Cycle to fight climate change

It must be a cosmic confluence that just as the world leaders gather in Glasgow next week to try to save the planet, we in Nepal mark the tragic death 10 years ago of conservation visionary Pralad Yonzon.

Yonzon used to commute to work on his bicycle, and on 31 October 2011, as he was pedalling home from office along the Ring Road in Balkhu, a truck rammed into him.

This was an enormous loss for Nepal and the country’s conservation community, adding to the dreadful void left by the deaths of Harka Gurung, Chandra Gurung, Mingma Sherpa, Tirthaman Maskey and many other conservation pioneers of Nepal in the Ghunsa helicopter crash of September 2006.

Not only was Yonzon a brilliant and dedicated scientist, he was also a source of inspiration for the many youth whom he mentored. He was a passionate environmentalist and practiced what he preached – using a bicycle for his daily commute.

After his death, road safety activists and cycling enthusiasts have been campaigning for cycle lanes along the Ring Road. They painted murals dedicated to Pralad Yonzan on the spot where he lost his life, built a model cycle lane and organised numerous interaction programs and meetings with officials. But so far, nothing has come of it.

Sure, promises have been made and studies have been done. Even the contract agreement signed on 18 December 2012 between the Nepal government and Shanghai Construction Group, the Chinese company responsible for the expansion of the Koteswor-Kalanki section included provisions for a bicycle lane on both sides of the Ring Road.

However, when the road was expanded from 2 lanes to 8 lanes, all the lanes were devoted to cars. There was no bicycle lane, and even footpaths are missing at many locations. As a result, the Ring Road continues to be a death trap where many other cyclists have been killed since Pralad Yonzon lost his life.

“Expanding the Ring Road without a cycle lane was a mistake,” admitted  Tulasi Sitaula, former secretary at the Ministry of Physical Planning and Secretary at an interaction program.

Many other former government officials and transport experts also agree that Ring Road has not been designed properly. But no one dared to make any changes to it or to ask the Chinese to change the design.

The Mayor of Lalitpur Chiri Babu Shreshtha, for example, has designated bicycle lanes in the city, and wanted to extend them to the Ring Road. He has even put it in his city’s annual program, and allocated budget for this purpose. But the Department of Roads is not allowing him to touch the Ring Road.

I live across Ring Road in Kirtipur and I used to ride my bicycle to office along the same stretch of Ring Road where Pralad Yonzon was killed. But now my wife does not allow me to ride my bicycle along the expanded Ring Road. She says it is just not safe, and I agree with her.

Even though I have been riding a bicycle for over 40 years in Kathmandu, I do not feel it is safe anymore. I have a bicycle at home and another one at office so that I can ride on either side of Ring Road in Kirtipur and Lalitpur but not from Kirtipur to Lalitpur.

31 October 2021 is also the beginning of the most important international meetings conferences of our times -- the 26th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (COP26) – is beginning in Glasgow.

A big Nepali delegation led by Prime Minister Deuba is in Glasgow where he is making a speech urging developed countries to reduce their emissions and ask their support for vulnerable countries such as Nepal to adapt to the climate crisis. He will also raise the issue of loss and damage caused by the global emergency.

But as the Nepali delegation negotiate on the complex issues surrounding the climate crisis, they will also tour Glasgow. I urge them to look out for the over 300km of bicycle lanes around the city of Glasgow, and the light projections set up by Cycling UK that reads ‘Cycling Fights Climate Change’.

European cyclists claim that if Europe cycled 5km a day and they would reach 50% of their targeted emission cuts from the transport sector for 2050. In fact cycling a 4 km (20 min) commute and back instead of driving would cut 1.1 kg CO2 per day, which is almost twice as high as switching to renewable energy or retrofitting insulation in an average home.

But for an average Nepali, cycling is more about public health and the economy, rather than cutting carbon. Living in a city where the average air pollution level is 10 times higher than WHO guidelines, it is imperative to do whatever possible to reduce pollution level and improve health. Promoting walking and cycling is one of the most cost effective ways to achieve this.

WHO in its recent report ‘The Health Argument for Climate Action’ says healthier diets, clean air and cycling would double the benefits of reducing disease and tackling climate change.

Furthermore, with oil imports using up more than twice the amount Nepal earns from all its exports combined, cutting down on petroleum is essential for economic progress.

But more importantly, prioritising walking and cycling is about social equity. As Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota said during a visit to Kathmandu in 2018, “A protected bicycle lane is a powerful symbol showing that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is as important as one in a $30,000 car.”

Ten years ago, I had written in Pralad Yonzon’s memorial, ‘We will miss him dearly. But I hope this unfortunate incident will inspire us to work for bicycle and pedestrian friendly transportation in Kathmandu.’

Today as COP26 kicks off in Glasgow, I hope our Prime Minister and the Nepali delegation realise that solutions to a complex issue need not be complex. A simple machine like the bicycle, which was invented just outside Glasgow almost 200 years ago, can be a solution to our changing climate.  Pralad Yonzon realised that and lived by it. I hope we can too.

Bhusan Tuladhar is an environmentalist and Executive Director of Sajha Yatayat.