Print Edition - 2014-09-28  |  Free the Words

A stranger on a bicycle

  • Cycling in Kathmandu is possible, but not comfortable; little projects could provide great relief to many
- NIKLAUS SALZMANN
A stranger on a bicycle

Sep 27, 2014-

While preparing for my three-month stay in Nepal, I knew one thing for sure: I was going to buy a bicycle in Kathmandu. I even sacrificed some of the scarce space in one of my bags to stuff in two child seats, as I was intending to explore the city with my two sons, one in front and one behind me on my bicycle, as I used to do in Switzerland. So I embarked on my journey with a lot of enthusiasm. But my eagerness began to fade no sooner than the taxi driver took a turn from Tribhuvan International Airport to the Ring Road.

Left-hand driving was one thing, but how could I possibly ever find my way between myriad motorcycles swerving right and left, lanes not defined by white lines but by the number of Maruti 800s that fit in one beside the other, pedestrians, dogs, and cows on the street, not to mention the polluted air and the constant honking. The only rule I was able to detect was this: the one who cares for his life never has the right of way. And that one would be me.

First ride

Nonetheless, a few days later, I bought a bicycle. It has one single gear. But apart from that, it has nothing in common with the ‘fixies’ that are oh-so-popular with hipsters in metropolises around the world. Mine was manufactured in India, cost me less than any second-hand bicycle in Switzerland, and is heavy as a truck, and therefore—at least I hope so—indestructible by bad road conditions.

The next day, after having carefully studied a city map, I sat on my brand-new bicycle and headed south towards Kantipur Publications. First impression: it wasn’t as bad as expected. For instance, I was able to completely avoid any bigger road, even if that meant having to slalom around potholes and struggle through mud in smaller lanes. I was travelling slower than expected—45 minutes for 4.5 kilometers is just about my usual walking speed in Switzerland—but still faster than a taxi in rush hour. I probably polluted my lungs with much less harmful substances than anyone driving down the Ring Road with open windows. And I realised that the absence of rules (or rather the lack of respect for them) is in large part compensated for by open eyes and ears as well as by the active use of the horn as a means of communication—in contrast to Switzerland, where the rare honk usually means: “Why are you driving like a moron?”

Nevertheless, at the end of my working day, well after sunset, my colleagues seemed to be a bit worried about me getting either lost or hit by a car on my way back. To avoid the first risk, I put up with the second one by choosing the Ring Road for the first part of my ride. That is when I noticed a big difference between a Swiss and a Nepali cyclist: I have electrical front and rear lights on my bicycle. With their help, I arrived at my guesthouse unhurt and proud of my successful first ride.

Other problems

Was this the start of me commuting to work daily in Kathmandu by bicycle? Probably not. It hadn’t been the relaxing ride I used to enjoy in Switzerland after calling it a day. I was quite exhausted—not physically, but mentally due to the need to be uninterruptedly alert for possible dangers, like other road users and potholes.

No doubt, safer ways for cyclists would be beneficial both for me as well as for all other residents of Kathmandu. I won’t go deeper into the advantages of a cycle-friendly city, like less air pollution leading to less affections of the respiratory system, reduced contribution to global warming, less damage by vibrations (think of the renovation of the Chabahil Stupa), less traffic jam for those still relying on cars—among them ambulances and other emergency vehicles, etcetera. They have been mentioned here and elsewhere in extenso.

But there’s one point on which I disagree with other bicycle enthusiasts. In my opinion, an entire network of cycle tracks cannot be a priority project for the city for the next few years. Don’t get me wrong, I would be happy if the cycle track from Tinkune to Maitighar, passing right before my workplace and apparently planned years ago, would become a reality. But I’m of the opinion that this city has a number of more urging problems, like poverty, waste management, and drinking water supply, to name a few.

Doable solutions

Therefore, I suggest that for a start, the Department of Roads focus on a few practicable smaller projects to promote cycling. For instance, the most dangerous part of my way to work is not the ride along roads with heavy traffic, which I can avoid by choosing side streets or by staying on the pavement. But at one point or another, I do have to cross the Ring Road, and that is really dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians, especially in the dark. If there was a way to pass under, instead of over the road, it would be much safer. Such underpasses could be built along the banks of the Bagmati and Bishnumati Rivers, which provide a natural space for it. Even motorcyclists and car drivers would benefit from this, as traffic would be much less disturbed by people crossing the roads.

There is also another major change I would love to see: car-free city centres. Such a concept, as is standard in many European cities and was successfully introduced even to parts of Broadway in New York City five years ago, could work in Kathmandu as well. Can you imagine Thamel without cars and motorbikes? For me—and I daresay, any tourist—a stroll through the streets would be much more enjoyable. I would love to ride from chowk to chowk with my two boys on my bicycle. Alas, there are no car-free zones, and that bringing those two child seats

with me was futile. I’m not going to take my kids on my bicycle, as I care for their lives even more than I do for mine.

Salzmann is a Swiss journalist currently interning for The Kathmandu Post

Published: 28-09-2014 10:06

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