Some succour for pedestrians, but not enoughValley authorities are working to improve footpaths. More needed, as walking in the capital city is a nightmare, and the disabled and the elderly face greater problems.
Parbat Raj Bista, a visually-impaired person, has numerous incidents of falling into potholes, bumping into electric poles and stumbling on wires while walking in Kathmandu in his over two decades of living in the capital city.
“For the past two years I have been using ride-sharing services to commute from my home to office,” said Bista, 31, who lives at Nayabazar. His office is at New Baneshwor.
“If I have to walk, it's still a nightmare for me and others who are differently-abled as our footpaths are like traps. You never know where you will fall,” said Bista, who now operates a private stock trading company.
He said if he has to walk, he prefers to use the side of the road instead of the footpath.
“While not all roads have proper footpaths and they are often narrow and encroached upon by shops, vehicles or locals who sometimes pile up construction materials on footpaths. In some places there are obstacles like electric poles in the middle of the footpath. So using the road is comparatively safer but there is also the risk of being hit by road traffic,” said Bista, who is originally from Udayapur.
Walking along the Valley’s footpaths is a struggle not only for the disabled people like Bista, but also for the elderly.
“None of the roads in Kathmandu Valley is friendly for the elderly or the physically weak or those with poor vision,” said Maha Prasad Parajuli, president of the Senior Citizens Struggle Committee. “There are only a few places where the footpaths are smooth but others are just traps.”
A lack of proper footpaths has been the bane of Valley people. This, however, might change soon as authorities are laying new pavements in some areas of Kathmandu and Lalitpur.
Recently, the Department of Roads and the Lalitpur Metropolitan City have been laying colourful pavements, which are also disabled-friendly.
Meanwhile, the Lalitpur Metropolitan City has already constructed nearly 4km of such pavement from Kupondole to Jawalakhel at the cost of Rs40 million.
City planners have welcomed the new construction but they say authorities should do more to make the city friendly for pedestrians and the disabled, among others.
“Footpaths are essential in cities like Kathmandu because like in many European cities, offices here are within walking distances and many people would walk to their work if there were good footpaths,” says Suman Meher Shrestha, an urban planner. “Also, if more people walked, this would decrease vehicular traffic, traffic jams and pollution, and also help tourism.”
When it comes to walkability, Kathmandu lies on the bottom of the list.
According to a 2018 ‘Kathmandu Walkability Study’ by the Resource Centre for Primary Health Care, which surveyed 35 different sections of the Kathmandu Metropolitan City, more than 70 percent of roads do not have basic amenities for pedestrians.
With rapid urbanisation, Kathmandu Valley has become a concrete jungle with a population of 2.5 million, according to the 2011 census. A World Bank report says the Valley’s population is growing at 4 percent per year, terming it one of the fastest-growing metropolitan cities in South Asia.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics’ population projection for districts for 2021, the population of the Valley—Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur—is around 3.3 million. Given the high number of migration to the Capital for work and studies, the Valley’s actual population is estimated to be around 4 million.
For a city with such a high population density, the available facilities and amenities for pedestrians are negligible.
Surendra Man Bajracharya, 61, who was born and raised at Jhochhen of Kathmandu, spent half of his life in the Basantapur area. He remembers how easy it was for him to go shopping on foot to Indra Chowk and Ason or participate in religious processions with friends during festivities as the streets and alleys were pedestrian-friendly.
“But Kathmandu now has become a city of cars and other vehicles, not for pedestrians,” said Bajracharya, an assistant professor of Buddhist Philosophy at Tribhuvan University, who has been living in Sanepa with his family for the past 30 years. “I can’t imagine walking these days because the footpaths are either damaged or encroached upon, and in many places there are no pavements for pedestrians.”
Getting to move freely is the fundamental right of every citizen, authorities’ failure to ensure footpaths for pedestrians also is in violation of their constitutional rights.
Officials say they are working to improve the road conditions.
“We have plans to extend the blind-friendly tactile footpath from Jawalakhel to Satdobato and lay new ones in Balkumari and Chyasal areas. And we are doing this from our own resources,” said Rudra Prasad Gautam, information officer at the Lalitpur Metropolitan City. He said the city has already spent Rs35 million on road improvement.
Shiva Prasad Nepal, spokesperson for the Department of Roads, said the road and footpath improvement is an ongoing project but he can’t say how long it will take to improve all roads and footpaths of the Valley.
But members of the public including those with disabilities say the authorities should speed up the work.
Sudarshan Subedi, former president of the National Federation of the Disabled, welcomes the footpath construction drive but emphasises that authorities should improve all roads in the Valley to international standards.
“The newly-paved pedestrian walkways in Lalitpur and Kathmandu are good but that’s not enough. Most other road sections are accident hazards for both visually impaired and elderly people, among others,” said Subedi.
The 2011 census shows that around 23,549 people with disabilities live in Kathmandu. The federation estimates that 50 percent of them depend on their daily income to make their ends meet and for that they need to walk on the road.
“Before starting work on footpaths, the authorities should consider how safe they will be for differently-abled people such as the blind and wheelchair riders,” said Subedi.
The Metropolitan Traffic Police Division estimates that every day 1.4 million vehicles operate in the Valley. The division’s data show that in the past two years the Valley saw 319 road-related fatalities that included 101 pedestrians. This means 31.66 percent of those killed in the accidents were pedestrians.
“If only Kathmandu’s walkways are made pedestrian-friendly, this will help reduce accidents by over 80 percent,” surmises Sanjib Sharma Das, Superintendent of Police and spokesperson for the division.
Figures show the Valley has far more vehicles than its roads can sustain. A 2016 study by the Department of Transport Management shows that the total length of vehicles operating in Kathmandu Valley is 7.23 million feet whereas the length of the road is just 4.8 million feet.
Former chief of the Metropolitan Traffic Police Division, Senior Superintendent Bhim Dhakal also thinks better footpaths will help bring down road fatalities and reduce traffic congestion.
According to the Road Safety toolkit, a website providing free information on causes and prevention of road accidents, pedestrian crashes are a major road safety problem in developing countries. It also states that footpaths or sidewalks can reduce crash risk by separating vehicles and pedestrians.
However, in the context of Kathmandu Valley major footpaths are being encroached upon by shops, street vendors, vehicle workshops and eateries, among others.
Bista, the visually-impaired who operates a private stock trading company, says authorities have failed to uphold the rights guaranteed by the constitution.
“Our constitution says all infrastructure development in the country should be disabled-friendly. But it is limited to paper,” said Bista. “Every day, walking in Kathmandu for hundreds of people like me is an ordeal. Not providing footpaths or encroaching upon the available pavements is a crime. The state should adopt a policy that puts pedestrians first.”