A cautionary tale

  • Nepal seems to be hurrying towards a car-centred modernity that other countries are hurrying away from

May 15, 2017-Many people dismissed Kathmandu’s new “no horn” rules. The rules were frivolous, they said. Or impossible. You couldn’t change people’s ways, they said. Horn blowing was too deeply ingrained. Nepal is just inherently disorderly. But within a week, a good idea, some awareness raising and tough enforcement have—with very little money or outside expertise—made Kathmandu a significantly more liveable city. 

Who says that a dog’s tail can’t ever be straightened?

But the noise battle is only part of a larger war for control over Kathmandu’s chaotic streets. Indeed, there’s a struggle underway over the very character of the city. In the name of controlling congestion, new ways of living are being mapped out and elevated, with unintended consequences and hidden costs that beg for careful consideration. A lot more is at stake than most people might realise. 

Rise of the modern city

To understand what’s unfolding, it’s worth journeying to the streets of America’s burgeoning cities of a century ago. In the first decade of the 20th century, American cities were, just like Kathmandu and many developing world cities today, choking with overstuffed streets. How city officials dealt with traffic congestion—and the mistakes they made—offers a cautionary tale for Nepal.

Today we think of the US as a society of cities: New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, and scores of others. But America was not always so urban. For most of its history, more people lived in rural areas than cities. But in the late 1800s, thanks to industrialisation, migration from rural areas, and immigration from other countries (including my Swedish great-grandparents), American cities exploded in size, taking on their modern form. 

The rise of the modern city brought many benefits, but also unforeseen headaches. Among the most annoying was urban congestion or “traffic”. In urban centres, densely packed with shops, offices, factories, warehouses, and entertainment halls, so many horse-drawn wagons and streetcars and pedestrians filled the streets that it was difficult to, as they say in Nepal, find a spot to place your feet. 

Crowded and dangerous

And then, in the 1910s, came Henry Ford’s Model T automobile, making American streets not only more crowded but more dangerous. 

Even before the car’s invasion, the urban death toll for pedestrians—normal people doing nothing different than they had done for decades—had shot up. In an ill-fated instant, a horse-drawn streetcar could squash the life out of an unlucky walker. But in 1912, for the first time, cars killed more pedestrians than streetcars. And soon thereafter, automobiles killed more pedestrians than all other vehicles combined. 

With newfound power at their fingertips, drivers grew intoxicated with speed, and pushed the limits of safety, despite the crowded city streets. One observer, himself a car owner and motoring enthusiast no less, decried the “ignorant, reckless and even criminal operation of automobiles upon the public streets.”

With deaths and disorder mounting, different groups advanced their own solutions, and their own interests. City police, motorists, urban planners, reformers, municipal engineers, streetcar companies, pedestrians—all competed to impose their vision. It became, as historian Chris Wells has written, a “struggle for power over who would control the streets of urban America and on what terms, at what cost, and for whose benefit.”

That’s worth repeating: on what terms, at what cost, and for whose benefit?

In this struggle, a potent new political force emerged: car owners. Even though pedestrians were only doing what they had always done, car owners pushed pedestrian “safety” campaigns. They forwarded two self-interested arguments. First, pedestrians should be responsible for safety, not motorists; if an accident happened, pedestrians were to blame. Second, they insisted, the proper function of streets was 

high-speed movement, not foot travel.

Middle class reformers—who were far less neutral than they liked to believe—often supported the car-owners in the name of “efficiency.” They attacked not just pedestrians but all of those who used the street “improperly”: street musicians, delivery drivers, news boys, shoe shiners, and vegetable sellers—all groups without the luxury of offices, nor the wealth to buy private living space.

At this time, the traffic cop was invented. But police alone couldn’t rein in the unruly streets. Driver awareness campaigns also helped. “It is very important to have the police trained for traffic duties,” one New York city reformer noted in 1909, “but infinitely more important that drivers should know what is expected of them.” 

Drivers didn’t like having anything expected of them, especially reasonable speeds. “Though motorists were quick to educate pedestrians on ‘proper’ street 

etiquette,” Wells notes, “they bristled at instruction from others—particularly on the subject of speed regulations.” How dare you question my right to drive fast?

Some cities tried new rules for street users: one-way streets, traffic signs, and painted lines. Some designed certain streets for residential use, and others for cars and transport (“zoning”). Cities also tried altering the streets themselves to ease movement, such as through smooth pavement or reduced curbs at corners (to make turning easier). They also, as in Kathmandu, tried widening the streets, as New York City did between 1908 and 1912 (a programme not, I’m guessing, implemented by Red-book quoting Maoists).

Strikingly, in places in New York where street widening left too narrow a path for walkers, the city bought land for sidewalks. And on expensive land like Fifth Avenue, where the city couldn’t afford to purchase sidewalk land, it realised that many 

buildings had illegally encroached on public space, ordered all illegal constructions removed, and sent the bill to the owners.

But, more often than not, street speed and efficiency came at the expense of those on foot, and undermined community control of local space. Neighbourhood street culture was shoved aside. “Growing traffic and its dangers,” Wells writes, “challenged older ideas about how streets should and should not be used.” Cars and speed generally won out, not the needs of communities those cars sped through. Once vibrant neighbourhood space became polluted transportation arteries.

“Cars,” the historian William Cronon adds, “transformed how people understood their place in the world and their ability to move around within it, redefining ‘local’ space and prompting new ideas about how to array everyday activities and enterprises across the landscape.”

Often there was a class dimension to the re-ordering of urban space: car owners tended to be wealthy, those using the street for work or recreation far less so. 

Pedestrian-only zones

For much of the 20th century, cars drove development in American cities. But more recently, city residents started pushing back, reclaiming space for walking and bicycling. In the 1960s, the urban theorist Jane Jacobs, whose writings no urban planner should miss, successfully defeated plans to bulldoze New York 

neighbourhoods to create highways. More recently, cities across the US and Europe have been creating pedestrian-only commercial and recreation zones as well as bike-friendly streets, bringing not just social, environmental, and economic benefits, but also lower congestion.

And yet, Nepal seems to hurry towards a car-centred modernity that other countries are hurrying away from. Kathmandu’s streets are quickly being transformed from multi-use, multi-class communal spaces into automobile (and motorcycle) 

speedways. Of course, I see the utter waste of traffic jams. But there are ways to speed movement that don’t come at the expense of toddlers just learning to run, little kids playing with toys, neighbours sharing a chat, shop owners and venders trying to earn a living, bicyclists and pedestrians of all ages, and older people walking to visit friends.


Robertson, an environmental historian, is the executive director of the Fulbright-Nepal office; views expressed here are his own and don’t reflect Fulbright programme policy

Published: 15-05-2017 08:10

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