UPDATE ON Saturday, October 22 2011: Since I wrote the post below it appears the real picture is even worse than I had anticipated.
A story in today’s Republica newspaper citing new figures from the Metropolitan Traffic Police says there are now 800,000 vehicles on the Kathmandu Valley’s 1,500km road network. Maths fans: that’s a vehicle every 1.875 metres. Given that the average car is more than twice as long as this we can see the extent of the problem.
The article also tells us the average speed of vehicles at peak times in central Kathmandu is 15-20km per hour (9-12mph). The Kathmandu Valley – a seething metropolis without a single set of traffic lights – has 965 road cops struggling to cope with a workload which would require nearly 1,400 officers.
Ganesh Raj Rai, the embattled chief of the Met Traffic Police, wants the government to build flyovers. This strikes me as an ugly, costly, shortsighted solution. At the current rate of increase in cars, they too would be jammed soon after construction. The only answer is to try to regulate the unsustainable increase in traffic through a congestion charge or an outright ban in the worst areas of gridlock. Some sort of credible long-term mass public transport strategy is also long overdue. Original post below:
At dawn, before the taxi and minibus drivers start work, before the cacophany of thousands of motorbikes drowns out the courting call of the black eagle, Kathmandu is lovely — one of the loveliest cities in the world.
But by 7:30am it is ugly, its roads gridlocked, its beauty despoiled by the internal combustion engine.
The traffic is the first thing you notice when you arrive in Kathmandu – not the elegant cobbled streets, nor the ornate palaces, not the breathtaking stoupas or even the mountains. Not the mystique and the spirituality of one of the most bewitching and beguiling cities on earth. Just the traffic.
Some 500,000 buses, trucks, cars and other vehicles ply the capital’s congested roads – the equivalent of one carbon-belching motor for every third man, woman and child (compared with the national average of one for every 10).
It’s hard to describe the driving to anyone who has never visited Nepal but ‘chaotic’ certainly does not do justice to the lawless bedlam that characterises Kathmandu’s roads.
Those who have tried to negotiate the capital on a bicycle - as I do, every day – will know what I am talking about. If they lived to tell the tale.
There are a handful of rules and they are seldom followed. ‘It’s my way or the highway,’ would roughly encapsulate the ethos.
No one gives way anywhere, under any circumstance - trucks to cyclists, pedestrians to cars, taxis to motorbikes, anyone to ambulances. You have to assume that if there is a car in your line of sight it is about to pull out in front of you. It doesn’t matter if it is on a side street, an approach to a roundabout, or even unoccupied: within a second or two it will be blocking your path.
I began to get a feel for the vagaries of Nepal’s version of road safety the very first time I took my bike out when I was forced off the road by a minibus with six goats – alive, and standing up – tethered to the roof rack.
Why do I chose to cycle amid all this madness? Because I can get to almost any destination in the capital quicker on a bike than in a car, without really breaking a sweat.
Some people have described this situation as organised chaos – as if there were some byzantine, unspoken code which westerners just don’t get, as if somehow it just works.
But it doesn’t.
The traffic accident statistics in Nepal do not make pretty reading. It doesn’t do to compare numbers of fatalities between cities in Nepal and, say, England as there are too many factors such as vehicle numbers and traffic speed which make the exercise meaningless. You are not comparing like with like.
But here is a horrifying statistic: in a 2003 study of 229 post-mortem examinations at a hospital near the capital, 110 deaths were due to road traffic accidents. If the research is representative – and other studies have yielded similar results – nearly half of all premature deaths in Nepal are due to road accidents.
As an aside, here are some more numbers:
Number of accidents in Kathmandu last year, according to the Metropolitan Traffic Police: 2,765.
Number of deaths: 137
Serious injuries: 720.
Month in which highest number of vehicular accidents occurs: July (see study here)
Most dangerous day: Sunday
Most dangerous time of day: Late afternoon/early evening
And, finally, number of pedestrianised streets in Kathmandu: one.
It’s not that people are averse to walking — according to the Clean Air Network Nepal 18 per cent of daily trips are made entirely on foot, and of the 56.5 percent of commuters who use public transport, a large percentage walk part of their daily commute. And not just to the nearest bus stop.
But the city was not designed as a place for people and vehicles to share. There are almost no pavements in the narrow streets of downtown Kathmandu. Elsewhere pedestrian crossings are ignored.
Crossing the road is redolent of the 1980s video game Frogger (play it here - not now, after you’ve finished reading this): you step out in front of one line of traffic and hope you don’t get squashed, only to have to repeat the Sisyphian task endless times before getting to the other side and encountering the next road.
Researchers from the Asian Development Bank walked 48 Kathmandu streets and interviewed hundreds of members of the public for a recent study on the pedestrian-friendliness of Asian cities.
Kathmandu got a “walkability” score of 559, compared with dirty, overcrowded, polluted Bangkok’s 121. A lower score is better.
I won’t dwell on the environmental effects of all this traffic except to say that Kathmandu’s jams are not made up of green-conscious Toyota Priuses or fuel-efficient Smart cars. If you don’t wear a face mask and wrap-around shades when you are cycling you arrive at your destination with Marlboro lungs and eyes that feel like hot pickled onions.
The valley is especially vulnerable to air pollution due to rapid and haphazard urbanisation and its bowl-like topography which restricts wind movement and traps in the fumes. In winter you get a heat inversion, a kind of mini-greenhouse effect caused by cold air from the Himalayas getting trapped under a layer of warmer air which acts as a lid, sealing in the pollutants.
A government white paper on pollution in the capital points out that particulate matter in the air is thought to have increased by 82 per cent over the last 15 years.
During general strikes – known as banda days - Kathmandu returns to the pleasant city it must have been before Henry Ford invented the assembly line. The hues are vital, the parks are verdant and the air is crisp, at least, if not exactly fragrant.
The dust, smoke and noise has become so unbearable many people now look forward to these strikes – a blight on the lives of ordinary people in every other way.
“It was only during banda days that I felt somehow able to breathe well. It was also fantastic to see so many children playing outside,” says Anil Bhattarai in an op-ed for the Kathmandu Post.
So why not at least pedestrianise Thamel, the city’s central tourist district? It has been tried before but the naysayers have always won the day. You will have heard the arguments against – access for deliveries, disability access, the taxi trade – ad nauseum.
But these problems are just dealt with in other cities like Cophenhagen, where pedestrianisation has worked. They are not insurmountable.
It is odd that no major political force in Nepal has ever made day-to-day walkability, breathability, liveability, a focus of the agenda when the poor air quality and noise pollution that chokes the life out of Kathmandu is the capital’s biggest daily challenge.