By Prashanta Khanal [Published in The Kathmandu Post]
Trying to solve traffic jams by building bigger roads is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.” This quote from former mayor of Bogota Enrique Penalosa is worth mentioning at a time road expansion and multi-lane highways are top priority for our government, apparently to solve traffic congestion in the Kathmandu Valley. One of such projects is widening of the Ring Road to eight lanes with Chinese assistance.
Building multilane highways and flyovers is a recipe of disaster. As Penalosa said building bigger roads would further aggravate the problem. It not only attracts more people to use private vehicles for their daily mobility, but also discourage walking, cycling and using public transport. Such projects deteriorate the livability of a city with increasing congestion, pollution and road fatalities. Before building any transport infrastructure, we need to think how we can make efficient use of the existing urban road space, while providing efficient mobility to the people. We need to think whether the infrastructure and services are accessible to everyone, more importantly to the poor, elderly, people with disabilities, pedestrians and cyclists.
However, the roads are being designed and built only for those minorities of the urban population who can afford cars. What about the rights of safer mobility who cannot afford to ride cars? What about walking that has 40 percent of travel mode share? Planners are turning a blind eye to those who walk or cycle. The same road space that has apparently established democracy is itself undemocratically planned and unequally distributed. Urban roads are perfect example of inequality and divided society we live in. Cars are provided with more rights than for the people to walk or cycle.
More needs to be done
Recently Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi came to Nepal and inaugurated the Ring Road expansion project. The existing four-lane Ring Road from Kalanki to Koteshwor is being expanded to eight lanes with Chinese assistance. Moreover, the government is planning to add three improved intersections along the stretch, supposedly to ease the traffic flow. More than 1,600 trees along the 9.5km stretch are being cut down to create space for expansion. Hundreds of concerned citizens from Citizens for Trees and White Butterfly Movement signed a petition calling on the authorities to save trees, redesign the road to six lanes, and rethink the current urban transport policy. Despite this plea, the government and Chinese contractors are likely to go ahead with the planned design.
While motor vehicles are to be provided with an eight-lane road, pedestrians and cyclists are left with only 2.5m of road space. Although Nepal Road Standard clearly says that the sidewalks have to be at least 2.5m wide for urban roads, the government has failed to comply its own standards while designing roads.
There is no clear design on how the intersections and crossings will be provided for pedestrians and cyclists along the expanded stretch. Building a cycle track without safer crossings would put cyclists into more vulnerable position and discourage cycling. Three overhead bridges for pedestrians are said to be provided in 9.5km of the expanded stretch, which means a pedestrian has to walk as long as 3km just to cross a few meters of the road. How would a child and differently-able people be able to cross the street?
We do not need the eight-lane road. The six-lane Ring Road would be more than enough, in which two lanes can be exclusively provided for buses. The cycle track and pedestrian way each should be provided with at least 2.5m of right-of-way and prioritised crossing.
No consultations with local communities were held and no public participation is ensured while designing and planning the project.
In fact, the Nepal government itself has apparently no role in planning and implementing the Ring Road expansion project. It is the reality that how our so-called development partners provide their assistance in Nepal.
The Chinese dream
We are often mesmerised by the double digit economic growth in China, but we better understand that the rapid growth is happening at huge social and environmental cost. A recent study showed that outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, almost equivalent to half of the population of the Kathmandu Valley. As more and more people can afford to buy cars, Chinese cities have seen rapid increase in car ownership resulting in notoriously bad air quality, traffic accidents and congestion.
China has recently pledged to spend $275 billion to curb air pollution in major cities. It has slowly realised the repercussion of car culture, and cities are moving away from making more spaces for cars. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Guiyang are already imposing restriction on car ownership and many other cities are planning to adopt a similar policy to curb vehicular emission and congestion in the cities.
China is now aggressively investing in public transport system and building bicycle infrastructures. Its cities are building more lines of metros and providing right-of-way for buses, known as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, which makes the bus service faster, more efficient and attractive. As of today there are 17 BRT system providing services to millions of passengers each day.
Guangzhou is an exemplary city on urban mobility. It has one of world’s best BRT systems, serving over 850,000 passengers each day, which is higher than most metro and light rail worldwide. Guangzhou BRT reduces CO2 emissions by 86,000 tonnes annually. It has 46km of segregated cycleways and over 5,000 on-street cycle parking facilities. It has built over 1,000km of greenways along the river corridors, which link all the city’s heritage sites and landscapes. If we look at Kathmandu, instead of restoring rivers and building greenways along the river corridors, we are building roads exclusively for motor vehicles.
Once dominated by bicycles, Chinese cities are now realising the importance of bicycle and are proactively promoting cycling. There are currently 39 public bike sharing scheme in China. Guangzhou launched a bike sharing system in 2010 with 5,000 bikes and 113 stations, primarily along the BRT corridor, which is used by around 20,000 people every day. Hangzhou, a city in southern China, has the largest bike sharing system in the world with over 65,000 bikes and 2,700 bike-share stations. The programme, which has around 325,000 daily system trips, was funded by the city government and has aimed to expand to 175,000 bikes by 2020.
We can learn much more from the Chinese cities, avoid the same mistakes they did and move towards more balanced and sustained development . It is not too late to redesign the Ring Road and make it more accessible, efficient and people friendly.