Cars vs people in Kathmandu

City life and the many benefits it represents, including better healthcare, reliable transport and quality education, are the main pull factors for migration. The social networks of cities continue to be one of the principal drivers of economic productivity across the globe.

Yet cities can also harm. Air pollution, traffic congestion, over-crowding and noise are some of the defining features of the lives of many city-dwellers across the world today -- and not everyone is affected equally.

We often dismiss these negative ‘externalities’ as the unavoidable consequences of economic development, and of city life. But if we understand them well enough, both the good and bad aspects of city life can be disentangled and addressed.

One of the emerging areas of interest in cities is how much public space is allocated to motorised traffic. Who benefits? Who is impacted? How do motorised vehicles affect society?

Are there better ways to design urban transport systems and traffic flows? Kathmandu Valley, with its exponential growth, must address these questions.

The city’s old narrow streets are crammed with cars, motorbikes, and people, as man and machine contest for space. Metre-wide paths have become rat-runs for motorbikes to try to avoid congestion. This allocation of public space to cars and motorbikes raises important questions of what value authorities and inhabitants place on inclusivity and equality.

It is vitally important to understand how this plays out from the point of view of individual citizens. Consider, for instance, the perspective of a child playing on the street outside the house, or a senior citizen walking to the shop, or a woman carrying her baby while taking her first child to school.

We also know well that open community spaces, preferably incorporating nature, are vital components of any vibrant, just and social city system. Cities need places where people, regardless of social status, can mix, meet and connect. Yet in many cities, this is not factored sufficiently into often haphazard urban design.

In Kathmandu, while people do value open space and nature, that value has not yet been reflected in urban design. A case in point is the steady encroachment of Tundikhel and planned re-development of Rani Pokhari and Kamal Pokhari by the municipality office. It is not just private companies but agencies of the state that are also trying to build up green spaces for commercial purposes.

Such plans are detrimental especially to the people with the least resources. Recent research by UNOPS found that the ‘lack of open space negatively affects the poor, who live in very crowded conditions, with no recreational areas, parks or open spaces nearby; while the lack of green space, the high amount of dust, and high pollution all impact the small amount of public space that does exist’.

Local leaders in some parts of the world are responding to these connected issues with innovative solutions. In Barcelona, the Superblock concept of urban design seeks to recover space for the community, improve biodiversity and move towards sustainable mobility. It carves out ‘islands’ of traffic-free space by routing traffic around multi-block areas.

These ‘superblocks’ have better cycling and public transport links, to help replace car journeys. They also seek to create a more democratic, fairer city, with more participatory spaces and one in which children can play safely in all its squares without risk from cars.

In Bogota, where development has historically occurred without planning just like in Kathmandu, inclusivity and empowerment of women through public spaces and urban mobility are now key objectives, supported by a clear plan. Municipal leaders are framing roads as manifestations of inequality, occupying a disproportionate amount of public space set against the number of people who use them. Accordingly, the city aims to redistribute road space towards use by public transport and pedestrians.

Barcelona and Bogota provide just two examples of how cities are grappling with important sustainability issues today. But even if problems are well understood, how, practically, should cities move forward? Transitions to a more sustainable design are long-term processes. They are typically guided by inspiring visions of desirable, sustainable systems and deep engagement with communities.

In both Barcelona and Bogota, the creation of such a vision, informed by community perspectives, was a vital step. To get started, pilot projects by innovative and forward-looking municipalities can be used to act as seeds of transformation. If benefits and outcomes are shared and communicated, pilot projects that produce innovations can be expanded and aligned with future national policy interests.

Lalitpur is branding itself as the first cycle friendly municipality of Nepal and its mayor Chiri Babu Maharjan has designated bicycle lanes in the city. Chitwan is also taking a lead to make its streets people-centric, not cars and motorcycles. These examples can be models for other municipalities.

The central government, on the other hand, can develop policies to promote public transport and incentivise electric mass transit, which will clean up Kathmandu’s air pollution, utilise Nepal’s surplus hydroelectricity and cut its petroleum import bills.

Cities are places of complexity, involving multiple actors, interests, interactions and processes. The meaning of sustainability is contested, especially in cities. Transport and public space-related issues such as those highlighted here compete for policy attention alongside other often equally important agenda. So it is crucial to communicate their implication on the economy and public health.

In a city like Kathmandu, however, where cyclists, pedestrians and electric trolley buses used to once roam, and where local shopping is the norm, a serious look at how to reduce the impact of vehicles and motorbikes on city dwellers would likely find fertile ground for beneficial change.

Mark Perrin is a Senior Fellow at Nepal Economic Forum (NEF) and Technical Lead at Himalayan Circular Economy Forum (HiCEF).

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