pink rooster.
As I was biking home from a squash match on a recent, sleepy Friday morning, a goat, fleeing from some unseen threat, smashed into my front wheel and tumbled into a bleating pile of hooves and fur. I managed to stay on my seat but couldn’t believe my eyes. I mean, how many other people can say that they have hit a goat while riding their bicycle down the street? I was inspired enough to write this blog post.
Despite the risks, Dani and I learned to brave the chaotic traffic and now understand our role in the traffic ecosystem. Now that I’ve learned my place in the food chain, biking is one of my favorite aspects of life in Dhaka. It gives me a degree of freedom and autonomy previously unavailable due to our over-reliance on rickshaws and CNGs for transportation. It has saved us a surprisingly large amount of taka and time. As hard as it is to believe, I might miss the pandemonium and adrenaline of cycling in Dhaka when I relocate!
And don’t worry, in the end, the goat I struck was okay. His pride was hurt and nothing more.
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