The problem with buses in NepalWe can emulate Bogota, Columbia and adopt bus rapid transit, instead of unfeasible metro-rails.
A popular proverb describes the local bus services in Bogota, Columbia: ‘la guerra del centavo’ which can roughly be translated into English as ‘the penny war’. It signifies the unhealthy competition between public transportation service providers that would kill hundreds of people every year in accidents caused by buses scrabbling to collect passengers. The cause of this war was old-fashioned, disorganised, unregulated and inefficient method of service in public transportation. Since the drivers of public buses made their living from the fare collected from the passenger, they used to fight with each other for every passenger in the road, resulting in unsafe driving and unreliable service. Returning home, to our capital city Kathmandu, we see a similar war occurring, seriously degrading our public transportation sector. But perhaps we can find a solution to ameliorate the chaotic traffic system. In this article, I will focus primarily on the root cause of unmanaged/chaotic transportation service in town, which resembles the penny war, and the effects of this chaos on the larger system.
Almost a year ago, after the government of Nepal announced the termination of the syndicate system of public transportation, one new private company entered this sector with big promises in one popular route and established itself on that route with the help of the administration and the public. The promises this company made were things like free wi-fi and television on-board; free services for the elderly and people with disabilities; exclusive seats for pregnant mothers, women, the aged; competitive fares; timely services; an efficient ticket system; and friendly behaviour from their staff. It has barely been a year, and almost all of the above-mentioned promises have been left unfulfilled. Even worse, the bus company has contracted out their buses to their ‘staff’ on a daily basis and the staff pay some amount to bus company and, in return, can run the buses as they like. The result is irregular and irresponsible bus service. Regular maintenance is rare, resulting in frequent stoppages and stranded passengers.
Other public transportation service providers are no better; all are engaged in this war. Oversupply during the day-time means that the streets are jam-packed with small, low capacity buses filled with exhausted passengers. At the same time, the sporadic presence of public vehicles during early hours and late nights means that many people are limited in their travel. The fare collection system, moreover, is informal; tickets are non-existent. The root cause of the penny war is this poor fare collection system with no record of how much tariff is collected by the conductor. The more fare they collect, the more the cut of the conductor and driver is. This then leads to unhealthy and risky competition. Extreme rivalry leads to dangerous driving, as they compete to reach the next stop as fast as possible to get passengers. Stops are congested as buses wait there until they are over capacity, or a competing vehicle arrives. This motivates drivers to disrespect time schedules, if there are any, and stop anywhere a prospective passenger may be. Drivers drive zigzag and stop as they wish on the road leading to disturbances for fellow drivers, which could cause long traffic jams or accidents.
Boarding and alighting off the bus is dangerous in such a scenario; sometimes passengers have to get in and out of moving vehicles. The safety of the passengers and other vehicles is compromised. In extreme cases, if the passenger numbers are low, the conductor orders all riders to get off the bus. In short, the penny war has caused unsafe driving, high accident rates, and the maltreatment of commuters, among other terrible consequences. Our streets have been the battlefield of public buses—and daily commuters are being crushed in that fight regularly.
An improvement in the quality of public buses is impossible as long as this penny war continues. The amelioration of this war depends upon the capability of institutions that oversee, manage and regulate this sector. The existing organisation, with the current intuitional and legal arrangements, is not capable of doing this huge task. There is also the need for a form of mass rapid transit system, which will provide efficient and reliable service through reduced travel times, wider networks, exclusive right-of-way infrastructure, efficient fare collection systems, and faster boarding and disembarking methods.
The mayor of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa ended their penny war with the introduction of transmilenio, an efficient and cost-effective new bus transport system which alleviated congestion and reduced air pollutionin the city. As its name suggest this was the system designed with the aim of satisfying the mobility need of the people of new millennium and it actually fulfilled its promise. According to the Centre for Public Impact, transmilenio users are saving an average of 223 hours annually; travel time is reduced by 32 percent; 9 percent of its commuters are new users who used to commute by cars; deaths, injuries and robberies on buses are reduced by 92 percent, 75 percent and 83 percent respectively; and air pollution has decreased by 40 percent. Transmilenio is a bus rapid transit (BRT) system where both the public and private sectors share responsibility for the delivery of public transportation. As transport researcher Alan Gilbert (2007) suggested, transmilenio was a ‘miracle cure’ for Bogota’s public transportation.
It is a pity that neither the new proposal being discussed at the Cabinet nor the new legislation just passed by Kathmandu Metropolitan City regarding transportation mention the BRT system. They are engaged in small scale changes such as the colour coding of buses, stopping only at stations etc. which were already in place but could not solve the problems in the sector. There is no doubt that introduction of a mass rapid transit system in some form is inevitable.
Smaller vehicles and organisations are being displaced by larger vehicles and institutions globally. There are many technological and institutional options available today regarding mass rapid transit. But, unfortunately, our concerned agencies and policy makers are completely out of the loop and are making policies without being informed about the appropriate technology and organisational setting for urban public transportation. They are so enamoured of dreams of metro and mono rail that they have failed to look at examples of other developing cities that have successfully implemented bus rapid transit systems-which are rail-like in efficiency but bus-like in cost.
Timalsina tweets at @lonelybidur