The four-lane Tripureswor-Teku road was converted to six-lanes by encroaching on the footpath. When Ring Road was widened all eight new lanes were given to cars, although the original agreement mentioned bicycle lanes on both sides.
This car-centric development has resulted an increase in vehicular traffic as well as unsafe streets, mainly for pedestrians and cyclists. Although 40% of the trips in Kathmandu are on foot, pedestrian safety is often ignored. Almost half of the traffic fatalities in Kathmandu are pedestrians.
The transport system in Kathmandu and other cities in Nepal need to be people-centric rather than car-centric. The COVID-19 lockdown has just made this need even more urgent.
Kathmandu’s first Masterplan – Physical Development Plan Kathmandu Valley, 1969 mentions: ‘Vehicle traffic in the city cores of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhadgaon, must be prohibited.’ That was 50 years ago, and no one listened then, and no one bothers now.
In the past few years Kathmandu and Lalitpur municipalities have taken some initiatives to promote walking and cycling. But the approach has been piecemeal, the pace slow, and response from the public lukewarm. In fact, when the City Planning Commission of Kathmandu discussed pedestrianising core areas many locals businesses opposed the idea. Experience from around the world, including MG Road in Gangtok to Times Square in New York, show that shops benefit when streets are given to people.
The COVID-19 lockdown now provides an opportunity for Kathmandu and Lalitpur to set aside increased space for walking or cycling. Restricting vehicles in areas like New Road and Thamel will allow physical distancing, enhance local businesses and improve air quality.
Municipalities will need to immediately engage with local stakeholders and roll out plans before the cars take over the streets again. This pandemic also provides an opportunity for long overdue restructuring of public transport – making it more reliable, safe and attractive to all users through route restructuring, bus fleet improvement, operational efficiency and digitisation of information and fare collection.
While private bus operators are needed, the role of government should also be clearly defined. It needs to also invest in the public transport system and work closely with the private operators to make it efficient and sustainable. All private bus operators are facing heavy losses and possibly bankruptcy, so the government needs to not just rescue them but also transform their functions.
This may be the best time to go green as well. The National Electricity Authority says there is excess electricity in the national grid, and hydropower may have to be ‘spilled’, particularly at night. What better way to utilise this energy than store it in batteries for use in public transport instead of dirty diesel.
At a time when economy is suffering due to the pandemic, cutting down on oil imports can be a big relief. While the coronavirus may increase private car use and stigmatise public transport, it also presents an opportunity to transform our transportation sector. This is our chance to make the future of mobility people-centric rather than car-centric. Are we ready to make the move?
Bhusan Tuladhar is an environmentalist and Executive Director of Sajha Yatayat. This is the first of a two-part series, the second part next week will deal with bicycle lanes.