The citizens of Kathmandu Valley react in different ways to the deteriorating air quality: some wear masks, many complain about it, others write letters to editors, but one group of activists is trying to set an example by making Kathmandu more bicycle-friendly.
Most of the pollution is made up of particulate matter from roadside dust, but 40 per cent of it is from vehicular emissions. At busy intersections, the diesel and petrol exhaust component of pollution is much higher. Which is why Cycle City Network Nepal (CCNN) is trying to promote cycling.
Inspired by Critical Mass gatherings on the last Friday of every month in 300 cities around the world, CCNN brings together enthusiasts every month in Basantapur Darbar Square to promote lowering of Nepal’s carbon footprint, encouraging a healthier lifestyle through cycling and putting pressure on the government to pass greener transport legislation.
“Our presence in the street is trying to put pressure on the government,” says Chakshu Malla, who has been with CCNN since the beginning. “Cyclists are part of the traffic, so we need proper space, useable cycle lanes and our rights.”
The global Critical Mass movement strives to ‘reclaim the street’ through greater visibility, using a hoard of cyclists en masse to demand relevance amidst a sea of motorised vehicles.
“KCC2020 initially started as a political and economic solution to fuel dependency and to address the fact that two-thirds of our national deficit is because of petroleum products,” says president Shail Shrestha.
Cyclists in Nepal are currently facing an auto-hegemony. While the reliance on motorcycles as a mode of transport has increased threefold over the last few decades, constituting 75 per cent of all privately owned vehicles on the road, the dependence on cycles for daily travel has diminished from a modal share of 6.6 percent in 1991 to just 1.5 percent in 2012. And though the percentage of homes owning a bicycle around the country is more than that of car and motorbike owners combined, in the Valley motorised two-wheelers outnumber cycles by 3:1.
The government’s response to the outcry for the need for cycle lanes has been slow. While the expansion project of the Maitighar-Tinkune road two years ago also added a cycle lane, because of improper signage, an inconsistent track and poor choice in paving material, nobody (not even cyclists) knows it is a cycle path. Though similar projects are underway, like the widening of the southern stretch of Ring Road, these efforts require an extensive overhaul of existing infrastructure, which has been a deterrent to what is really needed – an expansive network of connecting and well-maintained cycle paths. And since piecemeal expansions are planned with only motorised vehicles in mind, it creates even more dangers for already hazardous cycle commutes.
“Although we have been told by officials, including the Secretary of the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport, that they will build cycle tracks in several roads, they have never implemented the projects or allocated the budget,” says Prashanta Khanal, biking enthusiast.
“The government’s priority is not the mobility of people but to make vehicles swifter, which leads to unsafe roads for cyclists and pedestrians.”
Cycling became popular during the Indian blockade and the fuel crisis because there was no other alternative, now the reason has been to cut down on pollution. “No petrol, no problem,” says 67-year-old Shiva Gurung, a regular at Critical Mass gatherings who used to bike from Pokhara to Kathmandu. “Day by day, pollution is increasing so we need to encourage the young population to cycle and teach them the right way to do things.”
Says Shrestha: “The political, social and environmental consciousness is on our side, and the situation is turning not only in Kathmandu, it’s happening around the world.”
Spin city, Foo Chee Chang
Cyclists and the city, Bhrikuti Rai