(Published in The Kathmandu Post, 19 October 2012)
Highways and elevated expressways are not the right solution to meet the increasing mobility demands of a growing urban population
KATHMANDU, OCT 19 –
We live in a city that respects those who ride in cars but not those who walk or cycle. We have been building more space for cars and motorbikes than for people to live in. Streets are often designed and built in a way that ensures the swift movement of vehicles, not people. Already-scarce urban spaces have been turned into parking lots and wider roads for private vehicles, while there is a lack of space for our children to even play and walk around.
No wonder—the way we are building our city is fundamentally flawed. Unless we shift the paradigm of urban development and redesign the city by putting people and sustainability at the centre of development, the urban problems are not going to go anywhere.
Urban highways kill cities
Cities are for people, but urban highways and flyovers are primarily built for private vehicles.
Despite the budget crunch, the government has decided to go on building an expensive flyover project in New Baneshwor, including a 50 m wide highway from Maitighar via Baneshwar, and is planning to build another four flyovers and an eight-lane Ring Road.
Building flyovers and urban highways to reduce the traffic congestion is simply an idiocy of the shortsighted government. These new additions would only attract more people to travel by car, creating never-ending traffic chaos in the city in no time.
Flyovers and urban highways kill the surrounding vibrant communities and small businesses, turning neighbourhood areas into unpleasant urban spaces which are dangerous to live in, with increasing air pollution, noise pollution and declining road safety. The more infrastructures are built to increase the speed of cars, the less humane and livable the city will be. These infrastructures create a car-based society and entrench the urban divide between rich and poor—those who have cars, and those who don’t.
Flyovers are very expensive to build. The cost of the proposed flyover in New Baneshwar is estimated at Rs 600 million. Draining a massive chunk of public spending on flyovers and freeways, which primarily benefit a small number of rich people, is unjustifiable.
At the same cost of building a mere 100 metres of flyover in Baneshwar, we could build around 7 km of dedicated lanes for a bus rapid transit system or over 100 km of cycle lanes throughout the city, which would benefit the middle-and low-income people who constitute the majority of the urban population.
Overhead bridges and underground crossings are other design solutions that places vehicles over pedestrians. These are primarily built to facilitate the smooth flow of vehicles, making it inconvenient for pedestrians to cross the streets and are inaccessible to the elderly, young and physically-challenged. The government should rather invest in building safer down-crossings with traffic calming measures, pedestrian prioritised traffic signals and safer sidewalks.
Lessons from Bogota and Seoul
We can learn from the successes and failures of other cities as much as from our own. Small developing cities like Kathmandu have opportunities to learn from the mistakes that the Western world has made and leapfrog towards a more sustainable path of development.
Bogota today is an exemplary city for sustainable urban mobility and the Trans Milenio bus rapid transit (BRT) system is regarded as state of the art in mass transit, inspiring cities all over the world. This was possible because of the pragmatic approach of the visionary Mayor Enrique Penelosa, who envisioned the mobility of people over vehicles.
In the 1990s, the Japanese International Corporation Agency (JICA) proposed a multi-billion dollar project to build six urban highways, flyovers and a metro system as the best way to reduce increasing traffic congestion, and offered loans for their construction in Bogota. After joining office as Mayor, Penalosa scrapped the JICA proposal and instead launched a long-term mobility strategy based on non-motorised transportation (walking and cycling), BRT system and car restraint policies. He realised that the BRT system could be built at a fraction of the cost that JICA proposed for urban highways, and providing dedicated lanes for buses can meet the mobility demands of a vast majority of the city’s residents who didn’t own cars, and therefore were unlikely to benefit from expensive highways.
The proposed highway location became a 45 km greenway for pedestrians and cyclists. For the same cost that JICA projected for a 17 km highway, he built a large network—the Trans Milenio BRT system—throughout the city, which today carries over 1.7 million passengers each day, equivalent to more than what expensive metro systems or highways would have carried. As of 2006, the city has observed a significant decline in road accident fatalities (by 89 percent), CO2 emission (by 40 percent), travel time (by 32 percent) and lowered energy consumption and air pollution. The JICA proposal would have aggravated these problems further affecting the economy, environment and social well-being of Bogota’s citizens.
In Seoul, the government built an expressway in the 60’s to solve traffic jams and improve the quality of life. Instead, Seoul experienced a worsening of traffic congestion, city environment and quality of life. The elevated expressway built over Cheonggyecheon river was completely demolished in 2003 as a part of the Cheonggyecheon restoration project to build a human-oriented and environmentally-friendly city. The project restored a creek and created a 5.8 km linear public space with riverfront parks, pedestrian ways and public squares. The city implemented a car restraint strategy and built several kilometres of dedicated bus lanes, simultaneously with the removal of the expressway. This has led to a decline in the traffic volume, air pollutants and heat island effect by as much as 8 degrees Celsius.
The chronicles of these cities show that highways and elevated expressways are not the right solution to solve traffic congestion and meet the increasing mobility demands of a growing urban population. JICA and the Chinese government should stop proposing and funding faulty multilane highway and flyover projects in Kathmandu and rather invest in affordable and efficient public transport, and improving walking and cycling environments, if they are committed to support sustainable urban development in Nepal.
As Enrique Penalosa said, “a city is more civilised not when it has more highways but when a child on a tricycle is able to move about everywhere with ease and safety”—a city that is built for the people.
Khanal is associated with Clean Energy Nepal and is working on clean air and sustainable urban mobility issues