'Re-cycling' Kathmandu is not so easy
By 7:30AM on 5 June, hundreds of cycling enthusiasts had gathered at Patan Darbar Square. Pedestrians, activists, politicians, and cyclists were marking World Bicycle Day and call for green, bicycle-friendly infrastructure in Kathmandu.
It was the first rally in more than two years because of the pandemic. The new and re-elected mayors of Lalitpur, Kathmandu, and Kirtipur were all present to show their commitment to supporting dedicated cycling lanes for a more environmentally friendly Kathmandu Valley.
Participants were promoting cycling as a sustainable mode of transportation, an alternative to private vehicles including motorbikes, emissions from which are among the major contributors to Kathmandu’s dangerous levels of air pollution.
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Kathmandu is one of the most polluted cities in the world with PM2.5 concentration over eight times the WHO recommended guidelines. Long-term exposure to these pollutants means that the life expectancy of residents is reduced by nearly four years.
Pushkar Shah, an international cyclist and activist who has pedalled across 150 countries hopes that a cycling culture in Kathmandu can help reduce pollution. “We know Kathmandu is polluted, we are always talking about dust and pollution. But we have to do more, we have to educate ourselves to clean up the city,” he says.
Advocates maintain that promoting cycling and creating dedicated bike lanes could significantly reduce vehicle emissions, especially from the nearly 1.5 million two-wheelers in the streets of Kathmandu. “If we promote a bicycle day just once a week, we can reduce 1.5 million litres of fuel every year,” adds Shah. “We can save money as well as clean up the air."
Kathmandu Valley is naturally bicycle-friendly with relatively short distances between areas, moderate temperature, and few steep inclines in urban areas. But roads in the capital are unsafe, since bicycles must navigate around cars, buses, and motorbikes that might not respect a cyclist’s right of way.
In 2011, renowned conservationist and cycling activist Pralad Yonzon was killed when a vehicle hit him on his bicycle. Seven years later, cyclist Shyam Shrestha drowned when his bicycle fell into an open drain in Kirtipur.
In 2019, Lalitpur introduced its first 4.7km cycle lane between Kupondole and Mangal Bazar. Mayor Chiribabu Maharjan promised to cycle to work and encouraged his staff to do the same. The city also planned to build 110 cycle stands.
A year later, Mayor Maharjan introduced the Cycle Act 2076 in collaboration with the Nepal Cycle Society. He said: “Neither the central nor the federal government has talked about a cycle lane or safety for cyclists to date. By enforcing this law, we want to assure our citizens that cycling is safe in Lalitpur and to encourage everyone to cycle.”
The proposed act increased safety for cyclists and those in wheelchairs and suggested fines for drivers and motorists who violated cycle lanes. But in the lack of national cycling legislation, efforts to establish a bicycle law have met obstacles. Lalitpur’s municipal government has in fact clashed with the central government’s Department of Roads over cycle lane management.
“The main reason the Act has not come into effect is because the central and provincial governments do not have a Cycle Act,” says Tara Lal Shrestha, a professor at Tribhuvan University and a coordinator for Cycle Culture Movement Nepal. “The central government needs to make a bicycle Act or policy.”
A primary challenge is space. In areas like Patan’s historic old town, many streets are only wide enough to accommodate a single car, let alone separated lanes for cyclists. But environmental engineer Bhushan Tuladhar explains that effective bike lanes are possible if properly planned.
Compared to 3.5m needed for private vehicles, bicycle lanes only take up 1.5m. For some of Kathmandu’s wider roads, there is room for more than one bike lane. “We can prioritise bike lanes and plan for what is most appropriate for every type of street,” adds Tuladhar.
There are now plans for an additional cycle lane to act as a 9km ring road between Balkhu, Bagmati and Balkumari bridges. The future of Kathmandu Valley’s bicycle lanes is not just a question of building infrastructure, however, but attitude.
Bias against cycling as a lesser means of transportation can damage efforts to establish the lanes. “Bicycles are usually seen as for the poor, not something to aspire for, so people do not prioritise bike lanes,” adds Tuladhar.
But having bicycle lanes alone will not protect cyclists. The traffic, buses and the motorcycles need to follow rules and prioritise pedestrians and cyclists. Existing cycle lanes are only demarcated by green-painted paths and there is no national cycling law motorists must abide by.
Adds Shah: “One day, I hope, Kathmandu will be a bicycle-friendly city. One day, I hope our dreams will come true.”
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