The transport sector is one of the infrastructures of development. With the growing urbanisation, burgeoning population and changing lifestyles of people, the number of vehicles is growing day by day in Nepal. The major factors behind an increase in vehicles, especially private vehicles, are the government’s priority to importing vehicles, an inadequate number of public vehicles and mismanagement of public transport, among others. The government’s focus seems to be on widening roads even by demolishing private houses to accommodate more and more vehicles. In the Kathmandu Valley, traffic snarl-ups are a common phenomenon owing to the entry of vehicle after vehicle into the Valley. Banks and financial institutions give priority to vehicle loans. When vehicles loans are tightened, there is an outcry from automobile businessmen. Easy financing is also one of the prime reasons for heavy presence of vehicles on the roads.
Traffic management has become a big problem now. The number of vehicles during the Panchayat dispensation was very low. After the regime change in 1990, the Kathmandu Valley became crowed. The Maoist insurgency (1996-2006) made the situation worse, spilling a large number of people into the Valley. At the same time, banks and financial institutions also mushroomed, making vehicle financing easily available. It has been very late to make arrangements for traffic management. Just expanding roads is not a solution to traffic woes. For this, a mass transit system is required.
During the mayorship of Bidya Sundar Shakya, there was talk of constructing a monorail system in the Kathmandu Valley. This was also included in his election manifesto. But experts said that it was not possible to develop such a system in the Valley because of its uneven elevation. The monorail agenda has since been shelved. However, now there is talk of constructing a podway system in the Valley. A podway system, also called a microrail system, is a mode of transport that uses string-based transport technology. The system was developed by Belarusian scientist Anatoli Unitsky. Unitsky String Technologies is an international engineering company that designs, constructs and maintains the overpass transport system. String-based technology was certified in America and European countries in 2020.
Pods look like cable cars. Podways can operate above the roads. They can also be operated by erecting poles on both sides of a river. A podway can travel 150 kilometres per hour. It can run up to 120 kilometres per hour without air conditioners or up to 80 kilometres per hour with air conditioners from electricity backup. It is a sophisticated mode of transport equipped with technology such as the GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and the internet.
As far as the construction cost is concerned, a podway is cheaper to construct than a monorail or a metro or a cable car system. Podways can be built at four per cent of the cost of underground metros, 15 per cent of monorails or 50 per cent of a cable car system. A podway can be built in one and a half years. As it runs on electricity, the surplus electricity generated in the country can be utilised. Cable cars are too expensive for public transport. The cost of operating podways can be reduced by 85 per cent vis-à-vis cable cars. The operating cost of podways is two or three times less than that of public transport. As such, podways are cost-effective. Besides, podways do not produce a noise. As such, they can be constructed above national parks or forested areas as well.
In September 2022, the Ministry of Urban Development sent a letter to the Ministry of Finance for a budget allocation of Rs. 310 million for a feasibility study of a podway system. The system is intended to be built in various places of the Kathmandu Valley. The Kathmandu Podway Company has taken the initiative in building a podway system in the Valley. The company is an authorised partner of Unitsky String Technologies in Nepal.
Five companies around the world are working on string-based technology. Nepal intends to adopt Unitsky’s technology. Podways seem a must for the country. With the introduction of this mode of transport, traffic jams can be reduced to a great extent. When podways become reliable, people may opt for them rather than use their own vehicles. They can be expanded to other parts of the country. They are suitable for remote and mountainous areas of the country. They can be used on the East-West Highway. With the development of podways, local people will, on the one hand, heave a sigh of relief as their transport woes will come to an end, while on the other the tourism sector will also get a shot in the arm. It requires USD three million (Rs. 40 million) to construct a podway for one kilometer. As local materials can be used for the construction of podways, the construction cost may be reduced.
As podways run on electricity which can be produced within the country, the import of petrol and diesel, which form the bulk of imports, can be drastically slashed. This will also contribute to reducing pollution. As the government is encouraging the use of electric vehicles, the introduction of podways will be a feather in the government’s cap. This will also be in line with the policy of eliminating fossil fuels. Most countries around the world have announced the elimination of fossil fuels by 2030 as concerns over the impact of climate change loom large. Podways can also be used as cargo vehicles.
The government should, therefore, prioritise the development of podways in the country. As far as financing is concerned, the government can have recourse to foreign loans, grants or assistance. Moreover, along with podways, the government should develop other modes of mass transit such as trams and double-deckers. The number of private vehicles is growing in such a way that it may be impossible to manage them in the foreseeable future. So the government should not drag its feet over developing podways as part of a mass transit system, which has been overdue.
(Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000.)