Lalitpur plans public bicycle sharing. Good move, say cycle enthusiasts but with caveatThe proposed scheme is part of efforts to encourage eco-friendly commute but urban planners and cyclists say it needs meticulous planning.
Lalitpur Metropolitan City, which in 2019 introduced a 4.7-kilometre bicycle lane from Kupondole to Mangalbazar, has floated a new plan to launch a “docked bicycle sharing system” as part of its efforts to encourage bicycle riding in the city.
Mayor Chiri Babu Maharjan said the City has tentatively proposed four different points—Pulchowk, Bagalamukhi, Patan Sundhara and Lagankhel—for a pilot project for the docked bicycle sharing system.
In a docked bicycle sharing system, a user can check out a bicycle from a self-service bike station or a “dock” for a round trip or park the bike at another convenient dock.
According to Maharjan, the plan is part of the city’s eco-friendly effort.
“Users can avail bicycles at a cheaper price,” said Maharjan.
If implemented, Lalitpur Metropolitan City will become the first local unit in Nepal to introduce the docked bicycle sharing system, which is quite popular in some developed nations.
The city has proposed starting the scheme with 100 bicycles—25 each in four different points called docking stations. A user can digitally check out a bike after paying a certain fee and return it later to the same docking station or another one.
“For example, a student can take a bicycle from Pulchowk and then dock it at Lagankhel,” Maharjan explained. “S/he can attend their tuition class or visit a friend or a relative and pedal back to Pulchowk and return it. Or they can leave it at Lagankhel’s docking station.”
The city has plans to spend around Rs2.5 million for the project. As per the plan, bicycles will be kept at automated self-service bike stations and users will have to use them through a mobile phone application.
While Maharjan appears confident about its success, cycle enthusiasts, activists and urban planners have welcomed the proposal with some caveats. They say there has to be a clear-cut modality, as such public bicycle sharing schemes have succeeded in some countries and failed in others.
“The biggest challenge is safety. There is also a question about the app’s efficiency,” said Ratna Shrestha, president of the Nepal Cycle Society. “Who will repair the bicycle if it breaks down midway? How to keep track of the users? How to ensure that they are not stolen?”
Shrestha said Lalitpur Metropolitan City has also held talks with Nepal Cycle Society about the project and how it can be expanded to other districts of the Valley.
“This project should rather be extended through the Kathmandu valley. I see some challenges here,” Shrestha said.
The history of first bike sharing dates back to 1965 in Amsterdam, where bicycles painted in white were kept on the streets for public use. But many bicycles were quickly damaged and stolen without any payment system and dedicated locks. That led to a halt of the project.
Saurav Dhakal, a bicycle activist and curator of Story Cycle, a platform for sustainable development through storytelling and digital mapping, said Lalitpur’s initiative is praiseworthy but wondered if it can succeed given the failures of such systems in some foreign cities.
“Even some urban planners have said it’s not a successful model as there are several problems,” Dhakal said. “All across the world, state-run public transport systems usually operate at a loss, but still it is the state’s responsibility to provide service to the public.”
While in theory, Kathmandu Valley, which has three districts—Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur—is bicycle-friendly with relatively short distances between destination points, moderate weather and the terrain, it is a notorious place for cyclists due to its poor road infrastructure. And air pollution continues to be a major problem. There are a few dedicated cycle lanes in Lalitpur; in Kathmandu, the only dedicated cycle lane from Maitighar to Tinkune, has a poor design, is encroached by vehicle owners and street vendors, and remains largely unused.
Cycle enthusiasts say there is a lack of cycling culture among the Valley residents.
Dhakal says Lalitpur can focus on planning the project with a view to attracting tourists to use the bicycle sharing scheme.
“If cycle pick-up and drop points are envisioned in such a way that they connect the seven heritage sites of Kathmandu Valley, this scheme can help in tourism promotion also,” said Dhakal.
Maharjan, meanwhile, said only four bicycle docking stations have been proposed for now because he wants to start the scheme as a pilot project and plans to expand it to Kathmandu and Bhaktapur too.
“I have already consulted with Kathmandu’s Mayor Balendra Shah. He is positive about the idea,” said Maharjan, the Lalitpur mayor. “I have spoken with Godawari Municipality Mayor Gajendra Maharjan also and he has already allocated a budget for the project.”
One of the key obstacles to encouraging cycling is a lack of law.
In 2020, Lalitpur Metropolitan City had planned to implement Lalitpur Cycle Act 2076. But that has not been approved yet.
Dhakal, the cycling activist, also stressed the need for introducing a separate cycle law for promoting bicycle use, especially in urban centres. Bicycle laws, which many countries have adopted and vary from country to country, are basically about ensuring cyclists’ right to the road.
“The main thing is we don’t have a bicycle law,” said Dhakal. “And, for regular commutes, there has been no improvement in the road infrastructure either.”
Dhakal added the Avoid/Reduce, Shift/Maintain-Improve (ASI) approach hailed for its environmental sustainability by modifying consumer behaviour also has not been implemented in Nepal.
“‘Avoid’ refers to not using any form of transportation for mobility when one commutes to work. And at a given condition, when one cannot avoid transportation, one can have the option to commute by a bicycle or an electric vehicle,” he said. “But in our city planning, we have missed the ASI approach, which is an essential element that leads to an improved transport model. Our main problem is that we have not been able to change people’s mindset, and people have misinterpreted that cycle lanes are for ‘exotic use.’”
City planners say the docked bicycle sharing system, if implemented well, can encourage more people to ditch cars for short distances.
Suman Meher Shrestha, an urban planner, said this system is good because people do not have to own a bicycle and can be extremely helpful for covering short distances.
“Valley’s cities can even consider introducing electric bikes,” said Shrestha.
But there is one major challenge, he said.
“One drawback I see here in Nepal is that there could be vandalism as these bicycles will be public property and there is a tendency among people of handling public property recklessly,” Shrestha said. “Those implementing the project should have a proper plan to prevent vandalism and theft of bicycles.”