Walking over the roads!

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"Pedestrian injured in road accident in Kathmandu” or "Pedestrian killed in road accident in Kathmandu” are kinds of news that frequently make headlines. Yet, we let such news pass by merely blaming the riders or pedestrians, and without pausing to think about a possible greater reason underlying such accidents: lack of proper pedestrian infrastructures. A report by JICA estimated that more than 40% residents of Kathmandu rely on pedestrian activities, tied to city’s overall economic, social and cultural activities. But scant attention has been paid to address the pedestrian-related issues. And some of the solutions adopted to solve these problems have proven to be inefficient as they lacked many nuances of the broader social context of the city.

We’d like to focus our discussion on pedestrians, road crossings and overhead bridges which are proposed as the ultimate solution of urban road crossings in Kathmandu. Out of 22 such overhead bridges in the Kathmandu valley, nine including one subway is located around the city’s heart Tudikhel-Jamal-Ratnapark area. Ironic it may seem, it is rather a tiresome task for the pedestrian to cross the road using those bridges - the filth on these crossings only make them worse. Especially for the senior citizens and physically disabled, it becomes a nightmare situation – there are no provisions for the alternative-designated pedestrian crosswalks. Of all such crossing, the most disappointing one is the underground subway at Bhotahiti, the unkempt and under-ventilated condition of this subway crossing discourages even a healthy people to use it, let alone women, elderly and the disabled people.

The hurried and indiscriminate road expansion that took place in Kathmandu has worsened the matter for pedestrians since the project showed a disregard to developing the most basic elements of traffic roads – sidewalks, zebra crossings and signal lights. It is worth noting that only after the significant increase in traffic fatalities within a week of the inauguration of Koteshwor-Sallaghari road, did the authorities painted zebra crossings on the roads and stalled traffic lights, and floated a plan to build overhead bridges as potential remedies.

From the perspective of plain engineering, it may seem fair to provide uninterrupted passway to vehicles to avoid potential conflicts. But in Kathmandu, such solution seems to largely disregard socio-cultural aspects of day to day public life and behavioral pattern. For instance, the people of Patan showed disapproval for a proposed overhead bridge, stating that it would obstruct the path of the chariot of much celebrated Rato Machindranath; the bridge was eventually relocated to Pulchwok. Any infrastructure solution that fails to establish a sense of public ownership tends to become more of a liability than asset. Hence, our top-down policy intervention needs some revision.

As they say, a city for disabled people is a city for all. The overheard bridges in Kathmandu valley does not address the need of the elderly, sick and physically disabled people. Ramps and elevator need to be incorporated to these bridges if they are to be made accessible to these groups of people, although these are an expensive proposition. Hence, from economic perspective, it does not make sense to make such massive investment on obsolete and exclusionary infrastructure solution that does too little to cater the needs of diverse public. Aesthetically too they block local visibility and natural lights, and they quickly turn into the eyesore becoming placeholders for political and commercial banners.

Well-designed sidewalks inter-networked with market areas, retails, or any other stations could reduce the number of pedestrian crosswalks and function to separate vehicular and pedestrian pathways. Unfortunately, in our context, pedestrian sidewalks are not incorporated into primary objectives during road and transportation planning.

Predominantly, our city design should focus on making sidewalks more attractive, pedestrian-friendly and road curbs need to be chiseled at every designated crosswalk to facilitate wheelchair access. In newly constructed multilane roads in the Kathmandu valley, there are barely any refuge islands to facilitate pedestrian crossing. Properly designed refuge islands not only acts as traffic calming measures but also encourage pedestrians to use designated crossing, and they are highly effective in multi-lane wider roads.

Another important – and perhaps among the simplest, easiest and most underrated – means that could make roads safer for pedestrians is road signage. A well-integrated system of traffic lights could significantly reduce the number of traffic police from roads and allow people to abide by the system. Public awareness and traffic law enforcement in this regard could play a major role; but design of crosswalks and designated pedestrian crossing also play equally important role. A well-conceptualized urban design in painting, brick pavement or other means could seek attention of drivers to aware or warn them of the situation ahead and slow down to allow pedestrians to cross the road.

These are just some basics design guidelines that are cost effective, equitable as well as aesthetically attractive. If adapted, they could yield much better result in many terms than bulky and expensive overhead bridges. While overhead bridges may have been relatively successful in managing pedestrian traffic, largely they have turned out to be obsolete and inadequate response to the serious issues of road traffic and urban design in Kathmandu.

Many, including traffic police, may see traffic accidents solely as result of enforcement problem, and think that proper enforcing mechanism can ensure pedestrian safety. But the need is that the existing infrastructures should be backed with appropriate pedestrian facilities that can be celebrated by the larger public. For this, it is essential to review the kind of infrastructure choices we made in the past is essential; and, future design mechanisms should not only incorporate the bests of technical and engineering experts, but an investment in understanding people, places, activities and culture that shapes our urban spaces. Inclusive urban design should incorporate the needs of all its residents and visitors regardless of their age, sex, physical ability, and socioeconomic capacity.

(K.C. and Sapkota are both architect/urban planners associated with IUDPR - Institute for Urban development and Policy Research)