Derailed Urban Mobility

Posted: July 7, 2011 in Uncategorized

What happened to our trolley buses that once provided a cleaner mode of transport to the valley commuters? It used to be one of the cleanest and most efficient bus systems in South Asia. What happened to our Sajha Yatayat, which was once a legend for mass public transportation? Sajha Yatayat which means travelling together is a simple concept that metros in the world are adopting.

As the city is growing, the traffic snarl has gone haywire and (not coincidentally) the air pollution in the valley is over and above. The traffic snarls usually seen in urban core areas have now stretched to suburb regions of the valley. A website (allworldcars.com) listed Kathmandu as the world’s top 20 cities with the worst traffic jams and called it a city of pollution and traffic jams.

With the demise of public-owned trolley bus in 2001 and of Sajha Yatayat well before2007 due to bankruptcy, public transportation service now is exclusively provided by the private sector. Gradually, the bigger and better buses were replaced by smaller micro vans (primarily built for a family), adding to the traffic chaos.  The buses are overcrowded and provide the least minimum service to the passengers. A family size van runs with more than two dozens people at a time. Crime, theft and pick pocketing in the public transportation has seen a rapid increase.

More private vehicles are expected to hit the road if the state of our public transportation remains the same.  More young people are opting motorbikes and more middle-class family own cars due to easy installment system and companies manufacturing precisely as their needs. It is absurd that the space built for cars is exceeding the space for people to live in. More infrastructure are built for running, parking, fueling and cleaning the cars than for the people to walk, entertain, socialize and live.  

We should learn before it’s too late that the future of private vehicles centric development is bleak. We can learn lessons from our neighboring countries. Look at Beijing- the bicycles that once ruled the place, were gradually replaced by cars. Now it is literally chocked up in smoke and has the highest traffic congestion than in any other city in the world. Quite clearly, the government is having a hard time curbing the air pollution and solving traffic problems.

Non-motorized transportation (NMT) systems like walking and cycling are one of the most important and
quite integral parts of sustainable mobility. Cities around the world are transforming themselves into a more walkable venue. Conversely, the development of NMT system seems, is not prioritized by our government. The existing pedestrian’s infrastructures are in a pitiful state; don’t even get me started on the many potholes they have. And as though that wasn’t enough, the pedestrian’s paths are used for parking cars and bikes, and often encroached by vendors. A walkability survey done in Kathmandu valley in December by Clean Air Network Nepal and CAI-Asia revealed that the pedestrian facility in Kathmandu is not user-friendly to physically disabled people and overall, is in a terrible condition.

The story of unsustainable mobility doesn’t end here. We are addicted to fossil fuel in every stretch of our walk. And we expend major share of our GDP on importing foreign oils to fuel motor vehicles, neglecting the potential of hydropower in replacing the oils. Transportation is a major contributor of air pollution in the valley. The level of air pollutants PM10 is almost double the national standard and far above the WHO guideline. Valley dwellers are choking in smoke and admitted to hospitals due to respiratory problems every year. And this all contributes to the economic loss of our nation.

 “When shall we stop extending roads to richer people and start providing safer and convenient transportation system for all? When will we transform our cities to more habitable and equitable place to live in?”                                 

In fact we don’t have to go far to learn about sustainable mobility. Just look back, turn some pages of our transportation history. The trolley system built in mid 70s is an emblematic example to gain insight on how our future public transportation model should look like. The Manakamana cable car portrays how our road-based and fossil fuel dependence transportation should shift to a better one.

The hustling bustling streets of Basantapur Durbar square have transformed into a serene milieu after the city government decided to go vehicle free. Local people and more sightseers have now found tranquility with the backdrop of ancient architectural settings.

Building safer and attractive pedestrians paths and zones would encourage more people to walk (an integral part of urban mobility system) allowing people to socialize and have a safer and healthier mobility. An exclusive bike lane means more people tend to bike for their daily activities, thus reducing their dependency on private motor vehicles.

We have largely depended upon vehicles running on fossil fuels (that we don’t have) and its share is ever increasing. Reviving the trolley bus system and investing in other electric and rail based transportation system would not only give efficient urban mobility to the city dwellers but also both environmental and socio-economic benefits.

Recently, a news was published on Republica about upgrading ring roads to 8 lanes with loans from neighboring country. Building more roads and extending it, is merely a solution to the increasing traffic snarls. We can’t ignore the facts from the mega cities around the world that more roads added; more private motors are expected to hit the roads. It’s more like putting gasoline in the fire to ignite it more. To put it bluntly, the only solution to this burning issue is to provide city dwellers with integrated transportation system with efficient and affordable public transportation and land use planning.

Bus Rapid Transit: revolutionizing urban mobility       

In most of the world today, bus transport is unpopular and often categorized as inefficient, inconvenient and unreliable mode of transportation. However, the development of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system is changing these perceptions and revolutionizing the urban transport system. It has shown greater hope towards sustainable urban mobility and livable cities.

In the Kathmandu valley, the currently running bus system could be upgraded to BRT system that would not only provide the city dwellers with safer, convenient and efficient mobility but also reduces the air pollution and carbon emissions. Development of BRT system in the capital would provide commuters with safer and faster mobility, and the project seems viable to build and operate due to its lower cost.

Specially characterized by separate or designated lanes with cleaner and safer shelter, comfortable and efficient buses, inexpensive fare, pre-board fare collection system and rapid boarding, BRT system is attributed to lower development and operational cost, much lower compared to the development of rail based system. These specific features attract many cities opting BRT as an urban transport system.

Transport planner and policy makers in large cities in Asia have already started opting BRT system as an urban transport system. And it is successfully running in neighboring cities Ahmadabad in India. BRT system is currently operating in around 120 cities with many of them expanding. And in many new cities, it’s under construction and many others have already planned to build.

The development of BRT system can be traced back to the mid 70s in Curitiba, Brazil. But it gained momentum after the TransMilenio system in Bogota, Columbia that started operating in 2000. Bogota city is regarded as a model of sustainable urban mobility and is an example for cities around the world.

Similarly BRT system in Jakarta (TransJakarta) that started providing service since 2004, is now the world’s largest BRT system in the world providing service to over 260,000 passengers a day. It provides a cleaner, safer and faster way for Jakarta’s citizens to get through the crazy traffic congestion. According to ITDP, The BRT system in Jakarta reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 37,000 metric tons in 2009, the equivalent of taking 6,800 cars off the road. The other most significant thing is that over 25% of passenger switched from using their private motorized vehicles for some trips.

TransJakarta is now not only a mode of urban mobility, it is something that Indonesian citizens are proud of; it’s literally become a symbol of National Icon here in Jakarta. They don’t tend to talk about the number of cars they have but the number of corridors they have for TransJakarta.

Having a number of co-benefits with the sustainable mobility service for the city dwellers, the BRT system also have opportunity for carbon trading as TransMilenio sytem in Bogota that receives revenue for curbing carbon emissions.

Why not in our capital, we integrate the trolley bus system with the features of BRT system. Lets say eBRT system that will run with the electricity we produce in our own country rather than importing fuels from other countries. It would be the most environmentally and locally sustainable transport system unlike the other BRT system around the world.

Every politician we have, have shown us dream of transforming our capital city into Singapore. Efficient and integrated mass transportation system, Light Rail Transit (LRT) system, Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) and parking management are some of the transportation management efforts in Singapore that we can learn and draw lessons for our own city. And we still have a hope to see our dream come true. It’s not impossible; the only thing we need is a vision and a strong political commitment to head towards a sustainable urban development. Technical and financial barrier are merely issues and that we will be able to solve if we work together.

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