Right of wayThe road expansion did not help motorised transport much, instead it actively harmed pedestrians
The pedestrian in Kathmandu is a hellish thing, assaulted not only by the elements—the smoke, dust, heat, and rain—but also by all manner of drivers and riders, on four wheels or two, buffeted from sidewalk to sidewalk by utility poles, protruding storefronts, parked vehicles and even the occasional tree. Often, the pedestrian is on the street, in traffic, for sidewalks disappear with alarming regularity. And when an attempt is made to cross the road, which in itself is a feat requiring impeccable timing and a foolhardy sense of daring, motorists and bikers tend to speed up when they see a pedestrian at a zebra crossing, hoping to pass quickly lest they be forced to slow down or wait for a fraction of a second.
And all this despite the fact everyone in a city is a pedestrian at one time or the other, whether strolling to the nearby tarkari bajar, loping to the workplace from your parked car, or even just meandering around the neighbourhood on a quiet balmy evening. It appears that everyone who owns a vehicle forgets what it is like to walk the moment their engines begin to rev. The pedestrian in Kathmandu is pitiful because he/she is neglected at every turn, from public policy to urban planning to basic civic sense. Pavements, supposed to be the exclusive domain of pedestrians, are seen as free parking space. Even bicycles, another sustainable and neglected form of urban transport, ride on the sidewalks with nary any concern for those braving the heat and smoke death of the city to walk it.
The wrong model
At a time when cities across the world—and not just in the West—are pedestrianising their spaces and hiring sustainability teams to help make cities friendlier to people and pedestrians, Kathmandu has gone the opposite route, choosing to ape the US as it was half a century ago, at the height of its suburban and highway fervour.
Baburam Bhattarai’s much-vaunted road expansion drive was supposed to reduce traffic congestion in the city, but any half-decent urban planner could’ve explained then that wider roads almost never decrease traffic snarls. Research from across the world has shown that wider roads encourage more people to drive; this is called induced demand. Data from the Department of Transport Management shows that vehicle registration in the erstwhile Bagmati zone increased from 53,134 in 2011-12, the fiscal year that the road expansion began, to 119,956 in 2016-17. And one need only a walk around Kathmandu during rush hour to see how the expanded roads have not lessened congestion any.
The road expansion did not help motorised transport much, instead it actively harmed pedestrians. The new roads ate into existing pavements, narrowing them further. And while the government mandated width for pavements is 1.5 meters, as per the Nepal Road Standard 2013, most footpaths, when they are present, do not adhere to this requirement. The widened roads also neglected to paint in proper crosswalks so that there is often no indication of where one should be crossing the road.
The only long stretch with crosswalks at regular intervals is perhaps the Maitighar-Tinkune stretch. Everywhere else, crosswalks are randomly spaced, often at dangerous spots, like immediately after a sharp turn. The pedestrian crossing at the Hattisar-Putalisadak junction is one such example where motorists turning onto Hattisar cannot see the pedestrian until it is too late.
In a recent paper for the journal Himalaya, authors Prashanta Khanal, Anobha Gurung and Prinyankar Chand state that the “road expansion drive has not solved the traffic congestion woes of the city but rather aggravated them.” They outline how a car-centric development model has not—and will not—serve all of the capital city’s populations, but only benefits a select few. The authors urge “the capital to correct itself from car-dependent transit-poor urban sprawl and move towards sustainable urban development approach”.
The city authorities, of course, shoulder the majority of the blame for this shoddy state of affairs, but there is another group that remains unimpeachable for its offenses–the embassies. The stretch leading from Narayan Gopal chowk to Lainchour is lined with a number of embassies, namely the American, Japanese and French embassies. The American embassy has a pavement outside of it that can be walked on but overzealous guards are quick to tell you to move on if you linger. If you take out your phone or your camera, prepare to be hauled inside the embassy and forcefully made to erase all images that might, even inadvertently, include the embassy. But even here, the southern wall of the embassy blocks the pavement abruptly, hindering movement and forcing the pedestrian to choose the other side.
The Japanese embassy has a walkway outside of it that would be laughable if it weren’t so pitiful. The footpath begins as an extremely narrow walkway, barely wide enough for even one person to walk on, and then just disappears, compelling the pedestrian onto the street and oncoming traffic. The French embassy is the most egregious of the lot, where its northern wall blocks all foot traffic so the pedestrian has no recourse but to either cross the street and walk on the other side, or walk on the street in traffic. If approaching from the south, there is no recourse but to step onto the street since the nearest zebra crossing is on the other end of the embassy gates.
These diplomatic missions might have inviolable rights to their space and myriad security concerns that can be marshalled in their defence. But as the embassies of countries that seem to care about the use of space and work to promote sustainability and liveable cities, should they not bear some responsibility towards ensuring that pedestrians have the right to walk free of encumbrances, especially just outside and around their premises?
Cities for people
In the book Cities of People, the Danish architect Jan Gehl outlines how cities can be made friendlier and more liveable, and the primary mode of doing so is by making the city more pedestrian-friendly. Led by Gehl, Denmark’s Copenhagen has become a prime example of a city that has radically abandoned its motorised past for much cleaner modes of transport, namely walking and cycling. And this doesn’t just mean prohibiting vehicles from a certain space in the city, as has been done in the Durbar Squares and more recently in Thamel. It means promoting the entire city as a safe and welcoming space for pedestrians. After all, on a purely experiential level, cars and motorised transport do not invite engagement with the city. Pedestrian-friendly streets promote safety and security, as there are more ‘eyes on the street’, Jane Jacobs showed in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Such streets also have important functions as spaces of encounter that facilitate socially progressive modes of interaction, pointed out Richard Sennet in The Uses of Disorder.
An urban planner from Ljubljana once told me that the purpose of urban planning is not figuring out how to move vehicles quickly and sustainably from one point to another but how to move people. This emphasis on people is what Kathmandu’s urban planning currently lacks. Kathmandu is attempting to model itself on outdated forms of planning that have long proved not only ineffectual, but detrimental to the health and life of cities and its citizens. Instead of investing heavily in public transport, expanding pavements and building dedicated bike lanes, the focus of successive governments has been in expanding roadways and building flyovers and access roads, all while public parks, gardens and sidewalks lay neglected.
For urban planners and policymakers, a walk would do them good. You cannot know a city while inside of a metal box with the air-conditioner on, nor can you know it while weaving through traffic at 40 kilometres an hour on a two-wheeler. The only real way to know a city is to walk it.
Rana is a former op-ed editor and current features editor of The Kathmandu Post.