FEB 05 –
With a call from Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai to ease traffic woes in the Valley, the Traffic Police Division, Roads Department and Kathmandu Town Development Committee initiated a rampant road widening campaign. Along with road widening, new corridors are opening or being planned supposedly to ease the congestion. The PM’s concern on improving urban transport is admirable, however, spending billions of rupees to widen roads is unwise as the benefits we are talking about now are short-timed and will never meet the demands of the growing population in the Valley.
As Enrique Penelosa, former mayor of Bogota, said, “Trying to solve traffic jams by building more road infrastructure is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline”.
There is something fundamentally wrong with our vision. We haven’t yet been able to prioritise people over vehicles, and we still follow the conventional approach of “Predict and Provide” in addressing transport problems in cities. The government widens roads, builds urban highways to ease traffic congestion, and invests massive resources in such projects. This encourages people to travel more via private vehicles thereby inducing traffic, because the new roads are more convenient.
And in no time the road space will be congested. This results in reduced road safety, degraded air quality, loss in public transport ridership, and decline in non-motorised transport facilities. With further increment of vehicular traffic, studies predict insufficient road space. This vicious cycle never can be broken unless we choose new a paradigm for urban transport.
Most cities in the world are moving away from building urban highways and bigger roads as they find it disastrous. Instead, they are focusing on mass transit systems and making their cities more walkable and cycle-friendly.
Adversely, we are using resources to expand roads, often at the expense of sidewalk and pedestrian safety. Many sidewalks have been completely destroyed to widen roads, forcing people to walk along vehicles.
The roads are becoming increasingly dangerous to walk on. Pedestrian’s fatalities are increasing as they are the largest group to be killed in road accidents. A 2001 study showed that 18.1 percent of daily mobility is entirely made on foot but account for 45percent of fatalities from road accidents. Bigger roads and fast lanes through the city will increase road fatalities. For example, more than a dozen people were killed before the Kathmandu-Bhaktapur road was completed.
The Majority of people use public transportation, however, the infrastructure and services are in a sorry state. People have no choice than to endure unsafe, uncomfortable, and inefficient services if they don’t have their own motor transport. So if our vision is safer and efficient urban mobility, then we need to emphasise making our city pedestrian and cycle-friendly, and invest in improving the mass transit system.
Kathmandu is relatively small and many places are easily accessible by foot and cycle. The plain terrain and year-round mild climate makes it cosier to opt for non-motorised modes of transport. As it is, hundreds of people cycle through the city daily despite declining road safety. We ought to learn from the failure of car-based cities and the successes of cities which have prioritised and invested in measures for cyclists and pedestrians, and improved mass transit systems.
(This article was published in The Kathmandu Post on Feb 05, 2012)