DHAKA, Bangladesh – Buying a motorbike was a big step for Afrida Tanjim, a 27-year-old graphic designer from Bangladesh’s sprawling capital.
Her family was not happy about it. Her mother told her she’d never find anyone willing to marry a woman who rode a motorbike. “It’s an outrageous plan,” her father said.
But Tanjim was undeterred – commuting on Dhaka’s traffic-choked roads had become an everyday nightmare for her.
Often cited as the city with the worst traffic jams in the world, Dhaka has no mass rapid transit, and very few decent public buses – most are packed to the brim. It’s hard for female commuters to get past the crowds of men to get a seat or a place to stand, and there’s a high risk of sexual harassment for those who do. A government order that reserves nine seats at the front of buses for women, children and people with special needs is consistently violated by male commuters.
Most women are left to choose between taking an auto-rickshaw, a taxi or an Uber to get to work. But that’s not easy, either. Auto-rickshaws are hard to find – there are only 8,400 of them in a city of 18 million people – and taking an Uber or taxi can be prohibitively expensive.
So, defying her family’s resistance, Tanjim took a leap of faith and purchased a purple TVS Scooty Zest, a 110cc motorbike, in July 2016.
“It’s the best investment I have ever made in my life,” she told News Deeply. After spending $1,150 on the bike, she can now travel around 35 miles (55km) on a quarter of a gallon (1 liter) of fuel, which costs $1.25.
But the main advantage is speed. A 2016 study from Brac University in Bangladesh found that traffic in Dhaka crawls along at 4.2 miles (6.8km) an hour, compared to 13.2 miles (21.2km) per hour in 2004. But a motorbike can move much faster, zipping through the gridlocked traffic.
Buying a motorbike didn’t just make Tanjim’s commute easier. She also signed up as a driver for Lily, a ride-sharing app for women.
“Aside from covering my fuel cost, it actually now opens up a new avenue for an extra income for me,” she said. She hopes to use the additional money to go traveling in the Himalayan region of Ladakh and buy a laptop to help with her graphic design work.
Ride-Sharing for Women
A ride-sharing service “for women and by women,” Lily launched in December 2017. Within a few months, it has already gained popularity among the capital’s female commuters, who have long waited for a service like this.
Maliha Hossain, a third-year university student, used to use Pathao, Dhaka’s most popular bike ride-sharing service, which has 300,000 registered drivers and users.
But Hossain was not comfortable using the service. She always put her bag between herself and the driver when commuting. “They are well-mannered, but there is a discomfort of sitting beside a male stranger,” she said of the Pathao drivers. “When I found out about Lily, it was like a dream come true.”
Banking on a large number of eager female commuters like Hossain, and few able service providers like Tanjim, entrepreneurs Syed Md Saif and Shah Md Tushar first came up with the idea of a woman-only ride-sharing app in 2016.
Saif began work on the project after his wife Syeda Shahida Maknun told him she, too, felt uncomfortable sitting so close to an unknown male driver.
“A lot of women want to use bikes as it is by far the best mode of vehicles for commuting in Dhaka,” Saif told News Deeply. “It’s cost-effective and most importantly it can move faster than anything else in this traffic-clogged city.”
Lily does not disclose the number of riders they currently have in their system. None of the ride-sharing app companies in Bangladesh have yet disclosed any data publicly.
That’s because their services are not technically legal. When ride-sharing was first introduced to Dhaka by Uber in 2016, the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) declared it “illegal.” After an outcry about that decision, BRTA came up with a set of service guidelines to regulate ride-sharing in the city. The draft was prepared and sent to the cabinet for approval in January this year, but before its enactment the ride-sharing companies say they are not making their data public.
“I can tell you that we are happy with the responses we have had since launching,” Saif said. He’s confident enough that the demand will increase to have started the Lily Training Club, where women can learn to become drivers for the service.
Lily is not the first entrant to the all-female bike-riding service market. Share-a-Motorbike (SAM) – another popular Bangladeshi ride-sharing service – introduced the idea of “Pink SAM” last October to cater to female customers.
Imtiaz Quasem, CEO of SAM, said that while the service hadn’t launched yet, “we have received large responses from female bike riders and users.”
“We have started our female bike-training facility in collaboration with Bangladesh Women Riders Club. We will start the commercial service pretty soon,” he said.
‘A Symbol of Women’s Advancement’
Israt Khan Mojlish, the founder and president of the Bangladesh Women Riders Club, said that a bike “is not just a vehicle to move around – it’s a symbol of women’s advancement in Bangladesh.”
When Israt bought her first bike in 2012 and started commuting on it in Dhaka, she said people used to look at her as if they had seen an alien. Six years down the line, “a bike-riding woman is a pretty common scene on Dhaka’s roads.”
While female bike riders have increased in number over the past five years, the countryside has had them for decades. “Most of the female nongovernment organization workers working in the villages across the country commute on bike. Finding a saree or salwar kameez-clad bike rider is a common scene in the countryside,” Israt said.
Those bike-riding NGO workers have long been “symbolizing progressiveness, development and advancement.”
Israt said, “In cities, too, we now show that we are not lagging behind.”
Economist Nazneen Ahmed said the ride-sharing apps are tapping into a lucrative market.
“With nearly 150,000 women in white-collar jobs here in Dhaka, female riders could make a decent livelihood just by targeting to ferry these working women around,” she said.
But while motorbikes can evade Dhaka’s traffic jams for now, she said, the ultimate problem is not going away.
“Dhaka’s commuting problem is gender-independent. If we don’t have sustainable public transport infrastructure, then, I am afraid, in the long run, the situation will only get worse.”
This piece has been updated to better reflect Syed Md Saif’s professional background.