We see manifestations of Kathmandu's malignant urban growth all around us: buildings that flout zoning ordinances, unplanned housing, crumbling infrastructure and a city that has exceeded its limits to growth.
But the most glaring aspect is the daily clash of pedestrian and vehicular traffic on Kathmandu's streets. Automobiles are supposed to make life easier, but they vie for urban space with the majority who are on foot and the two are often in conflict in the streets they share.
The municipality and the road authorities are supposed to manage this conflict through zebra crossings, overhead bridges, footpaths, designated pedestrianised streets and an awareness campaign among road users about their rights and responsibilities.
Zebra crossings are the simplest way to manage the conflict between walkers and riders. But zebras, even where they were painted, have now vanished from the streets. This has led to jay-walking, vehicles that don't give right of way to pedestrians, resulting in a rising number of traffic accidents. Kathmandu's city managers have neglected the fact that walking is the primary mode of travel after public transport. The result is that we have a city that is becoming more and more pedestrian-unfriendly.
A compact city where commuting to and from work on foot has always been the norm, fewer people walk because it is dangerous, polluted and inconvenient in the absence of proper footpaths. During frequent traffic jams motorcycles climb on to the sidewalks, adding to the pedestrian's woes.
Those streets with pedestrian walkways are poorly designed and badly maintained with protective railings and street furniture missing. Street lights stopped working long ago, making walking at night even more perilous.
Even the sidewalks that exist are too narrow because there are just too many people and because they are encroached upon by vendors and garbage dumps. Pedestrians therefore have no option but to spillover into the road, where they compete with the cars and motorcycles.
The pedestrian overheads and one subway in central Kathmandu were supposed to make it easier for walkers. But most people rarely use them. This happens when interventions designed for pedestrians are inappropriate and difficult, and the safety and comfort of road users are not considered. Walking on the sidewalks is unpleasant and chaotic because they are unattractive, non-vibrant and have no active building edges.
Moves by the Traffic Police to improve flow and safety of the Valley's roads should not be confined to vehicles but also to improve the ease and comfort of pedestrians. All it needs is for the municipality to re-paint the zebra crossings and improve awareness through a publicity campaign for both vehicles and people.
Easy movement of people or good pedestrian environment can only bring better accessibility and linkage between urban places. When push comes to shove (literally) and the question arises, who has the right of way, the answer should always be: the pedestrian.
Rajjan M Chitrakar is an architect and urban designer at the Nepal Engineering College. razn77(at)hotmail.com
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RAJJAN M CHITRAKAR