The madness that never ends! – Traffic in Dhaka

For those who have ever been to Dhaka, or even heard of Dhaka, the first thing you probably heard about was the traffic. I believe that it’s on of the worst cities in the world for traffic, likely because it’s so densely populated with no major public transportation system to take traffic off of the roads.

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Sharna and I spent much of our time in Dhaka viewing it like this, through the windows of our company van, or through the bars in the back of a CNG.

For instance, I lived on the opposite side of the city from the “downtown area”. Normally, this drive is supposed to take approximately 30 minutes. However, there were times when it took over 4 hours to reach my home. In fact, I have friends who’ve taken an hour simply to cross one major intersection!

Some people wonder why the traffic is so bad.  In my opinion, there are a variety of reasons.  But I recently stumbled across this article, about fixing traffic problems.  The articles suggests “traffic loops”, and banning right-hand turns as the solution (pictured below).  What kind of crazy traffic pattern is that?  Not only does it seem unsafe, but it is prone to bottle necks in multiple locations.  Somehow I don’t think these will solve all of Dhaka’s traffic woes…

traffic_jam_0   Road-Map

Bangladesh is not a big fan on red lights.  Although they have them installed at major intersections, nobody follows them.  Instead, they also hire traffic cops at each big intersection, who literally stand in front of the car with a stick to prevent them from continuing through the intersection, and allowing the turning cars a chance to cross in front.  Therefore, some other interesting ideas have been proposed.  For example, I’ve seen both the following diagrams in other recent articles about how the use of the above-mentioned (and pictured) “U-loops” and how they will solve all of Dhaka’s traffic problems.  I’m not the only one who isn’t convinced:

Asked about the project, Shamshul Haque, a professor of civil engineering at Buet, said he was not very certain that it would be very effective in reducing traffic congestion in the city.  “The intersections in the city are used as bus stops and pedestrians also cross roads through these. If u-loops are built, the roads will become narrow and will eventually cause gridlocks,”

The other issues (that the last quote brought up) is that roads are not just used for driving. Parking lots don’t really exist, so transport trucks, city buses, and other vehicles might park 2-3 rows worth on the side of major roads, leaving only 1 or 2 lanes for traffic. People also perform other activities on the road side, like setting up stalls or piling garbage to be sorted and picked through by hand.

20160105_063800  20151212_092638

Left: A daily market on one of the main streets in Mirpur (the neighbourhood where I lived), with lots of trucks loading/unloading produce. Right: An impromptu fire pit, used for heating asphalt used in construction.

It also totally acceptable here to go the wrong way down a one way street or drive on the wrong side of the median.  In many places, smaller side roads can only be accessed by traffic going in one direction (due to a median or divider in the middle of the road). Instead of going all the way around, rickshaw cross onto the opposite side of the road and go against traffic (in the opposite direction).

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Impromptu construction also happens on a daily basis, when people dig up the roads to fix the pipes for their building, or other various reasons I don’t quite understand.  Holes are even dug in the street to let cow’s blood pool during Eid… not by the government but by random people who live nearby.

There are also no lanes. Sometimes lanes are drawn on the road, and sometimes lanes  form naturally due to the rectangular shape of cars, but there’s no rules about them. People dart in and out as the please, sounding the horn to indicate “I’m coming through, get out of my way!”.  Hand signals are also used, especially on buses instead of turn signals. A driver sticking his hand out the windows indicates that he’s planning to move the bus in the direction. He’s saying “don’t try to pass me because I’m moving over, and I will crush you between by bus and another car/the median if I have to.”  Only the most daring use this signal to quickly speed past instead of hanging back.

Driving is basically a big game of chicken, where the most fearless wins, as long as everyone is paying attention. Any sized vehicle will dart out sideways to cross the road despite oncoming traffic. It is then the duty of oncoming traffic to slow down, stop, or swerve to avoid a collision. The bigger your car is, the more likely you are to dart out, because you know others will have to stop. Minor car accidents are a frequent occurrence, as you can see by the damage on the sides and corners of every bus on the city.

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Dhaka is trying to improve.  Unfortunately they’re not doing it so much using subways or other rapid transit systems which might be able to expand into the future.  Instead, they’re building roads and flyovers to accommodate more and more car traffic as the population continues to grow, and the borders of the city continue to sprawl.  So, if you ever visit Dhaka, here’s my advice:

Try not to be in a rush, because no matter how stressed and impatient you are, you’re not getting anywhere fast.  So sit back and enjoy the ride!


This blog is one in a series about transportation in various countries.  To read similar blogs, check out the links below:

  1. Ghana – Trotro Etiquette: Your Guide to Getting Around Ghana!
  2. Nepal – How to get around in Kathmandu – Transport in Nepal
  3. Bangladesh – The madness that never ends! – Traffic in Dhaka
  4. Nepal – Walking Past Paradise: My Commute to Work in Nepal
  5. Bangladesh – Getting Around in Dhaka – Rickshaws, Buses, Cars, and CNGs
  6. Nepal – Weaving between motorcycles – The art of crossing the street in Kathmandu

About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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