Nepal | July 14, 2020

Is pedestrian and cycle-friendly mobility possible post-lockdown? 

Shaurya Kshatri  
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Cycling to his place of work, Dr Paban Sharma, Professor at Patan Academy of Health Sciences, has had to face the brunt of the police officials on more than one occasion. Ever since the nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 24, Sharma’s preferred means of commute has been his trusty old bicycle.  

And why not,” he exclaims. “It’s safe, healthy and environmental-friendly. But I think we need to make our frontline police officials aware of that.”  

Tirek Manandhar, fourth-generation owner of PANC bikes, one of the oldest cycle shops in Kathmandu, has also experienced similar instances. Since the pandemic, bicycle business worldwide has witnessed an overwhelming surge in sales, but in Nepal the opposite has been true.  

“But we have received a tremendous amount of inquiry from customers on the prospect of buying bicycles,” Manandhar informs.  

He has started home delivery services but is taken aback by the government’s decision to increase tax on electric mobility after the budget announcement of May 28, just when electric cycles were beginning to gain traction.  

Nepal and elsewhere  

Many cities like Rome, London, Brussels, Melbourne, Berlin have taken advantage of this enforced pandemic pause to usher in environment friendly mobility adjustments. In Nepal as well cycle advocates have been bent on urging the government into rethinking urban mobility, but so far the issue hasn’t moved beyond mere dialogues and idea exchanges in elongated long zoom webinars.  

“We know pedestrian and cycle-friendly infrastructure must be the way forward. Now is the time to act and capitalise on this opportunity,” said Bhushan Tuladhar, an environmentalist and Executive Director of Sajha Yatayat, during a webinar session conducted by Nepal Cycle Society on May 27.  

However, the authorities concerned have never seriously considered pedestrian and cycle-friendly roads as a priority. Back in 2017 when Bidya Sundar Shakya was elected Mayor of Kathmandu Metropolitan City, building cycle lanes in Kathmandu was part of his 101-tasks in the first 100 days — a pipe dream, which after three years still seems far from fruition.  

As per 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 per cent of roads lack basic amenities for pedestrians.  

That pedestrian and cycle safety are at the bottom of the government’s priority is further evidenced by the on-going construction of the Birgunj-Kalaiya road and the expansion of the Birgunj-Pathalaiya Road, as informed by Vibek Gupta, transport planner based in Birgunj. “Everyday thousands of workers use the stretch of the road on their bicycles but these projects don’t have any cycle lanes,” he says.  

Pedestrian and cycle-friendly mobility  

On May 18, when Kathmandu partially eased the lockdown, social media was abuzz with photos of rows of vehicles stuck in traffic jams. The image sent shockwaves across the community of environmentalists and cycle advocates as they were presented a slight glimmer of what life would look like post lockdown.  

Urban designers keep encouraging denizens to use cycles for short distances, but infrastructure such as dedicated cycle lanes are only present in a few areas of Lalitpur Metropolitan City, which also are worksin-progress. However, Keshav Sharma, Director General, Department of Roads (DoR) has said DoR will be looking to prioritise cycling as a means of commute post lockdown. “Cycling is suitable for Kathmandu. We can create space by either resizing the lanes in urban streets or compromising existing lanes and giving it to cycling, walking,” he adds.  

Speaking of suitability in Nepal, as per the 2011 census, 32.8 per cent of households owned a bicycle, while 9.58 per cent owned a motorcycle. “Likewise, around 60 per cent of Nepalis can ride bicycle, while 80 per cent of people in Tarai ride bicycle,” informs Som Rana, Architect and Urban Planner. These numbers obviously aren’t any indication of today and as per the Department of Transport and Management (DoTM), motorcycles alone amount to around 80 per cent of the total number of vehicles registered in a year.  

In order to prevent further domination of the streets by motorcycles, a buzzword among cycle community has been ‘Pop Up Cycle lanes’ 

“Pop-up’ cycle facilities means installing lanes swiftly using light segregation features like flexible plastic wands; or quickly converting traffic lanes into temporary cycle lanes,” explains Rana.  

Whether this new buzz is going to make to the street or not, only time will tell. 

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