Building A Map For The Insane Public Transit Of Bangladesh

Dhaka’s buses are often unmarked, and very people know where they go. A new project is sending riders on them with GPS devices in the hopes of making the city’s first transit map.

Imagine a city of 18 million people, a place with few road markings and little signage, and a shambles of rickshaws, motorbikes, trucks, buses, and cars. Now imagine trying to take public transit without a map, and not knowing which company’s services go where. Many of us get pissed off getting around town, but Dhaka–Bangladesh’s capital–surely takes a gong for urban inconvenience.


To do something about it, a Boston-based group of technologists has come up with a plan: Ask locals what might improve their city (normally, nobody asks), and develop a map that helps people get around (even long-time residents don’t know all the routes, they point out). By improving the bus experience, they hope to encourage ridership, and mitigate a growing trend toward private vehicle ownership. Like many developing-world cities, Dhaka is being choked by its own economic success.

Last year, the group (called Urban Launchpad) traveled to Dhaka and teamed up with a local advocacy group, named Kewkradong. Together, they sent out a “flock” of eight volunteers, who used a bespoke smartphone “bus tracker and survey app” to record routes, detail conditions, and ask passengers for their opinions. In a week, they managed to ride a total of 270 buses on two lines, interviewing 1,000 people. They now want to expand the project to the whole city, and are asking for help on Kickstarter. The plan is to print 1,000 maps to start with, and then move on to other aspects of the bus system.

“One of the toughest parts of navigating the bus system is simply knowing which bus to take,” says Stephen Kennedy, one member of Urban Launchpad.

“Near the Kazipara Bus Stand in the Mirpur neighborhood, we counted nearly 180 buses crossing through one intersection over a 20-minute period. It’s one thing if you can read Bengali and pick out the right bus, but even locals can find this difficult, as many of the buses aren’t even properly marked with route identification. This is why we want to include actual images of buses on the reverse side of the maps, coded to key routes for specific neighborhoods.”

“The funding we’re raising through Kickstarter will primarily be used for the production and distribution of the maps. It will also provide some operational support for the organization during our next phase of data collection, including seeding low-cost smartphone trackers with data plans to our flock,” says Kennedy.

As well as distributing hand-sized maps, the team also hopes to print the design in large format and develop an “info-structure” including bus-stop signage, bus markings, and live bus trackers. By surveying riders, they’ll also investigate SMS-based ticketing, mobile Wi-Fi hot-spots, and traffic alerts.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.