THE PASSENGERS COLLECTIVELY CURSED the diminutive teenage conductor as he called a halt on a thoroughfare through Dilli Bazaar, a congested Kathmandu neighbourhood, to allow yet another passenger to board. There was only crouching room in the small van—a “micro” to locals—as it jolted back into traffic, then stopped again at a cluster of stationary micros, buses and three-wheelers down the road. Most of the vehicles were full to bursting, and their conductors hung precariously out into the street, as if on racing yachts. It was an unusually hot Friday morning in April, and the already heavy traffic was further delayed by roadworks. Upon arrival at the Ratna Park terminus in the city centre, dishevelled passengers spilled out, some checking their bags and belongings—the rush at such times provides cover for pickpockets and bag snatchers. Buses and vans waited to start their next trips, and drivers and conductors competed to attract passengers. Four half-empty micros waited at the eastern exit, each unwilling to leave without a full load.
Getting around is a constant challenge for Kathmandu’s residents. The city’s chaotic traffic and public transport services are symptomatic of its failure to deal with rapid urbanisation. After two decades of liberal economic policies, rising incomes and access to credit, there are now over half a million registered vehicles in and around the Kathmandu valley. That figure accounts for more than 60 percent of all vehicles in the country, and is still rising fast. The valley’s population, currently nearing three million, is also climbing at 4 percent per year. Public transport vehicles constitute only 2.5 percent of all vehicles on the road. The public transport sector has long been left to its own devices by the municipality and the government, and is controlled by a host of private syndicates operating buses, vans and electric three-wheelers of every shape and size. There is little coordination regarding routes and stops, but there is collusion in resisting efforts to enforce traffic, safety and pollution regulations. The continuing boom in the sale of private vehicles, and the congestion that comes with it, is driven at least in part by a desire to avoid the routine delays and discomforts of using public transportation. So far, that connection appears to have eluded the city’s administrators and transport entrepreneurs. But a recently relaunched cooperative bus service is trying to change that.
The consequences of the rising number of vehicles have been severe. Official efforts to manage traffic and improve infrastructure have been insufficient and inept. The government launched an ongoing campaign to widen roads a few years ago, but the work has been haphazard. That campaign also fails to recognise evidence that new cars quickly fill up extra road space, with little long-term decrease in congestion. Space is already at a premium in Kathmandu, and there is only so far the government’s current approach can go; aside from a few thoroughfares, the city centre is a maze of narrow streets and lanes, while sprawling suburbs are already climbing up the sides of the valley.