Taking the bus as a girl in Dhaka

A view of Dhaka city's broken commuting system

“What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” - William Henry Davies 

Boom! Spot dead! A traffic policeman trying to help a young girl in grade eight ride the public bus in Baily Road gets hit by another bus. The year is 2006. The bus ignored the signal and hit the police. Shocked and terrified, the girl blames herself. She wishes the police did not come forward to help her ride the bus. 

Time went on. Despite numerous obstacles, the girl continued her studies at the same reputable school to receive a good education. She continued to take public transportation to school, commuting for hours. But little did she know that things were about to get a lot more difficult for her. 

The year is now early 2009. Another accident. While she was on her way to school to take her MOC test, the brakes on the bus she was riding failed, and the bus collided with another bus. She was unable to attend the exams due to the accident. Four months after that accident, she was hit by a CNG- driven auto-rickshaw in front of the school.

Beyond just simple road safety, jumping on running buses, sexual and verbal abuse, men taking up reserved women's seats, and other harassments have long been an ordeal for women using public transport in Dhaka. They frequently have to endure one or all of these to get to their destinations. 

In 2010, a man tried to disrespect this girl on the bus. She did give him a befitting reply, but she was taken aback by the fact that, despite this behaviour, everyone else on the bus was quiet and acting as observers. However, this made the girl only stronger to fight the odds on her own in this city. 

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On January 8, 2022, two pedestrians were killed and six others injured as a bus ran over them in the Gulistan area of the capital. 

On March 20, 2022, a female student at a private university was allegedly sexually harassed by the driver of a CNG-run auto-rickshaw at Kalabagan in the capital 

On March 29, 2022, a woman was killed in a road accident in the capital's Mirpur area while taking her two children to school.

On April 1, 2022 a university girl was killed after a suspected hit and run in Dhaka. 

In April 2022, reports suggested that 84% of young women faced sexual harassment on buses. 

After all these years, where exactly is Dhaka standing?

In this densely-packed metropolis, 22 million people struggle and battle for a better livelihood every day. People are constantly looking for better opportunities. They travel long distances while sitting for hours in traffic, which often comes to a grinding halt (as per reports, the average speed of transportation is 6.4 kilometres per hour (kph) which may drop to 4.7 kph by 2035). 

Parents are also always on the lookout for better schools to enrol their children in, even if they are located outside their walkability zones, far away from their house, to assure a brighter future. However, not everyone has the financial means to have a car, so most people rely on public transportation to get around the city.

Every day, around 21 million people travel in Dhaka, with the bus being the most common mode of transportation, accounting for approximately 64% of passenger trips. According to the Sustainable Urban Transportation Index, there are 152 bus routes in the Greater Dhaka Metropolitan Area (DMA), and 44.7% of daily trips are related to work, while 17.7% are related to school. However, the number of public buses available is insufficient to meet public demand. 

Furthermore, there are only a few designated bus stops; passengers can board and exit the bus at any time and from any location, even at unsafe road locations. They disregard traffic laws and are constantly competing with one another. 

In addition, the drivers lack the necessary vehicle, traffic, and legal training. Most drivers do not have the required public service vehicle permit to operate these modes of transportation and a valid driver's license. Thus, the outcome is an accident-prone, reckless public bus driver in most cases. 

Security and access to such essential services for the city dwellers have long been a source of concern. Although there has been a huge and remarkable investment in developing Metro Rail and Mass Rapid Transit for the City, policymakers must incorporate those critical elements to create an equitable, healthy city for all. 

A secure and safe commute in Dhaka is long overdue. Both the government and commuters have a role and responsibility in ensuring this.

Sabrina Mustabin Jaigirdar is Assistant Research Coordinator, James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Zahidul Quayyum, PhD is Professor (Health Economics) and Director Research, James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.