How often have you heard that Vancouver has some of the worst traffic congestion in the world? Yeah, right.

If you spend some time in Bangladesh’s capital, you begin to look anew at the word “traffic,” and to revise your definition. In other cities, there are vehicles and pedestrians on the roads; occasionally, the roads get clogged, and progress is impeded. The situation in Dhaka is different. Dhaka’s traffic is traffic in extremis, a state of chaos so pervasive and permanent that it has become the city’s organizing principle. It’s the weather of the city, a storm that never lets up. …

There are just 60 traffic lights in Dhaka, and they are more or less ornamental; few drivers heed them. The main problem with Dhaka’s anarchic streets, though, is that there aren’t enough. The Daily Star has reported that just 7 percent of Dhaka is covered by roads. (In places like Paris and Barcelona, models of 19th-century urban planning, the number is around 30 percent.) Footpaths are also an issue. There are too few sidewalks in Dhaka, and those that exist are often impassable, occupied by vendors and masses of poor citizens who make their homes in curbside shanties.

dhaka2-master675The usual solution to congestion in cities like Dhaka is to move commuters under the streets rather than over them. But Dhaka has no subway, and no concrete plans to build one. The problem is compounded by the growing status-symbol appeal of private transport: a vogue for automobiles among Dhaka’s middle classes that is adding tens of thousands of new vehicles to the city’s streets every year. …

There is one form of transportation in Dhaka that might be deemed gentle, at least by the city’s hard-as-nails standards. Bicycle rickshaws are the quaintest and most ubiquitous of all the vehicles on Dhaka’s streets. No one is certain about the size of the city’s rickshaw fleet. (Only a fraction of the vehicles are officially licensed.) Most estimates put the number upward of 200,000; some reckon there are several times that many.

Arguing about rickshaws is as big a pastime in Dhaka as riding them. There have been many proposals to ban the machines, but the efforts have always been beaten back. Some contend that rickshaws are the vehicles best-suited to traffic-choked roads, and the most environmentally friendly. Others say that they are inefficient, that four rickshaws rolling abreast on a Dhaka street take up the square footage of a bus while transporting just eight passengers. …

I knew, of course, that it was unseemly for a visitor from one of the world’s richest cities to aestheticize the chaos and dysfunction of one of its poorest. Traffic in Dhaka is not just a nuisance. It is poverty, it’s injustice, it’s suffering.

Yet nearly everyone I met in Dhaka spoke of the traffic as a trial by fire, a test of mettle, a horror that is also a perverse source of pride. One woman, a lifelong Dhaka resident, told me she “missed the jams” when she lived abroad: In the big cities of Europe and America, the relative lack of congestion unnerved her. When you make it through a day in Dhaka, when you make it across a snarled intersection, you have triumphed against the odds, and over the gods. The town puts you in a philosophical frame of mind. Dhaka teaches that travel is hell, but it also reminds you of the primitive wonder of travel, the truth that, to complete any journey, no matter how quotidian, is to conquer space, and — depending just how awful the congestion is on the Mirpur Road — to subdue time.