Despite government mandates and protocols, maintaining recommended physical distancing is very difficult in a densely populated country like Bangladesh (Jamal, Chowdhury, and Newbold 2022). Given the worldwide spread of COVID-19, there is an expectation that a modal shift towards individual means of transportation such as private cars, motorized two-wheelers, bicycles, and walking will occur (Abdullah et al. 2021; Dingil and Esztergár-Kiss 2021; Thombre and Agarwal 2021). Since 2014, there has been an increase in the use of motorized two-wheelers—predominantly combustion-powered mopeds and motorcycles in the country due to the launch of motorized two-wheeler-based ride-hailing services (Wadud 2020), with 84% of Bangladesh’s listed ride-hailing vehicles using motorized two-wheelers in 2020 (Mithu 2020). From March 2020, the motorized two-wheeler-based ride-hailing service was under complete suspension resulting in a business collapse in this sector during COVID-19 (Antara 2021). Moreover, there was a reduction in overall mobility due to maintaining physical distancing in Bangladesh (Jamal and Paez 2020). Still, a steady increase in the number of motorized two-wheelers during the COVID-19 pandemic is evident. As Figure 1 suggests, the number of motorized two-wheelers increased to 3,500,905 in 2021 from 2,814,637 in 2019 - a 24% increase in two years. These data indicate the possible personal use rather than their use for ride-hailing business.
Also, in Dhaka, the capital city, an increased interest in purchasing motorized two-wheelers for personal use was observed during the first pandemic wave in 2020 (Zafri et al. 2021). However, the underlying reasons behind this modal shift, along with the implications of this shift, are inadequately understood. Based on key informant perspectives, this paper explores why COVID-19 has possibly caused an increased interest in using motorized two-wheelers for personal use in Dhaka, along with the challenges that the city will face for this unanticipated uptake of motorized two-wheelers.
Seventeen in-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with key informants, including seven with public health officials and ten with experts in urban planning and transportation in Bangladesh (Table 1). Recruitment relied on the contact lists of different academic and research institutions, non-profits agencies, government, and health research organizations, and 4 participants were recruited through snowball sampling. Recruitment and interviews took place from July to October 2020. Interviewees were asked to share their thoughts on how the pandemic and public perception have impacted modal shift and what that shift means for Dhaka’s transport sector. The current paper discusses the findings relevant to the modal shift towards personal motorized two-wheelers and their implications.
All interviews were conducted in Bengali (native language) and translated into English by the researchers. We conducted a thematic analysis of the data following a deductive approach to summarize key informants’ perceptions on potential reasons behind the modal shift and their implications. We used the Rigorous and Accelerated Data Reduction (RADaR) technique (Watkins 2017) to analyze the qualitative data with the first two authors (native Bengali speakers) generating the codes separately. All authors created the themes based on interrelated codes. Readers can refer to Jamal, Chowdhury, and Newbold (2022) for additional detail on the application of RADaR technique in the context of Bangladesh.
The thematic analysis revealed that key informants identified four main reasons for the modal shift to motorized two-wheelers (Table A1). First, all participants noted health concerns and risk of infection, including the difficulty of maintaining physical distancing and the cleanliness of surfaces when using public modes of transportation such as buses, paratransit, and ride-hailing services. According to them, hygiene concerns increased interest in or use of private transport modes, including motorized two-wheelers.
Second, while reflecting on the possible use of active travel modes such as bicycles and walking, most interviewees (e.g., 5/7 health professionals and 9/10 transportation/ urban planning professionals) were not confident about a modal shift toward either of these during COVID-19. They stated that a lack of appropriate infrastructure for biking and walking (including crowded streets), cultural reluctance and the stigma of low social status associated with walking and bicycling in Bangladesh, the difficulty of wearing personal protective equipment (for COVID-19) in Bangladesh’s hot and humid weather, and the physical labor involved in active travel discourages individuals from walking or bicycling. Also, due to restrictions of non-motorized vehicles in many of the major roads of Dhaka, motorized two-wheelers are preferred as a private mode for higher accessibility and connectivity. Thus, users are more likely to consider motorized two-wheelers as a suitable and preferred travel mode even during the pandemic.
Third, social context is also partially responsible for the popularity of motorized two-wheelers, with key informants, mostly transportation/urban planning experts highlighting the active roles played by manufacturers to make motorized two-wheelers more popular in the country. While not widely affordable, those who can afford them will switch to motorized two-wheelers instead of walking and bicycling, given the concerns and barriers noted above. Public transport is also not an option given concerns with COVID-19 transmission risks. Experts, mostly the transportation/ urban planning experts noted that the manufacturers have already identified their target group – middle-income and higher middle-income groups. To set the context, middle and higher middle-income groups represent approximately 50% of the population in the city (PPRC 2016). Further, interviewees mentioned that during the pandemic, manufacturers and financial organizations offered financial schemes such as zero down payment, low monthly installments, 0% interest, and financial support to cover a certain percentage of the vehicle registration and licensing costs associated with motorized two-wheelers that are not available in the country to buy bicycles.
Fourth, interviewees also highlighted the role of gender in mode choice. Women in Bangladesh often experience physical and sexual harassment while using public transport. Because of this, interviewees noted that many women have started to use personal modes, especially motorized two-wheelers, to avoid harassment – something the manufacturers are currently focusing on their brand promotions, along with the ability to maintain physical distance during COVID-19, time-saving, and the convenience motorized two-wheelers offer.
However, there are risks and challenges in the case of increased use of motorized two-wheelers. Interviewees highlighted two interconnected challenges if a substantial shift towards personal use of motorized two-wheelers continues. First, an increasing number of drivers will likely increase the risk of collisions and injuries. Twenty-seven percent of deaths in traffic collisions in 2017 involved motorized two-wheeler users (The Daily Star 2018), and the rate of motorized two-wheeler-related crashes went from 19% to 27% between 2019 and 2020 (The Daily Star 2021). Interviewees added that many riders have not been adequately trained and do not know how to drive a motorized two-wheeler, contributing to increased risk of collisions. Some of the interviewees pointed out the cost of licensing and the complexities of the licensing process faced by the public, resulting in many riding without a license. Consequently, the increased number of motorized two-wheelers with untrained riders will increase the likelihood of motorized two-wheelers-related crashes and injuries. Second, the increased number and use of motorized two-wheelers will likely contribute to increased GHG emissions, pollution, and traffic congestion.
Policymakers should be cautious about the increasing tendency to use motorized two-wheelers. There is a need to work on strategies to discourage motorized two-wheelers and provide suitable, safe, sustainable, and affordable transportation alternatives. As suggested by the key informants, mass communication to raise awareness involving both academia and policymakers, understanding users’ perspectives at the decision-making level, and promoting equity concepts within the society are needed to change the mindset of the people towards sustainable transportation.
Finally, it should be noted that in developing country contexts, key informants/ subject matter experts may lack knowledge or not be familiar with the conditions in the field. Therefore, their knowledge might not translate well in the real world (Kumar 1989). Their views may reflect their preconceived notions or abstract ideas or their own perceptions rather than the lived experiences of the general public as often they belong to different socioeconomic strata than the population they are describing or working for (Kumar 1989). Therefore, the findings of the key informant interviews should be interpreted carefully and should act as a basis for hypothesis formulation.