Anyone who has been driving a car or riding a bike around Kathmandu for some time will agree that the amount of time to reach from point A to B has significantly increased in the past few years. With the number of vehicles increasing and the road expansion slowing, the city has become accustomed to incessant traffic jams, especially during rush hours.
The Metropolitan Traffic Police Department (MTPD) cites lack of infrastructure as the main culprit for the unmanageable road congestions. The streets of Kathmandu are ill-equipped to serve around 1.2 million vehicles registered in the valley alone, forget the vehicles that are registered outside and are plying here. “Our roads are not built for such volumes,” says a traffic police spokesperson. “As we don’t even have rudimentary traffic management technology, our work is difficult.”
Still, greater awareness among motorists and pedestrians could help to greatly minimize traffic jams. But that is evidently not the case here. On a recent afternoon, the Baggikhana, the MTPD headquarters, was packed with traffic rule violators who were there to pay their fines and attend the mandatory traffic awareness classes. None of them showed any remorse. “It is my first time being penalized for cutting the lanes,” a young man in a group of offenders waiting for the next class said. “The traffic police was too harsh. Everyone cuts lane and here I am, penalized.” A middle-aged man joined the conversation claiming how the government cannot catch criminals and corrupt politicians and instead focuses on common people who have only had a drink or two and can safely ride their way home. Everyone nodded in agreement.
The streets of Kathmandu are indeed choking. It is true that the government should be doing its bit to ease the pressure on Kathmandu’s roads. Having better traffic technology would certainly help. But forget the traffic police and the government for a moment. Isn’t it also the responsibility of pedestrians and motorists to play their part to make their city clean and orderly? ...
We all complain about bad traffic. But what are we doing about it?
(Note: We writing this article, the author tried to get in touch with many traffic police personnel. They all declined to comment. Instead all of them asked him to consult the official traffic police spokesperson. That is what he did)
“Our biggest problem is infrastructure,” says Rabi Kumar Poudel, Superintendent of Police and Traffic Police Spokesperson. “It is easier to manage traffic in cities with wide roads, overhead bridges, flyovers, footpaths, zebra-crossing and other infrastructures.”
Poudel says more advanced and bigger cities also have traffic jams but they are still easier to manage because of better planned infrastructure. “There is bound to be a traffic jam wherever there is a crossroad. Properly planned streets make these jams more manageable,” Poudel says.
Kathmandu’s roads also lack even basic traffic technology. Most of the traffic management in Kathmandu is done manually by traffic personnel. Braving dust, smoke and other street hazards, on-duty traffic personnel have to spend hours on end on busy street, to try and control the ebb and flow of traffic. “But manual traffic management is not feasible during rush hours,” adds Poudel.
“These days we won’t even need traffic police personnel at major junctions if we have well-functioning traffic lights. But as we do not, sometimes even seven or eight traffic police personnel are not enough to manage a single junction.”
Apart from right technology, the streets are also short of proper signboards and signals—what the traffic police term “road furnishings.” Motorists and pedestrians have the right to be informed about speed limits, one-way entries, right turns, zebra crossings and other instructions before they are penalized for violating the rules. There have been cases, Poudel says, where motorists have been caught for violating rules they had no idea about. “We do not have proper lanes and road signage to help the motorists,” he says. “But we are still forced to penalize them if they make mistakes.”
Some traffic rules that the traffic police is forced to implement are dubious too. For instance, a traffic police can impose a speeding fine on a vehicle going over 50 kmph on a 50km speed limit road. But if the same person drives at the speed of 10 kmph on the same road and blocks traffic, there is no law to charge the driver.
What can we do?
“We are deployed at risk of great health hazards, just to serve the public,” Poudel says. “Even if we do not have enough infrastructure and technology, the public can at least support us by being aware on the streets, respecting each other’s space, and complying with traffic rules.”
Motorists should understand that the road is made for everyone and respect traffic rules. Overtaking on corners, overtaking from the left side, rushing through traffic lights, not maintaining lane discipline and blocking lanes by driving too slowly are some problems the traffic police identify as additional reasons for Kathmandu’s traffic jams.
With more than 1.2 million vehicles in the valley alone, it is impossible for the traffic police to monitor all the vehicles plying every nook and cranny in an “unscientifically-planned city.” From a traffic management perspective, the city has far too many interconnected roads and lanes, some of which cannot let more than one vehicle pass at a time.
Pedestrians are adding to the traffic jams. Jaywalking halts the smooth flow of traffic, creating bottle-necks at major junctions. Despite the availability of zebra crosses and overhead bridges, people are found crossing the roads whenever and wherever they want. “We admit that there is a paucity of zebra crossings at some places. Some streets even do not have a footpath,” says Poudel. “But we request the pedestrians to find the safest zone to cross the road in these cases. And please cross in groups so that you do not break traffic flow.”
What are they doing?
The traffic police says it is wrong to assume that they are solely responsible for dealing with traffic congestions. “The traffic police is only a managing body. Their only responsibility is to monitor the users in the streets and check whether they are complying with the rules. We have to work within government rules and infrastructures. This is all we can do,” Poudel says.
The MTPD has been conducting public awareness classes for both pedestrians and motorists who violate traffic rules, but results have thus far been unsatisfactory. To instill awareness on road safety from an early age, the traffic police have suggested the Education Ministry to integrate road safety into school-level curriculum. The ministry has approved the idea and a course on traffic rules is on its final phase of preparation.