Cycling to changeThe pandemic has given us an opportunity to reimagine urban planning and design.
One of the first things that governments worldwide imposed to break the chain of transmission of the coronavirus was to announce restrictions on all nonessential travel and gatherings besides prescribing precautionary measures like physical distancing and personal hygiene. The restrictions, varying from country to country, have had a profound impact on our daily lives, especially for city dwellers who rely on various forms of mobility—walking, cycling, public and private transportation, and ride-hailing services.
Our ‘normal life’ has never experienced disruptions of this magnitude which has forced us to reimagine everything in our lives, be it working from home or attending virtual classrooms or the way we do groceries and keep in touch with our folks. Life has fundamentally changed for all of us as we restrict ourselves indoors unless it’s necessary to step outside. This disruption in our mobility has meant that vehicles, both public and private, have remained off the roads or half the volume is currently under operation. The rest of us choose to walk in our neighbourhood or, increasingly, cycle.
For a country like Nepal, which depends on foreign aid, remittance and imports, restrictions have rendered a direct blow to the economy. But if we look deeply, some benefits have also come out of these disruptions, which experts from various domains say should guide political ambitions to reimagine mobility and economy to sustain these short-term benefits for the long run.
By walking and cycling in our neighbourhood, we are not only fulfilling our daily minimum of physical activity, but are also contributing to the local economy by supporting local businesses. As a direct consequence of our reengineered mobility, we have also seen massive improvements in air quality because of reduced carbon emissions. This has also saved the import of petroleum products worth billions.
If restrictions amid the pandemic have shown us the way forward, albeit harshly, the onus now lies both on the elected government and the public to swiftly build on these short-term benefits because once the Covid-19 situation is resolved, the most pressing challenges of our times will soon reappear. Only this time, the pandemic has already triggered borderline warnings across sectors, and any future burdens will be Herculean to overcome. However, the current situation has also given us a window of opportunity to intervene and capitalise on the current public mindset.
Building on these short-term benefits, urban planners and designers say, will require a major shift in the ways we currently mobilise ourselves and how we build our roads. For instance, the widening and construction of new roads and river corridors in the Kathmandu Valley have made traffic worse, cut off communities, and encouraged sprawl and speeding, creating perilous road conditions for pedestrians and bikers. This car-centric development path is an outdated plan, one that is not sustainable and in no way climate-resilient, which should be at the centre of any modern-day urban planning.
We should stop these self-defeating acts in the name of development, and reform how we plan our cities because that directly dictates our forms of mobility. There have been a lot of sloganeering and manifestos in the past three decades, of clean and green cities that will prioritise pedestrians and bikers, but successive governments have failed to incorporate these ideas when it comes to formulating policies or allocating a budget to implement them. In the lack thereof, our cities have instead earned a reputation for having one of the worst living standards in the world where pedestrians and bikers continue to be killed in road accidents, and the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease affects even the unborn.
It is no surprise that some of the best cities in the world have prioritised investments in public transport, walking and cycling, the types of infrastructure that are recognised for their sustainability and for being climate-resilient in a world where, experts say, many of the root causes of climate change also increases the risk of pandemics. City authorities and planners at the Ministry of Urban Development must learn from what these current disruptions have taught us, and immediately assess existing and proposed mega-city projects to see how they would fare in an internationally recognised sustainability index.