Missing the woodPiecemeal approach to transportation will only complicate urban commuting
The Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) had decided to procure electric buses from China in the last week of December. The decision was taken in the heat of things when the fuel shortage resulting from the blockade had crippled urban transportation. A delegation from China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation, an electric bus manufacturing company, arrives in Kathmandu shortly to conduct a study on customising the vehicles to suit local conditions.
The KMC has agreed in principle to buy at least 25 of these buses. Measuring up to 12 meters in length, the buses will have a seating capacity of 40. The KMC then intends to hand over these buses to Sajha Yatayat, where KMC also owns stocks.
While the KMC’s objective may sound noble, it is grossly misplaced and does nothing to resolve the severe mismanagement of the public transport system that has been hijacked by private syndicates. What Kathmandu and other cities in Nepal need is a broad framework for urban transportation under which both privately and publicly owned bus companies can operate. The KMC, acting as just another transport provider, undermines the role of the local government that is supposed to look at the bigger picture.
Just adding a few electric buses does not absolve the local government of its responsibility to provide cheap, reliable and efficient transport system to the public. The KMC had made another half-hearted attempt to run night buses a few years ago. That did not last long.
A broad framework for organising urban transport is a must. Kathmandu can take cue from London, where the iconic red buses have become an enduring sight. This is not to suggest that Kathmandu should match the commuting system in one of the most well-run cities in the world. The point is: The template adopted for organising public transport is worth emulating. In 1999, the responsibility for London transport was transferred to the Office of Mayor of London from the national government through an act of parliament. Today, Transport for London (TfL), a local government entity, is responsible for all transportation in London, including buses and the underground train, or the tube in the local lingo.
TfL operates buses under a tendering system where private companies bid for a set price and route. Normally, a contract of five years is awarded, which is extended only upon satisfactory performance. TfL is responsible for identifying new routes, ensuring bus services and setting the price. This ensures uniformity of services and price—allowing a central control of the urban transport system.
Kathmandu’s city planners could consider a similar approach to urban transportation, not a piecemeal one. Urban transportation should be among the key priorities for the local government, and the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development should take initiative to delegate this responsibility to the KMC.
The first step is dissolving the syndicates, which stifle competion and reform, and setting up a broad framework along the lines of TfL. While it is not an easy thing to do, it is the right thing to do. Kathmandu needs a comprehensive solution to urban transport.
Ad hoc measures do nothing but add to the already complex mess.