Oped

Setting the right priorities

  • World cities are acting to push out cars but our government is doing just the opposite
- Prashanta Khanal

Sep 3, 2017-A few months ago, the Metropolitan Traffic Police Division (MTPD) had started fining and detaining jaywalkers, but soon gave up following a public outcry. Last week, I was riding an electric-assisted tricycle, and the police pulled me over claiming that such vehicles caused traffic congestion. Making pedestrians pay a fine for simply crossing the street and prohibiting environment-friendly tricycles is simply absurd. There should be no such thing as jaywalking on urban streets, and urban streets are not freeways to prohibit non-motorised vehicles. 

I respect the Traffic Police for working to keep traffic moving in an inhospitable environment, but there should be a fundamental change in the way they look at urban transportation. Criminalising jaywalking, prohibiting electric tricycles and scooters, and banning school buses and service vehicles during peak hours is undermining the principle of sustainable urban mobility. It will do more harm than good in the long run. The number of private vehicles in the Kathmandu Valley is growing at a rate of 12 percent annually, with more than 100,000 private vehicles added to the streets last year. In such a situation, the freed space will eventually be occupied by private vehicles creating bigger traffic chaos. 

Worsening conditions

It’s not bicycles, tricycles, Safa tempos, school buses or service vehicles that are causing congestion, it is private automobiles. The government’s car-centric planning and attitude are at fault. The MTPD thinks that tricycles, as slow-moving vehicles, cause congestion. First, vehicles shouldn’t be allowed to operate at more than 30 km per hour on urban streets to make cities safer, more people-friendly and humane. Another perception is that such vehicles make the roads unsafe. It’s not pedestrians or non-motorised vehicles that make the roads unsafe, it’s fast-moving motor vehicles that are the actual hazards in our city. Many cities around the world are now promoting such tricycles and cargo bikes, as they are safer, efficient, environment-friendly and good for the city. Instead of prohibiting them, the government should build separate cycle lanes for riding them safely, such as in many European cycle-friendly cities.

By the nature of the job, the MTPD won’t be able to look beyond the immediate congestion problem. It doesn’t have a sense of urban transport planning and shouldn’t be allowed to formulate transport plans and traffic regulations. In 2011, the MTPD played a major role in convincing the then prime minister Baburam Bhattarai to widen the roads, supposedly to ease congestion. This led to rampant road expansion in the Kathmandu Valley and later in other cities in Nepal. The Traffic Police, with no expertise in transport planning and overstepping its jurisdiction, started bulldozing sidewalks, dividers, green belts and houses to make more room for motor vehicles. The job was later handed over to the respective agencies due to widespread criticism. Seven years later, traffic congestion has worsened. Motorisation, especially car ownership, has increased dramatically, and the roads have become more unsafe. 

The MTPD is also the strongest critic of building cycle lanes on the existing roads, saying that they are already congested. I recall one traffic official saying at a meeting that there is no other way than constricting Tundikhel to build cycle tracks in the central business district. Meanwhile, pedestrian actuated traffic signals installed at various locations in the city have been shut down, supposedly for causing more traffic congestion. In 2013, an Environment-Friendly Vehicle and Transport Policy was formulated to promote and prioritise electric vehicles, bicycles and tricycles on urban roads adhering to the principle of sustainable and environment-friendly mobility. But the MTPD’s actions and attitude are undermining the policy of the government. 

Taking charge

When talking about the need to make cycle-friendly roads like in European cities, it is very common to hear officials saying that our context is different. I don’t really understand what they mean by different context. The basic principles of urban transport planning remain the same wherever. When these rich European cities, which can easily afford to build more expensive car-prioritised road infrastructure, are instead investing in low-cost cycling and walking infrastructure, why is our context different? It just needs common sense and will. 

It is the job of the city government, not the Traffic Police, which is an enforcement agency, to formulate transport plans and traffic regulations for the city. The Traffic Police has no legal jurisdiction to prohibit tricycles on the roads. It constantly tries to remind other ministries and agencies of its power, probably because it is under the most powerful (apparently) Home Ministry. It should be the mayor who should call the MTPD for a meeting about urban transport problems, not the other way round as we have seen recently. However, because of the incompetence of the city government and concerned agencies, the MTPD plays the leading role in deciding traffic regulations of the city.

When cities around the world are moving to push cars out of cities and reduce their numbers, the actions of our government and the MTPD are instead reinforcing the supremacy of cars on our streets, deliberately or not. It is a basic principle of urban mobility that pedestrians, bicycles and other non-motorised vehicles should get first priority on urban roads, and cars last priority. We should be more concerned about the accessibility of non-motorised and public transport users rather than cars in traffic jams. 

Khanal is an avid cycle user and works on issues of urban transportation, air quality management and sustainable cities

Published: 03-09-2017 08:29

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