By Shaurya Kshatri Kathmandu, Jan. 10: Kathmandu, which even at the best of times, consistently keeps afloat at ‘unhealthy’ levels, became the world’s most polluted city on January 4. The particulate matter pollution on Monday (PM2.5) soared above 600, prompting discussions to curb the unprecedented surge in toxic air. With transportation alone contributing up to 28 per cent of pollutants, as per a 2017 study by the Department of Environment, environmentalists have for long been considering ways to curb vehicular emissions. For daily cycle users like Ratna Shrestha, President of Nepal Cycle Society, the solution is quite simple -- bicycles. With zero CO2 emissions, no noise and their extremely compact nature, they appear to be the best means for getting around. Unfortunately, the bicycles that once plied the streets of the capital in large numbers have today become a pariah in this city overwhelmed with gas-guzzling vehicles. But against all odds, interest in cycling as an eco-friendly means of urban commuting has generated a lot of interest with several policies and initiatives springing up in the last three years alone.
Beginning the year with an app to encourage cycling Cycle campaigners and Lalitpur Metropolitan City (LMC) have started off the year strongly with an innovative initiative to promote a cleaner, healthier environment. On January 8, Mayor of Lalitpur and UNDP Nepal signed an MoU to develop an app called Mero Cycle. The app is designed to motivate commuters to switch to cycling through incentives. “For instance, with this app, the user can be awarded Rs. 10 for every 10 km s/he pedals. It will gamify their cycling activity, pushing them to higher levels to win special badges, stars, and shields every month,” explains Kamal Raj Sigdel, head of communications at UNDP. Sigdel even envisions a future when the cycling game could potentially be developed into a local carbon-trading measure with provision of extra credits for those who pedal to cut carbon emissions. The initiative, dubbed as ‘Mero Cycle for Healthier Cities’, kicked off on Saturday, January 9, with a bike parade. Only time will tell if the campaign will lead to anticipated results, but nonetheless, it’s a commendable approach to promoting the eco-friendly means of transport. However, cycling as a means to curb pollution presents a bit of paradox in Kathmandu’s context. On the one hand, residents are being encouraged to cycle and reduce the quantity of carbon monoxide. On the other, they are being encouraged to do so in a space characterised by profound risk: unsafe roads and toxic air.
Moves afoot for safe cycling Plans and policies to make the city a safe haven for cyclists have been formulated and passed a number of times. But the visions on paper often don’t translate into real life. As per the original contract signed between the Department of Roads (DoR) and the Chinese Shanghai Construction Group, the Ring Road from Kalanki to Koteshwore was supposed to have a cycling lane on both sides of the road, which hasn’t been the case. Likewise, a bicycle lane was built along the Maitighar-Tinkune stretch back in 2014, which today is almost non-existent. “Most cyclists do not even know that this section has a bicycle lane,” says Som Rana, an Urban Designer. Having said that, the authorities have woken up to the importance of cycles for cleaner urban environment. A tremendous amount of work has happened within the last three years alone to promote and ensure safe cycling. The Government of Nepal’s National Plan for Electric Mobility (NPEM) envisages improving air quality with a 50 per cent reduction in fossil fuels by 2050. Bearing this in mind, Kathmandu Valley Air Quality Management Action Plan-2020 (KVAQMAP), which clearly mentions promoting cycling infrastructures, came into force after being approved by the Council of Ministers last February. Similarly, in its ‘Nepal Urban Road Standards 2076’, the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) has clearly specified incorporation of a two-metre wide dedicated cycle lane in arterial, sub-arterial and collector roads. In addition to these, real physical improvements have also come into fruition – the most prominent one being the green-lined shared cycle lane in Lalitpur. The five-kilometre Jawlakhel-Kupondole lane is only a pilot project, as per Som Rana, who leads the technical team behind the cycle lanes. “It’s only the first among the six phases to make Lalitpur a cycle-friendly City. Upon completion, the project aims to cover a total of 65 kms,” says Rana. The next phase to cover 22 kms of inner roads is already underway. Furthermore, a cycling lane along the Bagmati River corridor is already in the works under the coordination of the High Powered Committee for Integrated Development of Bagmati Civilisation (HPCIDBC) and Asian Development Bank (ADB). “We have already completed about 80 per cent of the dedicated lane under the Bagmati beautification project,” claimed Kamal Aryal, Engineer and Information Officer at HPCIDBC.
Challenges abound for cycle-friendly initiatives Despite a promising beginning, it hasn’t been much of a smooth-sailing for these initiatives. The Bagmati beautification project, which began in 2009, still remains incomplete. “The project has encountered several problems in the Gokarna Embankment to Guheshwari area due to demonstrations by inhabitants demanding compensation for their 188 ropanis of land used by the government,” states Aryal. Even the Lalitpur cycle lane hasn’t been without controversies. In October 2020, the DoR claimed that the cycle lane wasn’t authorised by the road department. As per DoR’s Nepal Road Standards, all roads with movement of bicycles more than 1000 per day should have a bicycle track. However, in Nepal, there is no cycle users’ database to monitor and track the number of cyclists using a particular road. The only data available is from JICA (2012) for Kathmandu, which shows a reduction in cyclists from 6.6 per cent in 1991 to 1.5 per cent in 2011. But, Lalitpur’s Mayor Chiri Babu Maharjan has been resolute in his attempt to turn the Municipality into a cycle-friendly city. “It’s wrong to not invest in cycle infrastructures simply because there aren’t many cyclists using the road. Prospective cyclists are simply reluctant because of a lack of proper facilities,” elucidated Maharjan. According to him, LMC has witnessed about 25 per cent increase in daily cyclists since completion of the Lalitpur cycle lane. Agreeing with Maharjan, Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport, Gopal Prasad Sigdel says, “Promoting cycling in cities will be one of the immediate and low-cost and most sustainable ways of reaching that target. It makes a strong case for sustainability of Nepal’s existing and emerging cities.” The LMC and DoR have now resolved the issue over the lane, and as per Mayor Maharjan, the two authorities will be working together in furthering the cycling cause.