A rural transport solution for Bangladesh


Jamal Munshi, Sonoma State University, all rights reserved
Poverty alleviation and the development of rural areas using appropriate and sustainable technology have gained a high priority in international development programs. Prior studies of rural development have identified inadequate transportation infrastructure as an important deterrent to economic growth. We propose in this paper that gokarts offer an appropriate technology alternative for rural transportation. The technology offers low cost both for vehicle construction and in its road surface needs. Industrial infrastructure requirements for manufacture and maintenance are simple and normally widely available in developing countries even in rural areas. The technology offers improved access to markets and lower transportation costs when compared with existing alternatives.


GoKart Technology

In the 1950ís a group of tinkerers and thrill seekers in Southern California welded together a crude frame from steel tubing, mounted it on wheels intended for wheel barrows, powered the contraption with a small 3 HP engine intended for lawn mowers and raced it around the parking lot of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. These vehicles, now called "go-karts" have grown into a multi-billion dollar industry in the USA and throughout the developed world. They are made, sold, and used exclusively as recreational racers. They are not designed for transportation and it is illegal in most places to drive them on the road.

A simple unit is shown in Figure 1. These vehicles are typically 30 inches wide, 4 to 5 feet long, and weigh between 50 and 70 pounds. They are simple and inexpensive to build and operate and they can travel on rough terrain and roads at speeds exceeding 20 miles per hour. Complete assembled gokarts may be purchased online from a number of vendors including www.gokart.com, the source of Figure 1.

Although they are designed to be toys they represent significant advances to the transportation technologies available to most of the developing world both in cost and in function. The design represents a simple and inexpensive way to deliver internal combustion power. Even in the USA where labor and product liability costs are very high finished units can be purchased for $500 to $1000 depending mostly on horsepower and features. It is estimated that a complete "third world" version could be assembled in a developing country for less than $350 in component costs.

Gokarts are made from readily available garden variety industrial parts. The principal components of gokarts are shown in Figure 2. The engine, which is the most expensive component, and the one with the most technological content, is not shown in the diagram. It is usually mounted in the rear of the frame behind the seat. Engines used in US models include the Briggs and Stratton (www.briggsandstratton.com) or Tecumseh (www.tecumseh.com) 3.5HP to 5HP lawn-mower engines. These are gasoline powered two-cycle engines that are listed by online retailers for as low as $200.

It is estimated that large volume export OEM contracts could be negotiated somewhere near half this amount. Alternate Asian sources particularly China or S. Korea might yield lower cost designs. Chinese-made 4-cycle irrigation pump engines are widely available in Asia for around $100 and these may be substituted for lawn mower engines in Asian designs. An additional consideration in favor of the irrigation pump engines is that 4-cycle engines are less polluting and many countries in Asia are phasing out the use of 2-cycle engines for that reason.

Normally a 30-inch wheelbase is used with 1" by 36" threaded axles and 3 to 6 inches of ground clearance depending on type of terrain the vehicle is expected to traverse. A very elementary steering system of the tie-and-rod variety is sufficient. Brakes may be 4-1/2 inch band or drum design. Eight-inch to 14-inch standard wheels from the garden supply industry may be utilized. The other significant components are the clutch and sprocket assembly, bearings, and a throttle control assembly. One or more plastic seats may be bolted to the frame. The retail value of these components in the US is approximately $100. The welded frame that holds all of these components adds another $100 to the cost. There are many vendors of gokart parts online Ė www.cvmkarts.com is an example. Figure 2 was supplied by cvmkarts.com. Completely assembled units are beginning to appear in the consumer market.






Figure 2: Typical Go-Kart Components





Even in their most primitive forms gokarts may be adapted as transportation technology in developing countries to leverage economic growth and poverty alleviation. Gokarts offer a simple and inexpensive technology that meets many rural transportation needs. The technology is a bridge between simple pushcarts and rickshaws on one hand and the automobile and truck technology designed to western specifications on the other. The relative inefficiency of the former technology is the very cause of poverty in many areas while the cost and technological burden of the latter make them inaccessible to the poor. We now investigate the technological and economical feasibility of gokart implementation in developing countries using Bangladesh as an example.

Decentralized Implementation


Conventional development programs have tended to be indirect and centralized. In centralized implementation one large capital and technology intensive project is implemented and operated primarily with imported capital and technology. The rationale for centralized implementation is the idea that the host country is unlikely to contain the technological, cultural, or financial infrastructure to support bottoms-up grass roots changes. There is also an expediency motivation. The time frame for de-centralized implementation is projected to be unacceptably long and it is thought that a centralized approach would bring rapid benefits to the country and that the presence of the project itself would eventually bring about changes towards a more industrialized infrastructure.

The experience with centralized implementation has been disappointing. With the notable exception of certain dams and bridges, for example the Jamuna Multi-Purpose Bridge in Bangladesh, these projects have tended to remain insular islands of western technology often poorly managed and operated by government bureaucrats. In most cases there have been no measurable benefits to the rural economy or to the poor.

More recently de-centralized direct programs have been used successfully (World Bank, 1997). These programs have more modest goals and scope and longer time frames. They often operate at village levels and seek to make incremental improvements that can be supported by the existing industrial infrastructure. Typically local NGO projects are evaluated and funded by the World Bank, the UNDP, or other funding agencies.

The Grameen Bank, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee or BRAC, and the World Bank's rural improvement projects in Bangladesh are examples of successful decentralization. They rely on a bottoms-up grass-roots planning and organization scheme with local support and involvement that works at the village and Union Parishad level and yet are able to achieve significant economic gains and poverty reduction at the national level. Bangladesh may be particularly suited to decentralized rural development projects because the landed elite and power brokers of the Union Parishads are petty landholders who are unable to influence national policy (Blair 1997).

For decentralized development programs to be successful and sustainable a sufficient infrastructure that can support the new technology must exist along with a demand for the new services; and the project must be relevant to the existing economic, social, and cultural fabric (World Bank, 1996). We now examine the feasibility of a gokart project in Bangladesh in this light.


Feasibility of a Sustainable GoKart Project in Bangladesh


The necessary conditions for sustainability of a gokart project for rural development include economic, social, and technical issues. Some of the questions that must be addressed include the following: (Howe and Richards 1984, World Bank 1996, Howe 1999)

Transport infrastructure: Can the existing rural road network be used by gokarts?

Demand for new services: Will the villagers use this technology? Do they need it?

Financial feasibility: Will capital be available for investment in gokart manufacturing?

Financial feasibility: Can the villagers afford to purchase, operate, and maintain gokarts? Will credit be available?

Economic feasibility: Will the use of gokarts by villagers increase their standard of living?

Technical feasibility: Does the technical expertise exist among villagers to operate and maintain these machines?

Industrial feasibility: Does an industrial infrastructure exist that can supply parts and labor for the manufacture of gokarts?

Political feasibility: Will gokarts and their environmental and economic impact on rural life be acceptable to those in power?

Social sustainability: Will the new technology be adopted as an integral part of the rural society and will benefits of improved transport reach all sections of the community? Will it help the poor?

A well-developed cottage industry infrastructure exists in Bangladesh even in rural areas for the introduction of gokart technology. Both machine shops and welding shops may be found at most small population centers throughout the country and the operators are skilled in their work.

Small two-cycle engines have been adapted for urban and rural transport as "baby taxis" and "tempos" throughout the country. These are 3-wheeled passenger as well as freight vehicles. Their maintenance and chassis manufacture is a wide-scale cottage industry in both urban and rural areas.

Bicycles, rickshaws, and rickshaw-based freight vehicles called "vans" are also manufactured in small shops throughout the country. Truck maintenance shops provide yet another source of technical skill that may be adapted for the introduction of gokarts to the country as a cottage industry in a de-centralized implementation.

The demand for small scale motorized transport in rural Bangladesh and the ability of the rural population to adapt and adopt such technology is evident (Ahmed, 1999). For example, in much of northern Bangladesh we find that power tillers, which are exempt from import duties have been modified as road transport vehicles for both passenger and freight service. We also find that in Bangladesh the existing rural road network is uniquely suited for the introduction of gokarts. Gokarts are light and rugged and may be built with oversize tires for off-road use. In general, this technology does not make a severe road surface demand. Any rural path that is suitable for rickshaws will support gokarts. We examine the road network in more detail in the next section.

The cost of current small scale transport vehicles in Bangladesh ranges from 10,000 taka for a rickshaw to 50,000 taka for a baby taxi. A rickshaw "van" used for freight may cost 20,000 taka. At $500, or approximately 25,000 taka at 50 taka/dollar, the gokart would be in the same price range and very competitive with baby taxi technology. It is possible that once the technology takes root it will evolve into a homebrew design that is even more price competitive. Financing may be made available through the very robust microfinance industry.

Many rural development programs are opposed or subverted by the landed elite. The problem is less severe in Bangladesh because the zamindar system prevalent in India is largely absent in Bangladesh and land holdings tend to be small (Blair 1997).


A Simplified Model of Rural Road Transport in Bangladesh

Bangladesh may be thought of as a fairly flat agrarian grid of villages set about three km apart and separated by crop fields. Each village consists of about 100 households with about five people per household. The rural administrative and market hierarchy consists of Unions and Thanas. There are on average five villages to a Union and five Unions to a Thana. The administrative center of Unions and Thanas contains health, education, government, and social services as well as a market. Every nine Thanas on average is an urban center with large shops, higher education facilities, and medical centers. Each of these administrative and market centers serves as a node in the road transportation hierarchy.

Roads in Bangladesh ([photo] [photo] [photo] [photo]) are normally classified as (1) "pucca" all-season roads, (2) motorable and seasonal "kutcha" roads, and (3) narrow and non-motorable "kutcha" roads. Most roads are built on levees above the normal flood level. Pucca roads are blacktop asphalt roads. They form a backbone of inter-urban trunk connections used by buses and trucks. Along with rivers and the railroads, they form the macro transport infrastructure of the country. The Union centers and the villages are connected by Type 3 kutcha roads to the higher order road network

The kutcha roads form the primary road transportation infrastructure of the micro-economy of rural Bangladesh. In 1998, Bangladesh recorded a little over 11,000 km of pucca roads but more than 167,000 km of kutcha roads (BBS 1999). By comparison more than 25% of the roads in the general region of Asia are paved. Bangladesh is notable in the region for simultaneously possessing the most intensive road network and the least percentage of paved or pucca roads (See Table 1). This combination makes the country particularly suited to gokart transport. The road distance from villages to secondary thana-center markets is 5 km on average over mostly non-motorable roads while that to primary urban markets is more than 50 km over a mix of kutcha and pucca roads. These short distances are well within the capacity of gokart vehicles.

Human-powered modes of transport are most evident on the rural road network. These include walking and the use of push-carts, bicycles, rickshaws, and rickshaws modified for freight. In 1997 there were about 1.25 million rickshaw vehicles, about twice as many push-carts, and more than ten times as many bicycles. Animal-powered transport is also important in the rural micro economy and consists mostly of ox-carts of which more than 400,000 are reported 1997 by BBS (1999). In contrast, there were less than 200,000 motorized vehicles in the country of which about 65,000 were motorized rickshaws known as baby taxis and about 73,000 were commercial buses and trucks that ply the main pucca trunk roads. Although trucks and buses are the very important to the macro road transport infrastructure of the country they play only tangential role in the rural economy at the village level. Private motor vehicles including baby taxis are relatively unimportant in the micro road transportation infrastructure.

Freight transport of agricultural may occur at loads of approximately 100 to 200 kilograms carried in human or animal powered vehicles over short distances over kutcha roads. Aggregation and subsequent transfer of these goods in trucks or boats over the macro transportation infrastructure adds additional value to the goods that is not available to the village economy. Such a transport segmentation imposes a cost to villagers and this cost reduces the wealth of rural farmers and contributes to poverty. Almost half of the rural population lives below the poverty line. More than 80% of the farms are less than 2.5 acres in size and more than 80% of the farm acreage consists of farms of less than 7.5 acres. Farmers do not typically have access to capital to invest in conventional motorized transportation. The BBS (1999) estimates that some 890,000 country boats, 600,000 ox-carts, and 80,000 rickshaw vehicles are privately owned in rural Bangladesh. The ownership rate of motorized vehicles is insignificant.

The gokart is uniquely suited to this transport environment because it is an inexpensive form of motorized transport that can be used on kutcha roads. With sufficient credit extension small farmers and even share-croppers could afford to purchase gokarts and then to use the gokarts to generate additional wealth to repay the loan. Gokarts may be used more effectively than rickshaws or push carts on the micro road transport infrastructure. They will provide the farmers with better access to larger and more distant markets.


The Economics of Rural Transport


The importance of transportation infrastructure to rural development is well recognized in development economics literature. Jacoby (1998) shows that availability of transport increases the wealth of the landed rural poor by increasing the value of their land. Ingram and Liu (1998) develop the linkage between motorized transport and rural development but find motorization to be regressive. In Howe and Richards (1984) and in the World Bank (1999) report on "Transport and Poverty" we find that there is a well-understood linkage between rural transportation and rural development. Better transportation directly impacts the wealth of the villagers by virtue of better access to markets and services and poor access to markets and services can be causally linked to poverty..

Figure 3 (USAID, 1979) summarizes these linkages. Access to markets reduces costs and increases revenues for farmers. Further, transport reduces the cost of services such as education and health care. The essential transportation equation is that transport presents a larger geographical region to each economic actor and the larger region we presume contains greater economic wealth and more social opportunities.

But the process may not be socially sustainable in terms of poverty alleviation. Ingram and Lau (1997) and others argue that conventional motorized transport is regressive since the rich are more likely to use motorized vehicles and roads than the poor. The poor suffer from pollution and other adverse consequences of motorized transport but receive only a small trickle-down benefit. However, the "regressiveness" argument may not apply to gokarts. First, in cost they are closer to rickshaws than to cars. Second, their roadway requirements are minimal. And third, their crude and rugged design and rough ride may be acceptable to the poor but not to the rural landed elite.



Bangladesh contains the roadway network and the industrial and economic infrastructure to support a decentralized program for the introduction of gokarts in rural areas. Such an implementation would serve to leverage the use of roads and increase access to markets, health care, and education. Gokarts are a bridge technology between conventional motorized transport and human or animal powered modes. These low-cost motorized vehicles have the potential to be adopted on a large scale in rural areas and to bring about poverty alleviation and an improvement in the standard of living of the famers and sharecroppers in rural Bangladesh and in other developing countries.

Figure 3: The USAID Model of Rural Transport

(Source: www.worldbank.org, 1999)



Table 1: Comparative Transport Statistics

Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India




Roads (mi)




Roads (km)




Road length per 10,000 sq km




Road length per 1,000 sq mi




Percent roads paved




Paved road length (km) per 10,000 sq km




Paved road length (mi) per 1,000 sq mi




Total automobiles




Total trucks and buses




Persons per motor vehicle




Railroads (track/route length), miles




Railroads (track/route length), kilometers




Railroad track/route length (km) per 10,000 sq km




Railroad track/route length (mi) per 1,000 sq mi




Railroads, passengers-miles ('000,000)




Airports with scheduled flights, 1996




Air traffic, passenger-miles ('000,000)




Air cargo, short ton-miles ('000,000)




(Source: http://www.britannica.com/, 1999)


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