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Revolution on two wheels gets Dhaka moving

Commuters turn to pedal power to beat gridlock and pledge to make cycling as popular as cricket.

Last updated: 08 Apr 2014 13:58
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The cycling revolution is becoming increasingly popular across Bangladesh [Syed Tashfin Chowdhury/Al Jazeera]

A two-wheeled revolution driven by social media is transforming the congested streets of Dhaka as commuters abandon rickshaws and take to their bicycles to beat the traffic.

More than 24,000 people have mounted their bicycles to negotiate streets clogged up by 890,000 vehicles - and a breathtaking 700,000 three-wheeled rickshaws - as cycling fever grips the city.

The government is now promising to dedicate lanes solely for cyclists in the Bangladeshi capital, where gridlock on its 1,900km of road poses a daily headache for workers.

"The government is actively considering plans of having designated lanes for bicyclists," confirmed Anwar Hossain Manju, Bangladesh's environment and forest minister.

At least 24,000 cyclists are Dhaka-based...The others are located in other parts of the country.

Mozammel Haque, Entrepreneur & Founder of BDCyclists 

Beating the traffic

In the vanguard of Dhaka's new generation of cyclists is Bikash Biswas, 36, a graphics designer who has been cycling to work for the past year.

Besides shedding more than five kilogrammes and alleviating considerable stress getting to work, he is saving money and time making his daily journey.

"Earlier, I had to rely on rickshaws to reach my office in Tejgaon from my home in Rampura – a distance of four kilometres that was taking me more than half an hour," he said.

But now Biswas arrives at his office on a bicycle within less than 11 minutes while benefiting from the physical workout.

Even travelling a short distance in Dhaka can mean an hour's trip in private cars, taxis or public buses thanks to limited road space and heavy traffic in the city.

The journey of businessman Khandaker Riazul Haque from his home in Dhanmondi to his office in Banani is typically tortuous.

"I spend at least two hours on the streets daily due to the congestion, when it should not take me more than 20 minutes each way," he said.

University student Shahriar Shantaj is a member of BDCyclists (Bangladeshi Cyclists), a pioneering Facebook group that sparked the cycling revolution in Bangladesh three years ago.

He made the decision to buy a bicycle while stuck on a bus in heavy traffic early last year.

"It was the best decision I ever made," he said. "By bus, it usually took me at least an hour to reach my university which is nearly seven kilometres from my house. Now it takes me just 20 minutes to cover the same distance by bicycle." 

Bdcyclist organises special rides and races 

Pedal power

The new pedal power in Bangladesh is attributed to the efforts of Mozammel Haque, a young Information Technology entrepreneur who discovered the joy – and cost-effectiveness – of cycling in 2009 during a visit to Nepal.

On his return to Dhaka, Haque began to cycle to work and elsewhere, to the great amusement of colleagues and friends.

But he soon gained their attention after launching BDCyclists in 2011 to promote cycling in Bangladesh. The page now has over 35,250 members, about 80 percent of whom are active cyclists.

"At least 24,000 cyclists in the group are Dhaka-based," Haque told Al Jazeera. "The others are located in other parts of the country."

Besides arranging monthly and weekly "critical mass" rides, the group also organises free training sessions for beginners, trekking for amateurs, and weekend races.

"We are gradually closing in on our goal of turning Dhaka into a bicycle city and making cycling a popular sport in Bangladesh, second only to cricket."

Haque said informal groups of cyclists are also forming outside the capital to promote and enjoy biking.

"This gives them a sense of togetherness and allows social bonding through cycling. There isn't any alternative activity in our society that does this – that's one of the reasons why cycling is spreading like wildfire."

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Booming demand for bicycles

The cycling revolution is also proving to be good for business, driving the creation of a new supply chain for bicycles and accessories in this enterprising city as more commuters take to two wheels.

It has become common to see groups of bikers on flashy bicycles with stylish accessories weaving through the Dhaka traffic, and most organisations have now installed dedicated areas for bicycles in their parking lots.

Mainul Islam Rahat of Meghna Group's CycleLife Exclusive bike shop – which just a year ago was selling 200 bicycles per month – told Al Jazeera: "Monthly, we sell around 600 to 700 bicycles with prices ranging over $266."

CycleLife Exclusive and two other dealers – which each sell more than 4,000 low-end bicycles monthly – now dominate the Bangladeshi bicycle market nationwide.

Races are held to encourage cyclists who want to enjoy the speed [Courtesy: Bdcyclists]

Yet while the bicycle bug is spreading, Bangladesh’s government has been slow to get into the saddle – although when contacted the environment and forest minister praised its eco-friendly credentials and stressed the government’s backing for cyclists.

"The government is yet to appreciate or provide support to the cause directly," said Haque. "But many government officials have welcomed our efforts personally."

Biswas speculated that government support through designated lanes will help the two-wheeled revolution to gain even greater momentum, swelling the number of cyclists of all ages.

"I have had two accidents while cycling on Dhaka roads over the past year," he reflected.

"Designated lanes for cyclists will ensure their safety, thus encouraging potential bikers to finally take up cycling."

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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