When I was young, our small family lived in a rented house in Bhimsensthan, in the heart of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. By the time I was in class two, we had moved from Bhimsensthan to the suburb of Koteshwar. Koteshwar was a mixed settlement of old and new parts with open spaces and paddy fields. One of the open spaces near our house is now the famous Paris Danda, which houses the central party office of CPN or what came to be seen as the Maoist centre. At that time, Koteshwar was not really seen as part of the city. As far as one could see, there were Himalayan cherry trees on both sides of the road from Tinkune to Maitighar and peepal trees from Tinkune to Suryavinayak.
When Baburam Bhattarai became the Prime Minister of Nepal, people hit the streets demanding transformation. As political changes swept the country, perhaps there was a demand for a change in the road infrastructure also. Soon, the cherry and peepal plants were cut to make way for the road. Gradually, as Kathmandu city limits expanded, open spaces disappeared along with paddy fields, and culverts got buried under shiny new roads, marking the start of unplanned urbanisation. As part of this transition, even roads in the inner part of the area got a new look. However, why neither a footpath nor a place to slow down was built for Batuwa ( Pariestian ) remained a question unanswered. In some parts of the inner roads, where footpaths existed, they ended like tails. It seemed the new roads were meant only for vehicles, not for people.
Our Hon’ble Prime Minister, Baburam Bhattarai, was an engineer and had an understanding of how the mechanisms of people-friendly urban design, including that of roads. However, it appeared that the engineers in charge did not pay enough attention to the needs of pedestrians. This was compounded by the fact that the drivers and the traffic police on the road also did not seem to care. Various governmental agencies and people got bogged down in the issue, and Batuwa was stuck in the chaos of indifferent roads.
Today Batuwa is helpless. There is no one to speak for the city or its people. There is no place to cross the roads. No sidewalks either as traders have encroached on them. The footpath in front of the commercial centre has become an unofficial place for motorcyclists to stop as if the joy of shopping without getting off the bike is unique. Other cities are also slowly suffering from this unplanned urban sprawl and development. While wide roads are being built, the footpaths are narrow.
After the earthquake in 2015, we moved back to Sindhulimadi, my ancestor home town, 152 kilometres from Kathmandu. Sindhulimarhi is a small valley. It has been a few years since the BP highway from Kathmandu through Sindhuligarhi was connected to the east-west highway, crossing the eastern hills and exiting south of Bardibas. The number of vehicles has increased rapidly after the construction of this highway. We live about three kilometres from the market and frequently travel by tempos or small motorised vans that carry several passengers at a time. There are more than 400 diesel-powered tempos here which are the only mode of public transport here. Again there is no footpath to walk. If you ride a bike, there are no bike-friendly roads. Thus far, we have not even heard of any plans to build footpaths and bike paths by the municipality.
The Hetanda-Chatara highway is currently being constructed from the middle of this valley. The length of this route connecting Dharan to Hetaunda via Chatra, Gaighat and Sindhuli will be 318 km, and about 95% of the work has been completed. Since the time this highway was planned, small settlements along the road have gradually transformed into markets and cities, and the process continues.
The Sindhulimarhi-Khattar section of the road falls within the market area where we live. In this sense, it is an urban street. Twenty years ago, there were few houses in this section with even fewer cars and motorcycles. One had to wait all day to see a motorcycle ride by. People travelled on foot and by bicycle. The entire road was reserved for pedestrians and cyclists. Once the highway is constructed, many long-distance vehicles will pass through this section. Pedestrians and cyclists will no longer be welcome as it will become risky for them with increased vehicular traffic. If other highways are built in the same manner, the problem will only compound further across Nepal.
To prevent such a situation, our engineers and road designers should not forget the city’s way of life as they construct highways. These roads or highways will disrupt our way of life irrevocably. A balance between the nation’s development and preserving age-old practices and citizen comfort must be considered. The planning, construction and operations of roads and highways must be human-centric. If such a human-centric road does not become a reality in Kathmandu, the country’s epicentre, then such ambitions will never materialise beyond the city. When talking to the local people’s representatives or government officials about the problem, the oft-heard response is that ‘the road is more important; we can’t build sidewalks and bicycle paths.’
Building human-centric structures gives a new dimension to people’s lives and activities in a city. It creates a dynamic urban life and maintains environmental balance, attributes essential to make a city livable. A human-centric approach to road infrastructure focuses on designing roads that prioritise the safety, accessibility, and convenience of people using them. This includes considerations for pedestrians, cyclists, public transportation users, and drivers. By creating roads that cater to the diverse needs of individuals, communities can flourish, and the overall quality of life improves. This involves promoting eco-friendly transportation options, such as public transit, cycling lanes, and pedestrian-friendly walkways. Sustainable road development will reduce carbon emissions and pollution and contain the overall ecological impact of transportation systems.
Communities should have a say in the planning and development of roads that directly impact their neighbourhoods. Transparency and public consultation are essential in fostering democratic values in road development projects. Such urban planning should ensure that the transportation infrastructure is accessible to all members of society, regardless of their socioeconomic status, physical abilities, or location. This principle aligns with democratic ideals of inclusivity and equality, ensuring that everyone has the same opportunities to participate in society. This should be the focus of our policymakers and road designers.
In 2019, the Ministry of Urban Development issued ‘Nepal Urban Road Standards 2076’ to solve the problem of unorganised urban roads, categorised them into – main roads, secondary roads, routes and sub-routes. In these four types of roads, sidewalks, bicycle tracks, and ambient greenery are mandatory.
According to the norms, the main road will be 50 meters with eight lanes, 3.5 metres each, with a provision of footpaths of at least two metres on both sides. The main road of the city connects to other roads. Kathmandu’s ring road can be considered the main road by this definition. Additionally, there should be bicycle tracks of at least two metres on both sides of the road. Similarly, the verge should be at least one meter and a 1.2-metre border in the middle of the road. Vehicular speed on these roads will be limited to 40 to 50 km per hour.
A road connected to a main road is called a subsidiary road with jurisdiction of 30 metres. Sidewalks will also be built on both sides of the subsidiary road. The footpath should be at least two metres. Cycle tracks and verges are mandatory on both sides. This two-lane road should be 7 metres with a border of at least 1.2 metres in between. The speed of vehicles on such roads should be 30 to 40 km per hour.
According to the norms, the road leading to the main road and subsidiary road is called Marg. This route is connected to the sub-route. It will connect commercial areas, residential areas and industrial areas. The route will be spread over seven meters with sidewalks and bicycle tracks on opposite sides. Its jurisdiction will be 20 meters, with the speed of vehicles at 20 to 30 km per hour.
Roads connecting to human settlements are defined as byways with low traffic. Sidewalks will be built on both sides. The road will be 6 meters with two lanes of 3 metres each. The jurisdiction of the road will be 10 meters. Here the driving speed should be 10 to 20 km per hour.
The standard says that trees should be planted by the side of the roads. Plants should also be planted in the middle of each road to make it environmentally friendly and safe for motorists. Arrangements will be made to connect electric wires, water pipes, telephone wires, etc., under the road to create a clean, beautiful and safe transit system. A subway and an overhead bridge will also be constructed along with pedestrian crossings.
Even after four years of approval of the standards for urban roads, there has not been much discussion or action on the proposal. In democratic governance, pedestrians have the first right on the road. Unless the government puts pedestrian interests first, it cannot be considered people focused.
Designing roads and transportation systems that cater to the needs and well-being of individuals while adhering to democratic principles such as community engagement, equity, and responsive governance is critical for a growing democracy like Nepal. Through such holistic urban planning, we can create a transportation infrastructure that not only improves mobility but also enhances the democratic fabric of the nation by empowering and valuing the voices of its citizens.