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Kanak Mani Dixit: Public Transport Blueprint of Nepal

There is no solution to urban public transport in the Valley for now but to promote dignified travel in buses large and small. Kanak Mani Dixit says we must make public vehicles attractive to the riders of motorbikes, scooters and automobiles, which means offering both comfort and efficiency. - Editor

Kanak Mani Dixit: Public Transport Blueprint of Nepal

Kanak Mani Dixit is a veteran journalist, writer, activist, author of children’s books and presently chairperson of Sajha Yatayat Cooperative Company.

Kathmandu Valley (Nepal Mandal or Swoniga) holds around a seventh of Nepal’s population, whose economic energy can drive the entire country. However, the Valley is an inefficient urban organism, also because a congested, populated bowl lacks a proper urban transport system. The absence of an easy, efficient and dignified public transport network exacts an enormous toll in terms of public health, mental stress, time management, air pollution and cumulative economic loss.

For decades, we have suffered a laissez-faire urban transport system without rationalization of routes, vehicle sizes, fares and so on. The rapid and haphazard urbanization of the Valley over the past half century, and accelerated by the decade of conflict and its impact on governance, meant that little thought went to addressing the public’s need to get around for the sake of jobs, markets and social activities. No wonder that most of the main urban arteries of the expanding Valley cityscape are tracks used by lorries bringing out bricks from kiln to market, which evolved as the serpentine ‘thoroughfares’ of today. If not that, then we learnt to steal the right-of-way of the Bagmati and her tributaries to use as ‘corridors’.

It is not that there has not been public transport planning, but there has been no success in implementation, and the last donor agency effort was the ill-fated Kathmandu Valley Sustainable Urban Transport Project (KSUTP) of the Asian Development Bank. In fact, all efforts to plan public transport networks for the Valley are redundant by the time they are ready, such is the speed of urban expansion.

It goes without saying that if the Valley developed an efficient public transport network within its 15x20 mile confines, it would boost the national economy—by generating economic efficiencies, boosting productive employment, reducing air pollution, supporting night and evening markets, and reducing dependency on automobiles and two-wheelers. Here are ten factors to be considered as we plan for the public transport future.


Public transportation authority

For decades, amidst the Valley’s wild urbanization, we actually functioned without a government entity dedicated to public transport, urban or otherwise. The Department of Transportation Management was the closest you could come to such an office, but its focus was on distributing driving licenses and bilbuk (vehicle registration document, the ‘blue book’). A Valley Public Transportation Authority was required, and after years of lobbying and legislative effort such an entity has been established, but practically stillborn. The Bagmati Province has gone to court against the Authority’s formation, maintaining that public transport comes under the ‘provincial list’ under the Constitution. As of now, the Authority exists in name, and the lack of public uproar demanding its activation is itself perplexing, pointing to a lack of commitment to urban public transportation among bureaucrats, parliamentarians, the medical fraternity, economists and civil society activists alike.

Urban municipalities

The Valley has 18 municipalities or local governments which are well into their second term of office, and the expectation was that elected mayors committed to their urban citizenry would band together to consider the needs of public transport. However, we see the distressing situation where the key players (of Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur municipalities) are barely on speaking terms, much less enthusiastic partners in coordinating a sensible urban public transport system for the Valley, which is by now more or less one urban unit. Any evolution of urban public transport in future will require an understanding among the Valley mayors that public transport, however efficiently run, will require subsidy so that buses run regardless of time of day, holidays, assorted bandhs and closures. Philosophically, it is the bane of urban public transportation to be loss-making while helping make cities themselves profitable.

Private sector

Nepal’s experience differs from societies that suffered colonization but had public transportation systems in the main cities at the time of independence. Here, since the arrival of the internal combustion engine (ICE) in the 1950s and ’60s, it was the private bus operators that rose to the challenge of providing rides to the public. Naturally, these were uncoordinated efforts, and remain so to this day, with the profit motive ensuring that the requirements of a decent urban public transport system were lacking. However, the private operators are a fact of life for the Valley, with a legacy of functioning without governmental support while providing mobility to the mass public. The private operators must be taken along as key partners in any future urban public transport endeavor.

Digital fare collection

The Valley’s public transport system is still in the pre-digital age as far as bus fare collection is concerned. This creates the challenge of revenue leakage for both private and public transport operators such as Sajha Yatayat, which is why many bus owners have taken to leasing out their vehicles on contract to the drivers, which in turn leads to the overcrowding in buses, mini buses and micros. A move towards digital ticketing is also a must (through one of many means including ‘yatra cards’, QR code, phone payment, etc.) because it will allow calibration of routes (primary, secondary and tertiary), allow transfer tickets and help in the establishment of an urban transport network amidst the disarray of thousands of uncoordinated private vehicles. It is important for either the incumbent Authority to make this happen, the municipalities acting in concert, or the bus operators themselves. The work should start with selecting the right e-ticketing technology to take us into the future.

Mass transit

Making the distinction between urban public transport and mass transit is important. True, a Valley of 4m population could do with a mass transit system, and many cities with smaller populations do have metro rail (elevated, underground or with above-ground right-of-way). Given the enormous cost of the rail-based mass transit system, it will require Nepal’s politics to stabilize and the economy to prosper. When such a time arrives, we must go for mass transit, with new tunneling technology that allows concrete lining of tunnels where there is clay, elevated trains running over the Bagmati and its tributaries, and perhaps over the Ring Road and other wider thoroughfares. One handicap that exists for building elevated tracks along the main roads (such as the Maharajganj north-south stretch) is that the Melamchi water lines have been laid along the center by KUKL, which will not allow metro rail pylons to be placed with ease.

Large buses

Because of the state of Nepal’s economy, a full-fledged mass transit system cannot be contemplated at this stage, though a sample stretch may be a good idea. A sober reckoning would suggest that, for the present, the Valley must use long 12-meter buses as the mainstay of the Valley’s urban public transport system. It seems to this writer that an efficient and coordinated bus network, with digital ticketing, online tracking, regular departures and arrivals, etc. will be enough to attract ridership and ease traffic congestion. Indeed, the idea of buses as the mainstay of public transport will not appeal to those who seek exotica, but often the boring solutions tend to be the best. When Sajha Yatayat introduced 12-meter buses in the Valley a decade ago, there were many naysayers who thought that the Valley’s main roads were too narrow to take them, but they have been proved wrong. Back then, it was mainly the officers of Nepal Traffic Police who encouraged Sajha Yatayat’s management not to back down on the plans for the large buses, and what is needed today is a proliferation of such vehicles buses throughout Valley roads that can take them.

Route rationalization

We can expect that the future of mass movement of urban dwellers will be over the wide roads that have been created in the Valley, including the Ring Road encircling Kathmandu and Patan, the Japanese-built stretch from Maitighar Mandal to Suryabinayak, and the widened radiating arteries, including from Maharajganj to Budhanilkantha, Jorpati to Sankhu, Gwarko to Lamatar and Bhainsepati to Tika Bhairab. Because the planned Outer Ring Road has now been overtaken by urban explosion that now stretches to the Valley’s edges, the interconnections between the Kathmandu outskirts (kaanth) are problematic other than through narrow roads. Route rationalization means using the main arteries exclusively for large buses, with smaller buses and vans plying the secondary roads, and Safa Tempos, bicycles and walking reserved for the tertiary or ‘last mile’ section. The moment this is done by a competent Authority, or the municipalities working in concert, we will see a radical and positive departure in terms of quality of public transport (in terms of punctuality, regularity, speed and comfort). This is something that can be done today, without having to wait for pie-in-the-sky solutions. The idea of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) with dedicated lanes for exclusive use by large public vehicles is a good idea, but because of the width of our roads, as things stand, it cannot be applied in most stretches.

Electric buses

Nepalis are rightfully proud that in relation to the size of the economy, the take-up of electric vehicles has been rapid. Further, our ‘clean energy’ comes from hydropower plants, unlike in neighboring countries where the electricity is generated by burning coal. However, it is vital for planners, policy makers and environmental activists to look beyond private EV automobiles, and focus on the need to introduce electric public transport. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, private EV automobiles at best travel 2 hours a day in the Valley’s congested roads, and so there is limited utilization of indigenously produced hydroelectricity in relation to the cost of the EVs. On the other hand, battery-operated buses run throughout the day, and hence will be able to utilize available ‘clean energy’ to the maximum, helping reduce carcinogenic air pollution as well as substituting imported petroleum fuel. Further, the electric public vehicles can be charged during the night, when the Nepal Electricity Authority’s rates are drastically reduced and when much of the hydropower is wasted through spillage. Hydropower is nature’s gift to Nepal, and given that we will be energy surplus in the near future without industrial capacity to pick up the slack, a rapid conversion into electric public transport will be good for the environment and the national economy.

Financing EV buses

It is heartening that private bank financing is all the rage for private vehicles as well as micro buses and vans that ply highways from Dadeldhura to Ilam. However, there is a problem when it comes to large public buses, which is what is needed for the Valley urban transit. This has to do with the high cost of buses because of the large complement of batteries required, and this makes them out of reach of private operators. This is so also because of the marginal profits made by these operators, given the low urban bus fares set by the Government. While a diesel-run 12-meter bus may cost no more than Rs 4.5m, the cost for an EV of the same size can go up to Rs 10.3m. Sajha Yatayat has been able to buy 40 buses of 9-meter length (and is working to add a new fleet of 12-meter buses) only because the Government of the day had the vision to look ahead and inject investment. Given that the private operators are the mainstay of the Valley’s urban transport system, it is urgent for the Government to extend financing to the private operators so they can overcome the up-front costs of buying large EV buses. (The actual running costs of the EVs in terms of maintenance and fuel tends to be much lower than ICE vehicles.)

Innovations in public transport

The planners for the Valley’s urban public transport must innovate based on local conditions and realities, without waiting for the donor agency input. They should also be skeptical of suggestions to blindly copy solutions from elsewhere, as the Valley’s possibilities and challenges are unique. Among the several arenas for study, is to check if it is possible to reduce the cost of large EV buses, by having fewer batteries and with fast charge possibilities along the bus route. Every so often there are suggestions of using urban cable cars (or gondolas) such as those used in some Latin American cities, and here it is important to study the volume of passengers that such lines would carry. One place to try and innovate (either cable cars, or even a bicycle way) would be to use the existing right-of-way of the 1960s American-built ropeway line from Teku southwest to Matatirtha, given that this entire quadrant of the Valley has become urbanized over the course of the last decade. Given the narrow roads of the Valley, a dedicated study should also be carried out on the possibility of tramways being experimented with in some cities, which require no overhead wires (using batteries) and GPS system in place of rail tracks. A team at Kathmandu University is presently working on cutting-edge hydrogen fuel technology, which could provide many answers for the future given Nepal’s possession of the two main ingredients required, electricity and water. Sajha Yatayat itself has converted a diesel bus into battery powered, but the challenges for spreading the concept is the high cost of one-off conversion, as well as the inability of the government authorities to provide the required paperwork for converted vehicles to run on the roads.

There is no solution to urban public transport in the Valley for now other than to promote dignified travel in buses large and small. We must make public vehicles attractive to the riders of motorbikes and scooters, which means offering both comfort and efficiency. Later, we must be able to attract the owners of cars as well into the buses. For such behavioral change, we must have a coming together of three elements that have been mentioned above: a) a move towards battery-run buses; b) system-wide introduction of digital payment; and c) establishment of a rationalized urban transport network. Things may look hopeless, but simple tweaking can work wonders. We need citizen activism to wake up the three tiers of Government from their slumber, and an activation of the Valley Transportation Authority, to ensure that there is a sensible urban public transport system that we all deserve.