Sundar Yatayat’s Electric Vehicles (EVs) opened to the public to much fanfare and media attention two months ago. Owner Bhesh Bahadur Thapa had to jump through hoops to get these buses on the valley streets. His goal: to reduce the use of fossil fuel and improve Kathmandu valley’s public transport system.
Sundar’s four electric buses currently in operation all run on the Ring Road, two clockwise and two anti-clockwise. And although they’ve been running for a few months now, they are still a novel sight. The sleek vehicle never fails to draw attention as it silently glides into a station, catching the gaze of curious bystanders. The look of awe and confusion on passengers’ faces as they adjust to the unique face-to-face seating, and lots of standing room, is palpable. Many, if not most, of them have never travelled on electric buses before.
To better understand the public perception of this unfamiliar means of transport, I talk to a few passengers on board one of these electric busses.
Sanjaya Khadgi, a first-time EV passenger, finds the bus more spacious and airier than other public vehicles. With its considerable width, and large windows, the bus does feels more spacious, although it is probably not much larger than other big buses. Khadgi also brings up the issue of energy independence, saying, “We won’t have to worry about blockades or fuel crises if the use of electric buses becomes more widespread.”
Srijana Singh, a nursing student travelling from Dhungedhara to Gopi Krishna Pul (Chabahil), is also a first-timer rider. She also finds it more comfortable and cleaner than others. “The bus made fewer stops and felt faster too,” Singh adds.
Likewise, Suraj Sharma, a chemistry teacher in Capital College and Research Center in Balkumari, has a strong opinion on the prevalence of diesel vehicles in the valley, and argues that the government should take steps to replace them with EVs, starting with the Ring Road route. “All public transport should be electric vehicles, which might be the only way to improve our air quality,” Sharma adds. In his first outing on the EV, he too feels the seating arrangement was unique and more comfortable for passengers.
Trolley’s close cousins
This, however, is not the first time electric vehicles have buzzed around Kathmandu. In 1975 electric powered trolley bus connected the 13-km distance between Tripureshwor and Suryabinayak, with 32 coaches that promised the rapidly urbanizing city a pollution free future.
Safa Tempos were introduced in the mid-1990s and, at the turn of the century, the city had over 600 zero-emission vehicles. But the run of battery-powered public transport in the valley was brief. Safa Tempo’s homegrown manufacturing unit was shut down in 2000, although some still ply on select routes. And the immensely popular trolley system was discontinued in 2001 after it fell into disrepair amid political and bureaucratic malaise.
But Shanta Basnet had not even heard of the electric bus service, and this is her first time on one. Still she sounds optimistic about its future. “I hope the government can support this innovative trend,” says Basnet. She adds that this bus reminded her of the public transport she took when she was abroad, “but perhaps the seats on this one is a little more uncomfortable”.
Unlike Shanta, Rohit Basnet thinks the seats are perfectly comfortable and unique. The 25-year-old MBA student also takes note of the vehicle’s silent and comfortable movement. “It is the driving and the seating that make the ride so unique,” Rohit adds.
Sarita Rasaili is the only one who had traveled on the bus before, and also the only one who was concerned about the electric vehicles’ longevity on Nepali roads. “I’m not sure if these foreign buses will last on our harsh roads,” Rasaili suspects, even though she too is perfectly satisfied with the new electric vehicles.
Glimpse of the future
Concern about environmental impact is a common concern of many passengers, who talk about the pollution caused by old fuel-guzzling public vehicles. While some like Srijana Singh suggest a transitional approach to reducing the number of diesel-fueled public transport, others like Suraj Sharma and Rohit Basnet reckon a radical approach is essential, such as entirely banning public vehicles that run on fossil fuel.
I see the bus creates excitement in its passengers. People get into it with enthusiasm. Some are bewildered by the unconventional seating, so much so that an aged gentleman refuses to ride on the bus and demands to be let off immediately.
Strangers make small talk, sharing their first impressions. Some discuss the environmental impact of fossil fuel, while others are adamant that electric vehicles will worsen our relations with India. Some even take selfies to commemorate the bus ride.
Two months of operation is nowhere near enough to prove that the buses will pass the test of time, or that they can compete with the existing buses and stay afloat. It would be a shame if this new breed of electric vehicles was to fall apart like the trolley service. For now, Sundar Yatayat offers us a glimpse of the electric future of public transport we desperately need.