Getting Around in Dhaka – Rickshaws, Buses, Cars, and CNGs

Dhaka is a very dense city, but it’s also pretty large.  It’s impossible to walk everywhere, so you must take some form of transit… but how do you choose the best way to get around?  To get between cities there are more standard transit options such as buses and trains, but in the city the options are far more exciting!  So, how much do things cost? How long will it take you to get around?  How safe is each option? Now those are great questions… read below to find out more about the four main modes of public transit within the city of Dhaka.

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View of a street in Mirpur (Dhaka) from inside a rickshaw.

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Random types of transportation: Left: Used as a school bus for kids, Middle:Tempo, but not as common and popular as in Nepal, Right: Large trucks used for moving furniture.

Walking/Biking

Walking in Dhaka is an adventure.  Most sidewalks (if there even is a sidewalk) are filled with all sorts of obstacles, such as stray animals, produce vendors, construction, or giant holes.  It’s a great way to get a “feel” for the city, but also an easy way to get lost and overwhelmed by all your senses (there are certainly a lot of sounds and smells – no matter where you go).  You also have no protection from the weather, so you might get wet (monsoon season) or sweaty (when it’s hot out).

Cost: Absolutely free!

Safety: Probably a less safe option, but you can’t be worried about safety all the time – especially in your own neighbourhood.  Our organization didn’t even want us walking to the corner store to buy ice cream.  However, I felt totally safe.  The sidewalks aren’t very good though, so you often have to jump over holes or avoid obstacles (not ideal for accessibility).

Ease of Getting Around: Easy if you’re going short distances, very tiring if you’re going long distances.  It’s also super easy to get lost, so make sure to have GPS on your phone (and a star on Google Maps where your house is…), a full charge on your phone, and the number of whoever you’re walking to meet (just in case).

Rickshaws

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Rickshaws are all over the place in Dhaka, definitely ease to find one!

Rickshaws are common in many Asian countries.  They are basically a normal (usually very cheap, with no real gear action) bike in the front, with a small “carriage” in the back.  The “carriage” can hold 1-2 people, but I’ve seen families of 5 on those things, or one guy with a ton of products.  The seat also has a sort-of cover that can be folded up or down on the back, made of bamboo.  The cover is good for rain (or hiding who you are in a security situation), but isn’t ideal if you’re a “tall” person like me, since you will hit your head when going over pot-holes! They’re usually very colourfully decorated with lots of symbols.  The drivers in Bangladesh are usually quite poor, and are usually dressed partially in traditional clothes (normally a western shirt, and a lungi – which is like a plaid cloth wrapped around their legs like a skirt).  They’re all men (as far as I saw).

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Rickshaws tend to wait in clusters around certain popular intersections.

Cost: Rickshaws are a great price.  If you’re just going down the street it might by 10-20 taka, but it can be more for further distances or more people.  However, they only go a certain distance, so it’s never going to be 100’s of taka.  The price should be negotiated before the trip.

Safety: Rickshaws are the smallest vehicle on the road.  This means if any other vehicle hits you, you’re dead!  Another major fear of mine is actually falling out of the rickshaw.  Although I’ve never seen it happen, the seats are slanted forwards, and if you go over any pothole it feels like the whole bike is going to tip over!  Another risk is theft, I’ve heard a lot of stories from coworkers of bag-snatching while sitting in a rickshaw in traffic, especially in certain areas of the city.  In terms of the actual drivers, they seem harmless.  They’ll usually follow your directions (unless they don’t understand), and the worst thing you’ll experience is them trying to charge you a bit extra for the trip.

Ease of Getting Around:  Rickshaws are super easy to find, and you don’t have to walk to certain stops or areas to find them.  They’re very small, so they can take all the little back-alleys to any location, and are a lot better at avoiding big traffic problems.  The drivers often come from a less educated, and lower-status segment of the population, which means their English may be limited, so it’s super useful to learn a few helpful phrases.  I’d recommend: left, right, straight, slow down, the name of your destination, and numbers (for prices).

CNGs

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There are two types of CNG: the silver CNG (left) is private, while the green CNG (right) is regulated by the government, and therefore safer.

A CNG can also be called a baby taxi, and is a small, 3-wheeled vheicle. CNG stands for Compressed Natural Gas, which is a fuel the government forced them to switch to in order to curb emissions.  Thankfully, their emissions haven’t gone up as much since (despite a growing population).  Unfortunately, emissions haven’t gone down and air pollution is still a huge problem. Most of these vehicles are silver or green with decorative patterns on the outside.  The driver sits in the front with a metal grate seperating his “cock-pit” area from the bench seat in the back for passengers.  The doors usually close with a sliding lock that is controlled from the driver side.  If you need to show your phone for directions or pay the driver you must slide it through the small cracks in the grate.  They often speed down the streets, and I’m always afraid they’ll get sandwiched between 2 buses (which they somehow never do)!

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CNGs have a metal grate in the middle between the driver and the passenger.  They’re also often painted with cute designs in bright colours.

Cost: The cost is a lot more than a rickshaw, but necessary if you’re going a further distance.  It usually costs at least 100 taka (minimum) but can be more like 500-800 depending on where you’re going. Busy areas with lots of expats (like Gulshan) also make it difficult to negotiate a good price. Normally, you need to negotiate the price before you get in, otherwise you will get majorly ripped off.  Like other methods of transport, the cost will go up as a foreigner.  Recently they’ve passed laws saying the driver has to only charge the meter price, which is actually way lower than you can bargain for.  However, in my experience when you ask about the meter they tend to charge “the meter + 20 or 50”, which is actually still a pretty good price.

Safety: It’s a pretty safe option, about mid range.  You’re less likely to experience a random robbery/bag snatching (which occur more often on rickshaws), but it is possible your driver can take you down a back-alley to rob you (which I’ve heard of but never experienced).  In an accident there are doors so you won’t fall out or get hit, but the sides are top are basically made from plastic tarp fabric so not sure how well it would hold up in an accident.

Ease of Getting Around:  CNGs can be found in most areas, so it’s super easy to get one.  However, it’s not always easy to get a good price if you don’t speak Bangla or have good bargaining skills.  It can also be difficult to explain to the driver where you’re going, so it’s good to know big landmarks nearby.  The culture dictates that you shouldn’t really admit if you don’t know something, so don’t be surprised if a driver needs to stop a few times to ask for directions, even after claiming he knows exactly where it is.

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A lot of the transportation here is brightly painted, including buses (left) and trucks carrying livestock (right).

Buses

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Buses are similar to anywhere else in the world, though they’re usually pretty banged up!

The buses are similar to anywhere in the world. However, most of them are run by private people instead of the government.  They are not really standardized, however some routes have specific numbers or colours to indicate where they are going.  There are also usually overhead rails on the ceiling that you can hold onto if you end up standing.  Some things on the bus seem a bit unsafe, like the driver having an uncovered metal fan blade spinning above his head to “cool off” – decapitation much?

Cost: The cost is really low.  Often the price you pay is between 5 and 30 taka per person per ride (up to 50 cents – depending on the bus and the distance)

Safety: Buses are the largest vehicle on the road.  This makes them the least likely to get demolished by another vehicle running them over.  However, the issues with safety come from getting on/off the bus, and what happens while on the bus.  There have been instances of women in particular feeling unsafe on buses.  On most buses there is now a system where the front of the bus is reserved for women and children, which led to me feeling really safe on the buses there.  Sometimes you have to jump on or off a moving vehicle, which can be super dangerous due the traffic (but as a white lady, the helper would often tell the driver to fully stop so I could get off – thanks bud!).

Ease of Getting Around: The bus can be a little less direct than other means of transportation.  They take certain routes, that may not go exactly where you want.  Therefore, it is sometimes necessary to take multiple buses to get to your destination.  Most of the buses are privately owned, which means they’re all competing for your service.  Therefore, there’s no regular schedule for when they’ll come, but they tend to come all the time.  However, sometimes during peak periods all of the buses simply pass you by because they’re full (people are sometimes even hanging out of the doorways because they’re so full).  This means you have to be prepared to wait a bit longer.

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Left: All garbage trucks are pink and donated by “the people of Japan”, as the sticker on the side says.  Right: “Vans” are used for transporting large goods like furniture or construction supplies.  People sometimes ride of them too, but it’s not their main purpose.

Taxis

A taxi in Bangladesh looks pretty similar to anywhere else in the world.  There’s no specific colours or brand of car, but they might be a little shabbier than you would see in Europe or something.  They’re a lot less common than in Nepal.

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Left and middle: Many vehicles here do not use petrol, instead they use Compressed Natural Gas (which is where CNGs got their names).  Right: Road blocks are really common for police to inspect the car, check your license, make sure you’re not drinking, and ask for bribes.  However, if they see foreigners in the car you often get waved through.

Cost:  Thankfully, they always use the meter so the rates are actually reasonable. The price is actually pretty close to how much a CNG would be for the same location.  However, it’s a lot more than taking a bus for instance.

Safety: Almost as safe as a private vehicle (in terms of accidents), but with a bit less certainty of your location, and how trustworthy your driver is.

Ease of Getting Around: Taxis are not very common in Bangladesh.  You can see them on the street sometimes, but they’re not at every corner, so if you’re going to take one you need to call the company to order one.  Since there are no real addresses and street signs in Dhaka, it may take them awhile to find your nearest landmark, so leave plenty of time. Once you’re in the vehicle, it’s a lot more comfortable than a CNG and WAY more sturdy than a rickshaw.

Private Vehicles (Cars and Vans)

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Most vehicles are large mini-vans and are usually white.

Most workplaces or diplomatic families have their own vehicle.  However, almost nobody (except maybe young guys) drive their own vehicle.  If you have a car/van that is provided or paid for by your employer, then you probably also have a driver.  Most also have full seat-belts and are in good condition.  Some of air-conditioning and a radio and/or CD/Mp3 player.

 Cost: The cost to me is zero, but cost to the owner of the vehicle is extremely high in terms of fuel, maintenance, purchasing the vehicle, insurance, hiring a driver, etc.  There is also an emotional cost as an employee – I often felt guilt for making the driver use his nights and weekends to take me around, since he was not compensated with other days off during the week.

Safety: Usually the safest way to get around since you’re not very small (not likely to get run over by a bus) and you can’t get robbed (since you can lock the doors from inside).  It’s also the most likely vehicle to have seat-belts (in case of accident), and you can choose a driver who drives safely if you wish.  However, during political turmoil (such as hartals or strikes) it was not seen as super safe since they know private cars carry wealthy owners, and crowds may target these vehicles for destruction.

Ease of Getting Around: Private vehicles offer the most convenience because you can come and go at any time, and go anywhere you like.  However, if you’re sharing the vehicle with other people, you may have to wait for someone else’s meeting, or not use the vehicle on certain days when it’s used for overnight trips, which can be a bit frustrating.  Most drivers also don’t work nights and weekends, which is when you want to go most places – so that can be difficult.  The only limitation is the size of the vehicle.  It can be difficult (and bumpy) for large cars to get down certain muddy streets filled with potholes, and down back-alleys, so you might have to walk the last leg of the journey.

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People have no trouble riding in the back of trucks, or on top of buses and trains.  Motorcycles can also be found but are less popular then in Nepal.

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Overall Suggestions

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There is no “best” way to get around in Dhaka.  If you’re going somewhere close, and don’t want to spend money, a rickshaw or walking are probably your best bet.  However, if you want to be super safe (like during the security situation, where most employers severely limited the movement of their employees around the city), a private vehicle is the best bet!  Buses aren’t super easy to take, since you need to ask directions from someone who knows the area, and learn the numbers in Bangla (which you can learn in a day if you wanted to).  However, knowing the buses gives you a lot of freedom, even if you only have a small budget.  If you ever visit Dhaka, I would encourage you to try all of these methods of getting around – you might just have a random adventure!

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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
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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.
This entry was posted in Bangladesh/Nepal (2015/2016) - IYIP and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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