12-18 December 2014 #736

Needed: political will for public transport

Plans are afoot to modernise and streamline Kathmandu’s disorderly urban transportation system
Elvin L Shrestha

The SAARC Summit may have been an opportunity to spruce up Kathmandu’s urban transportation system, but we missed the bus on that one.

Not only did the capital grind to a halt for four days, but after the Summit, roads newly paved at enormous expense did little to prevent the return of massive traffic jams. It showed that micro-buses and small three-wheelers cannot address the mass transit needs of a city of 2.5 million people anymore.

“The present public transport is inadequate and inappropriate for the size of the city,” says Dhruba Raj Regmi, a consultant with the Kathmandu Sustainable Urban Transport Project supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). “We are working on restructuring bus routes with terminals, to make them more reliable and improve the service.”

Unreliable and congested vehicles have forced commuters to rely on two-wheelers and cars which in turn exacerbate the traffic crisis, increasing pollution, and adding to the country’s fuel bill.

Transit experts say Kathmandu needs to at least double its existing public transport capacity to meet the demand of a rising population. The road-widening campaign started by Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai in 2012 unblocked the city’s main arteries, but experts say it is not a sustainable solution.

“It was a good start, but had it been planned with a public transportation system in mind it would have been more effective,” explained Regmi.

Kathmandu sees 3.4 million person/trips a day, nearly half the people commute on foot, there are 5,300 public transport vehicles owned by 1,000 private operators plying on 200 routes. These disparate and uncoordinated services need to be streamlined for which there needs to be the political will and the managerial capacity to run an efficient public transport utility.

“Assisting in building urban infrastructure and amenities remains one of the top priority areas of ADB’s assistance strategy for Nepal,” says the ADB’s representative in Nepal, Kenichi Yokoyama. “How well urban development is planned and implemented will have critical implications as to how fast the economy can grow while making people happy about their living environment.”

The ADB project hopes to revamp public transport in Kathmandu with new infrastructure, traffic management, pedestrian-friendly roads and air quality monitoring. “Restructuring existing bus routes is one of the main objectives of the project,” says Regmi, “we plan to have eight primary, 16 secondary and 42 tertiary routes so that no part of the city will be more than 600m from a bus stop.”

The plan is to assign large, 12-m buses on the arterial routes, smaller buses in the secondary routes which will be connected by the tertiary feeder routes (see map). The project plans to deploy battery-powered buses on a pilot route from Gwarko via Mangal Bajar to Balkhu with support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

The project also plans to improve traffic management at 32 junctions and other traffic bottlenecks, refine 15 km of sidewalks to improve the walking environment and monitor air pollution levels.

One of the biggest hurdles for the ADB project will not be technical, but a managerial and political one to consolidate current operators into one urban transport cooperative in which the present owners will have shares. Regmi admits that this will be a challenge, but says other cities like Bogota have done it. “Major decisions like routes, time shifts and pricing can then be more regulated, drivers and conductors can be paid a fair wage and commuters will benefit,” Regmi says.

Says Yokoyama: “The project implementation has recently picked up, we hope that this will contribute to building a strong consensus on the vision and concrete blueprint for the future Kathmandu.”

The recent revival of Sajha Yatayat has shown that this can be done if there is the political will. Sajha’s network can be upgraded with a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, a bus-based public transport network that assigns large capacity vehicles on designated routes and priority lanes. Its costs are significantly less than those of underground metro networks, and experience from Jakarta, Ahmedabad and Curitiba in Brazil are proof that this works.

An underground metro system would be ideal, but they are prohibitively expensive to build, operate and maintain. Says Regmi: “For now, a BRT is the best option. We blame our predecessors for bad planning, but let’s not forget that we may be blamed after 30 years for doing nothing.”

Read also:

Rescuing Kathmandu from its future, Kunda Dixit

...and what about the roads, Dewan Rai

Where have all the zebras gone?, Rajjan M Chitrakar

Going microbus crazy, Alok Tumbahangphey

The road to safety, Bhrikuti Rai

Nepal’s autonomy, Elvin L Shrestha

Sajha goes green, Sunir Pandey

Underground and aboveground, Kanak Mani Dixit

The real fast track, Ratna Sansar Shrestha

The roads not taken, Salil Subedi and Alok Tumbahangphey