If Kathmandu is pedestrian and cycle-friendly, there’s no need to invest massive resources on roads and mass transit
This article by Prashanta Khanal was published on The Kathmandu Post on JAN 18 2013
Around 30 percent of urban households own bicycles whereas less than 28 percent own private vehicles. In fact, a mere four percent own cars, according to the 2011 National Census Report. However, the planners have overlooked this fact and failed to recognise cycling as an integral part of urban transport planning. The roads are often built only for motor vehicles. With bigger roads and increasing motorisation, the roads have become unsafe for cyclists. A study even shows that the travel mode share of cycles in Kathmandu Valley has dropped from 6.6 percent in 1991 to 1.5 percent in 2011.
Once a means of mobility for higher-class people, cycles are now perceived as a poor’s man vehicle. The bourgeois urban society often looks down on people who walk or cycle. More people are shifting from walking and cycling to private vehicles for their daily mobility. Increasing motorisation has choked the city with polluted air and led to increased health costs, road fatalities and fossil fuel dependency. It has drained massive amounts of resources on expensive road and parking infrastructures.
Cycling is typically invisible in urban transport planning. Planners often cite lower mode share of cycles as an excuse to not build cycle lanes. They are ignorant that the falling share of cycling is the repercussion of the way they have designed road space, which primarily benefits motor vehicles and are unsafe for cyclists.
The right-of-way space needed for cyclists in already congested roads is another excuse. This issue is only a matter of what we prioritise first—people or vehicles? If we prioritise vehicles, there will never be space for pedestrians and cyclists. It is ethical in every way for pedestrians and a cyclist to take up road space, which is currently exclusively enjoyed by motor vehicles, to provide them with safer spaces to move. It will eventually make the street more efficient and decreases traffic as well.
But the paradox is that transport planners seem to need more roads, urban highways and flyovers to solve traffic congestion and meet the future demands of private motor vehicles. Even after all these experiences from cities around the world and our own transport planning approach, policy makers and planners are yet to realise that urban transport problems can’t be simply solved by building more road infrastructures, and that we need a radical new approach to solve these problems.
Cycling is pro-poor mobility, and cycle-friendly cities are more humane and liveable. It brings the rich and poor together to share common urban space, and promotes social cohesion. Cycle lanes are an issue of social equity—those using cycles have equal rights to the public space enjoyed by richer people in cars. As former mayor of Bogota Enrique Penalosa said, “a cycle lane is a symbol that shows that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important as a citizen in a $30,000 car”.
The Department of Roads has recently decided to make a provision for a cycle track from Tinkune to Maitighar, which was actually planned 10 years ago but failed to materialise. It should be noted, however, that to make Kathmandu a city safe to cycle in, the government needs to build an entire network of cycling infrastructures, not just a cycle track. Although, the Secretary at the Ministry of Physical Planning, Works and Transport Management has pledged to build 100 km of cycle lanes within 10 years in a television interview, no plan or strategy towards that end exists as of today.
Chief Secretary Leelamani Poudel, a cycle enthusiast, openly called for everyone to cycle to work. But, more importantly, what he ought to do is to ensure that the roads are safe for cycling. He ought to ensure that every road that is being widened in the city has a provision for cycle tracks, and should proactively push for cycle-inclusive transport policies.
Learn to leapfrog
European and North American cities adopted the same destructive urban planning policy as Kathmandu is implementing today back in the 1960’s and 70’s. They dismantled settlements and built wider roads and urban highways to create more space for cars. But since then, they have realised their mistakes and have made a paradigm shift in transport planning by shifting focus from moving vehicles to moving people. This learning provides an opportunity for developing cities like Kathmandu to avoid mistakes and leapfrog to a more sustainable path.
Copenhagen is regarded as one of the world’s most cycle-friendly cities. Cycling is more than simply a mode of mobility there—it is a culture. 36 percent of all journeys to work, school and university are entirely done on cycles. The city government has set an ambitious goal to increase cycling share to 50 percent by 2015. The calculated cost that society saves in Denmark for each kilometre cycled is US $0.5, which means shifting people from cars to cycle is an excellent investment for the nation as well.
In the Netherlands, there are more cycles than there are people. Over 60 percent of inner city trips and 38 percent of trips in the greater city area is made by cycles in Amsterdam. They have dismantled multi-lane, one-way systems, reduced four-lane motor roads to two-lane, and core city areas have been made car-free to provide more space for pedestrians and cyclists. There are no six-lane roads and flyovers inside the city, and it has very few four-lane roads. Car parking areas have been turned into bicycle parking areas. With the reduction of road width and introduction of a network of high-quality cycling and pedestrian infrastructures, the city’s mobility is better than ever and road safety has improved dramatically. This has been possible because of pro-bicycle policies.
Kathmandu Valley is a relatively smal city. The dense urban settlements are within the periphery of three-to-five km from the central area. Average journeys are less than five km, which is a walk-able and cycle-able distance. If only we can make this city pedestrian and cycle-friendly, we need not invest massive amount of resources on road infrastructures and mass transit.
(This article is dedicated to all those individuals who dare to cycle for daily mobility despite the safety concerns, and to Prahlad Yonzon and other cyclists who lost their lives while benefiting society.)