Try walking on the roads of Kathmandu any time during the day and you’re lucky if you don’t get run over by a speeding motor cycle or an overloaded taxi. Or get startled by the shattering horn of micro-buses. You’ll want to pause for a second and turn away to avoid inhaling the swirling dust surging towards you. One sighs with relief getting away from the crowded streets to quieter ones, of which not many are left. All this misery is a result of poorly managed traffic of over 500, 000 vehicles run by operators (can’t call them drivers, barring few) in narrow streets within less than 100 square kilometer of the city. Operators, because a driver by definition is someone who steers and guides, who assesses situation and strategizes the following move to avoid risks so that the mission is accomplished fully at minimal costs. It is not so here. In the event of accidents the common reason given is usually a failure of bakes. A driver can’t be expected to be driving a vehicle that has unreliable brakes. Operators don’t necessarily steer.
Then there is this new batch of operators – the private car owners who are generally educated, and many of them earn in five figures. These neo-elites think they are above all others who walk on the road. Pedestrians, who can only worry about making two ends meet and try to avoid to be on the road if they can are harassed by this new batch of operators as well. One needs to be thankful if they don’t splash mud while driving over potholes (prefer calling them pot-pits).
Until last year, the roads in the valley were quite narrow, and the pedestrians were literally pushed to the side drain or even to the wall by drivers who, for reasons unknown to humans, seemed to always be in a hurry. The filth of the side drain, the dust in the air, the high pitch horns, erupting black smoke from the exhaust pipes made pedestrians’ life quiet miserable. It was and still is a nightmare to be a pedestrian, especially in newly developed residential areas of inner Kathmandu. Now with the widening of roads, pedestrians’ comfort has of course increased, but so has the risk. Speeding vehicles think that the roads have been widened for them and pedestrians have no business to be anywhere near them!
Kathmandu is probably one of the few cities one can think of where there is no set standards for what type of vehicles would be allowed to operate. Vehicles of all possible models and makes and sizes are seen trying to pass each other. Garbage trucks are busy collecting garbage at rush hours. The road etiquette is unheard of. One can pass a vehicle from right and left, and stop it or even park at any place one wishes. One can open the door from both sides of the car. Don’t get confused if operators (drivers) indicate going one way and turn to the opposite direction, because the meaning of the indicators differ between city and highway. Dividers aren’t enough to designate opposite lanes. Nylon ropes must be hung in between to keep the vehicle operators from crisscrossing the lanes from right to left and left to right like a spring swallow flying to catch insects.
Don’t call me being unfair to vehicle operators in Kathmandu. My reason to raise it is to compare how well the traffic in Kathmandu reflects our societal make up and its character. First the diversity – the types, makes, and size of vehicles are as diverse as our own societal make up. They have communities of taxis, microbuses, minibuses, and even rikshaws. We have our own. Motorcycles represent unorganised mass who when threatened try to escape the trouble spot as quickly as possible, even if that involves driving on the foot path or through three feet wide lanes. Second, the lack of a common goal – we all, as a society, are headed to (ideologically speaking) different directions as the diverse destinations of vehicles.
Third the haste –all vehicles seem to be in a hurry to be in front of the other. They have no patience to wait for their turn and don’t hesitate to break rules if that pays. This character is seen to the same extent in politics, in bureaucracy, in business, and in entertainment circles. Collectively, we all get stuck like the traffic jam caused by pushing operators. Similarity is also seen in the way the size works. Thulo Manchee in the society or large political parties for that matter is always dominating as the big vehicles on the road.
Desirable change in both the society and on the road is difficult to come by within foreseeable future.
Until next time