The rickshaw of Bangladesh, poorly designed and manned by the underclass, plays an important role in propping up the national economy. Its neglect by government officials and researchers can only hurt the country´s own interests.
No one knows how many rickshaws there are in Dhaka, let alone in Bangladesh. The government statistics are not reliable, and there is no other way of finding out. To give one example, in 1987, there were 88,000 rickshaws officially registered with the Dhaka Municipal Corporation. But in addition there was a huge number of unregistered rickshaws, and various government ministers and newspaper correspondents put the true figure at 150,000 to 200,000.
The government´s hopes to hold down rickshaw numbers, and thereby limit traffic congestion. However, the policy has never succeeded. Rickshaw numbers have gone on increasing as the demand for them has grown.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, the rickshaws in 1985-86 contributed 34 percent of the total value-added by the transport sector in Bangladesh, or roughly BDT 9840 million. This was more than double the contribution of all motorised road transport, 12 times the contribution of Bangladesh Railways, and 12.5 times the contribution of Bangladesh Biman, the national airline.
Even allowing for a margin of error, there is no doubting the rickshaw´s importance to the national economy. Rickshaws account for more than half of Dhaka´s vehicles, 70 percent of its passengers, and 43 percent of the total passenger mileage. Every day, about 7 million passenger trips are made in Dhaka by rickshaw over a distance of 11 million passenger-miles. This is nearly double the output of London´s Underground.
The rickshaw provides one of the largest sources of employment in Bangladesh. In Dhaka, over 400,000 people make rickshaw-related work the largest single form of employment, taking in about 23 percent of the city´s workforce. At present, over one million people all over the country find work in them. The great majority are pullers, but there are also misteris (repairers), owners, makers, shopkeepers, tea-stall owners and many others who survive on the basis of the rickshaw. The sheer size of the rickshaw sector has important implications for the national economy. If we consider that for every male employed there are at least three dependents, then nationally around five million people depend directly on the rickshaws, or 4.5 percent of the total population. It would seem impossible that such an important sector could be ignored by the government. Yet it is.
Rickshaws have been totally left out of the government´s planning. During the Second Five Year Plan (1980-85), out of 300 transport projects, not one was connected to rickshaws. In the Third Five Year Plan, rickshaws were dismissed in a single sentence: “Slow-moving vehicles such as pedal rickshaws, push and pull carts, etc, should be gradually eliminated through development of automotive vehicles.”
The Ministry of Industries once drew up an annual forecast of demand for bicycle components which never once mentioned the word ´rickshaw´ (although rickshaws account for most of the bicycle components used in Bangladesh).
The Ideology of Development
Why are rickshaws so completely overlooked? To be lair, all kinds of informal sector activity are left out of the government´s thinking, because decision-makers hold, as one scholars wrote, “an ideology of development that acquaints modernisation with mechanisation, and transformation with the replacement of things new. Country-boats, cycle-rickshaws, and bullock carts have little place in this ideology.”
But if traditional activities tend to be overlooked, a particular hostility is fell towards rickshaws. Many people hate them, because they are seen as a symbol of under development. “Rickshaws distinguish Dhaka as a study in stunted urban development,” said a newspaper editorial. According to one Minister of Local Government, “Dhaka is the slowest city in the world because of uninterrupted growth of unauthorised rickshaws.” Such comments are hardly fair. After all, the average speed of traffic in London in the evening rush hour is only 11.6 mph, which is less than what rickshaws can achieve.
To justify their wish to be rid of rickshaws, many people who are blinded by their prejudice say that rickshaw-pulling is “inhuman” and “degrading”. But is rickshaw-pulling a “dishonourable” occupation? There are many other jobs in Bangladesh which are just as arduous, if not worse: brick-breaking, carrying goods by head and shoulder, rowing boats, pulling carts by hand, labouring in forges, foundries and bakeries. Yet no one talks of abolishing these jobs. If we were really concerned for the rickshaw-pullers, we might pay them more for their efforts. But no! Even well-heeled passengers bargain hard for every taka, and complain if the pullers ask for more.
Prejudice leads people to blame the rickshaws for all the urban traffic problems, and many social problems as well. For example, senior police officers once told the Home Minister that the large numbers of rickshaws were a major cause of traffic jams and road accidents within Dhaka.
It is not really true that rickshaws are inefficient, in that they slow down the traffic. On fast roads, a slow-moving vehicle can, of course, greatly slow down other vehicles. On the other hand, on narrow roads, a large vehicle can have difficulty manoeuvring and slow down smaller vehicles. The rickshaw takes up only half the road space of the average car. At first this seems hard to believe, but motor vehicles move at speed, so they need a greater distance between each vehicle for safe stopping. Rickshaws, on the other hand, can travel very close together.
In terms of number of passengers carried, the motor vehicle is clearly the worst offender. The average car passenger in Dhaka uses about 45 percent more road space than the average rickshaw passenger. Hence, it is not fair to blame the rickshaw for causing traffic congestion. A traffic count in Old Dhaka recorded 3500 rickshaws passing in one hour in one direction, yet the maximum number of cars that can pass down a similar road is only 1300 per hour. Allowing for their respective passenger loadings, the rickshaw can therefore transport about 50 percent more people than cars, under similar circumstances.
For the needs they cater to, it is unrealistic for government and other officials to talk of abolishing rickshaws. The three-wheelers are going to be with us for the rest of our lives, so we should learn to live with them, and make the best of them. Even if the rickshaw were to disappear from Dhaka (which is unlikely), there would still be hundreds of thousands of them in the rest of the country, and their numbers are increasing. We should accept that rickshaws have a future, and plan for them accordingly.
Rickshaws Are Efficient
Although there is no doubt that rickshaw-pulling is hard work, it is certainly not “inhumane”. Engineers who have studies the Bangladesh rickshaw reckon that a power output of about .12 to .13 horsepower is required to pedal it fast with a normal load. This in itself cannot be considered uncomfortable, and under normal conditions (ie flat ground, little breeze, one or two passengers) rickshaw-pulling is not difficult. Even young boys and elderly men can manage it.
However, as soon as conditions depart from normal, it becomes very hard indeed. A 10 mph wind doubles the power required to maintain the same speed; a slight gradient of two percent similarly doubles it. Hence in adverse conditions, rickshaw-pulling is extremely difficult, raising the power requirement three- to four-fold.
But are rickshaws efficient? They can be very efficient indeed, more so than even buses and motorised three-wheelers, in certain circumstances. Rickshaws are used mainly for shorter distance trips, where speed does not matter much. An average rickshaw trip in Dhaka is 2.5 km (1.6 miles). The main difference between Dhaka and the provincial areas is in the intensity of use. In Dhaka, a typical rickshaw does about 14-15 trips per shift, with two daily shifts. Hence, its daily output is about 117 passenger-kilometres per day (14.6 trips per shift x 2 shifts x 1.6 passengers x 2.5 km per trip). Rickshaws in rural areas typically have only half the daily output of Dhaka rickshaws.
It is fascinating to study where rickshaws go during an average day´s work. In Dhaka, they wander throughout the city in an extremely diverse pattern. Practically no two trips are the same. While pullers try to stay on the side of the city where they live, they certainly do get around. Pullers control the destinations to some extent by choosing where to wait for passengers, and which passengers to take. So one puller who made a trip all the way to the Banani sector, on the far side of the city, had managed to work his way back to Lalbagh by the end of the day . Most of the passengers who ride rickshaws in Dhaka are of middle- and upper income brackets. In fact, we could speculate that roughly half the city population use rickshaws (ie the upper half), while the other half are the class who operate them. A survey showed that at least half of the low-income people using a rickshaw were travelling on behalf of richer persons. When the poor use the rickshaw themselves, it is usually for an essential purpose, such as transporting household goods, travelling with family and luggage, or taking someone to hospital.
Bad Design, Hard Work
Contrary to what many people think, the rickshaw is not a good example of appropriate technology. On the contrary, it is a crude, inefficient vehicle with plenty of scope for improvement. The basic faults arise because bicycle components are used in a tricycle role, for which they were not designed. The gear ratio is too low, the wheels and frames are too weak, the brakes inadequate, and the steering inappropriate.
Bangladeshi rickshaws also suffer from inappropriate gear ratio. Special ´two-speed´ tricycle gears have been developed in China, where the puller will use his bare toe to lift the chain and transfer it from one chain-wheel to the other. In Bangladesh, however, rickshaws use single-speed gears built for bicycles even though they carry up to five times more weight. Additionally the gearing ratio which has been set for Bangladesh rickshaws is too ´high´ for most situations except when the rickshaw is empty. In other words, under most conditions, the pullers have to strain unnecessarily hard. A lower gearing ratio is required, for the middle range in which the rickshaw operates.
Anyone who drives a rickshaw for the first time will immediately notice how difficult it is to steer. The reason is that the steering arrangement meant for a bicycle does not work well on a tricycle. Unlike a bicycle, a rickshaw cannot lean when turning. The puller is constantly working with his arms and shoulders to correct the wheel´s wild behaviour. The problem is easily solved by changing the geometry of the ´fork´ but this has not been done.
Rickshaws are grossly under-braked. While even a bicycle has two brakes, the much heavier rickshaw has but one, on the front wheel. When it comes to suspension, it is true that every rickshaw has a pair or elliptical springs underneath the passenger seat. However, these are merely clever imitations of the original hand-pulled rickshaw springs, and actually serve no purpose other than to add dead weight. According to one researcher, the springs (made of mild steel rather than high carbon steel) provide only five percent of the rickshaw´s suspension, the rest being provided by frame-flexing and the tyres. Good suspension is important not only for the passenger´s comfort but because it conserves the puller´s energy.
The wheels are the weakest points on a rickshaw, for these bicycle wheels were not designed for heavy loads. The wheels are therefore constantly failing and losing their roundness. A heavily loaded rickshaw which had a wheel only 1/8 inch out-of-round could add five percent to the effort required for pedalling. This is equivalent to asking the puller to do 15 pressups every mile he travelled.
The rickshaw´s structural high profile causes severe wind resistance. When there is a stiff headwind, most of the puller´s energy is spent in overcoming wind resistance. A small increase in wind speed causes a big increase in the power needed to overcome it. One way to reduce wind resistance is by lowering the height of the passenger seat and getting the hood to lie flat when folded back. The tall structure of the rickshaw also gives it a high centre of gravity which makes the vehicle more liable to topple over.
A typical Bangladesh rickshaw weighs about 92 kg, of which 12 percent is in the springs, which are virtually useless, and 49 percent in the passenger seat and hood, which are very solidly constructed out of wood. The chassis is made of heavy iron and tubes. All in all, the rickshaw could be made much lighter without compromising on structural strength.
The rickshaw´s present design does not fit the average Bangladeshi puller very well. The position of the rider´s seat is too far back in relation to the pedals so that if he wants to push really hard, he has to come off the seat and stand on the pedals. The seat of the puller is not the proper shape, and the springs underneath actually absorb some of the leg thrust. The handlebars come from a bicycle design that is 100 years old and are inappropriate for a heavily loaded rickshaw because they pull the rider´s hands much too close to his body. Rickshaw-pullers have adapted an unusual technique to compensate for this. As one scholar wrote:
When pullers pull away from a traffic light, they stand upright on the pedals, and do a funny little motion which involves putting their hip bones close to the handlebar, bending their back in a reflex curve, and then sort of ´shuffle-kicking´ the pedals. The resulting motion is terrible, because they are putting the lumbar regions on their back in All in all, there is plenty of scope to improve the rickshaw, and it should be possible to improve its performance efficiency by more than 40 percent. In 1985, rickshaws contributed an estimated BDT 9810 million to the national economy, so a 40 percent improvement would be worth around BDT 3800 million annually.
One reason why rickshaw design has not changed since the 1930s is ownership. Most pullers do not own their own rickshaws , and the owners themselves have very little reason to improve their vehicles because they are already making good profits. Due to the vicious cycle of poverty, the smaller owners, the misteris and pullers who may clearly like to improve their vehicles do not have the means to do it. This constraint does not apply to the country´s engineers and scientists, and here the principal reason for the lack of progress lies in the prejudice against the rickshaws.
Ayat Ali is a 65-year-old rickshaw puller who lives in the town of Comilla. During his lifetime he has pedalled perhaps 170,000 miles, equivalent to seven times around the world, or three-quarters the way to the moon. Although Ayat Ali gets on well with his rickshaw´s owner, the relationship is hardly an equal one. The rickshaw rent takes away one-third of his earnings, leaving him barely enough to feed himself and his wife.
Rickshaw ownership makes some people very rich indeed, but it keeps the pullers poor. With the rent he has paid during his lifetime, Ayat Ali could have purchased a rickshaw 40 times over. Of the majority of the 1.25 million people employed in the rickshaw industry in Bangladesh, perhaps 80 percent, are pullers. Only a minority of these pullers own their own rickshaws, with only about 10 percent owner-pullers in Dhaka. More than 9 out of 10 pullers in the city are migrants from outlying regions. The overwhelming majority (85 percent) are landless, and 60 percent are illiterate.
At a Dhaka seminar, an eminent speaker asked whether the rickshaw-pullers might not be the vanguard in the next sociopolitical revolution. They certainly have enough reason for wanting change: they are poor in the midst of plenty; they are exploited and abused by owners and passengers; and their livelihood is constantly threatened by the government´s mindset to abolish rickshaws. Surely, if only the pullers could organise themselves and act together, they would be strong enough to change their circumstances for the better?
The rickshaw pullers, indeed, possess enormous strength in their numbers, and when this strength has been demonstrated in mass upsurges, an alarmed government has taken notice and acted swiftly to redress grievances. But most of the time, the rickshaw-pullers´ movement has remained quiet, like a slumbering giant that is not easily aroused. One reason is the reluctance of union members to take action. The leaders, in particular, tend to be very cautious, saying that because of their economic condition the pullers are not able to take too much risk. Even when strikes are called, they fizzle out very quickly, one reason being the pullers´ poverty and need to work.
The rickshaw pullers are also harder to organise than workers in other sectors, for they are scattered among hundreds of employers. They also work independently, which makes it harder to develop a sense of unity, which also explains the proliferation of unions of rickshaw pullers in Dhaka. No single union could claim more than a fraction of the workforce as its members.
Eighty percent of the people who work in the rickshaw industry are pullers, and their lives indeed are full of hardship and uncertainty. The principal aim, therefore, should be to find ways of helping them to help themselves. The pullers can best be helped, firstly, by a change of heart in the government, recognising that the three-wheeled pedalled vehicle has an important role in Bangladesh´s transport system and economy. Secondly, a change in the pattern of ownership is essential, so that the pullers own their own rickshaws. Thirdly, a pension-cum-insurance scheme is required which could provide security for the pullers in sickness and in old age.
Too often, rickshaw pullers who are past their prime end up as beggars on the streets of Dhaka.
Nowadays, we think of the hand-pulled rickshaws as a cruel and anachronistic form of transport. Yet, when they were first introduced in Japan in the 1870s, they represented real technological progress. They competed with thousands of palanquins, which they soon displaced.
The word ´rickshaw´ comes from the Japanese jin riki sha, which means literally “man-powered vehicle”. At least five people (including an out-of-work samurai and an American missionary) have been credited with inventing the rickshaw in Japan around 1870. But old prints from Europe show that a similar contraption was in use there two centuries earlier.
´Rickshaw´, although originally given to the hand-pulled vehicles, is now universally applied to cycle rickshaws. This rickshaw is the result of advances achieved in the development of the bicycle in the 19th century. The early bicycles were crude vehicles propelled by kicking the ground. Then came the improved “penny-farthing” bicycles. Some of these were made into tricycles, and there were attempts to introduce them as rickshaws in both England and Asia. But they never caught on.
Each new technical development quickly led to another. By 1890, the bicycle had taken its modern shape, which meant that rickshaws too became easier to handle. Nevertheless, passenger rickshaws never achieved popularity in Europe and it took a long time for them to be established in Asia. It was not until the emergence of the motor vehicles that road surfaces were made smooth enough for cycle-rickshaws to operate efficiently. Singapore was the first city to use cycle-rickshaws on a large scale. Calcutta´s first cycle-rickshaws appeared around 1930, and they soon spread to other towns in the hinterland. The prototype had reached what is now Bangladesh in the mid-1930s, and made it to Dhaka by 1938.