Ambika P Adhikari is an Urban Planner based in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Keshav Bhattarai is a Professor of Geography at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Missouri, USA.
Many cities in neighboring India have successfully adopted BRT systems to improve their transportation situation. Examples can be seen in Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Indore, and Surat. Looking at the current transportation and related pollution problems in the Kathmandu Valley, a realistic possibility will be to start with an electric BRT system and gradually move to streetcar and eventually to metro rail.
As Nepal rapidly urbanizes, its cities are facing an unprecedented scale of transportation-related and environmental challenges. For example, the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal is experiencing routine traffic congestion, and major air pollution problems, much of which is caused by vehicles on the road.
Over half a million vehicles of various types and sizes ply every day on just over 2,000 kilometers (km) of roads in the Valley. Vehicular emissions are amplified by the routine traffic jams as commuters spend many hours every day stuck on congested roads. As much of the traffic consists of low occupancy vehicles such as two, and three-wheelers, and personal autos and taxis, the transportation system moves a fewer number of riders and emits more per-rider pollutants than what a system consisting of majority high occupancy vehicles would be able to do.
A rapid growth in private vehicle ownership and use, especially of two-wheeled vehicles, has contributed to the increase in traffic congestion and the ensuing pollution. The remittance-based economy has enabled many residents to buy urban lands and build homes, and acquire personal vehicles. This process has propelled urban sprawl in all directions of the Kathmandu Valley continuing the vicious cycle of congestion, pollution and sprawl.
The Kathmandu Valley remains the administrative, political, educational, and health hub of the country and is a big magnet for the people from across the country. It is now estimated that in 2021, the Valley is home to between 3.5 and 4.0 million people. The resulting urban sprawl with haphazard siting of buildings without a proper subdivision planning system has made it difficult to organize an efficient transit system for the residents of the newly-developed areas.
Air Pollution Can Kill
The level of atmospheric pollutants in the Valley has been higher than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) safe guidelines, making Kathmandu one of the most polluted cities in the world. Air pollutants consisting of particulate matters, carbon monoxide, oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, and organic volatile compounds can cause a variety of respiratory and other diseases, some of which can become fatal. Dust particles generally result in particulate matters (PM10) that remain suspended in the atmosphere. These particulates can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, and even acute respiratory infections. Even more harmful are the smaller-sized PM2.5 particulates that penetrate deep into the lungs, irritate, and corrode the alveolar wall, consequently impair lung function, and even penetrate into the bloodstream. The high concentration of CO in the blood increases carboxyhemoglobin (COHb) that affects the nervous system and can sometimes lead to heart attacks. Nitrogen oxide (NO2) emitting from vehicles can cause bronchitis and broncho-pneumonia, and the emitted Sulphur dioxide (SO2) may cause eye irritation and conjunctivitis. These gases cause and exacerbate the existing cases of shortness of breath, chronic bronchitis, asthma, and even lung cancer.
The major contributor to the air pollution being vehicular emissions, improving the urban transit system will help in significantly reducing air pollution. Replacing most of the low occupancy vehicles with high occupancy vehicles will reduce the per capita pollutant emission in the Kathmandu Valley. To control air pollution, it is necessary to reverse the growth, or at least reduce the ratio of single occupancy vehicles in the total fleet to transport people in the Valley.
Some Potential Transportation Options
To ease the problem of traffic congestion and air pollution, some transportation planners and engineers have proposed an elevated monorail system for Kathmandu because it could be built on land space that is less than 80 percent of what a surface streetcar system would occupy. However, looking at the experience of several other cities, a monorail system is likely to become outdated within a few years. An elevated monorail is also expensive because of the heavy building structure needed to support the moving carriages. More importantly, designing train stops where passengers can enter and exit the vehicle and safely climb down to the surface road from the elevated monorail is a complicated task, and is expensive, especially, for the seismically sensitive and overcrowded Kathmandu Valley.
An on-street light rail system is another option for the Kathmandu Valley. Many cities across the world have successfully built light rail systems, which have helped in reducing congestion and emission of pollutants. Light rail transit is less expensive than a metro or a mono-rail system but is much more expensive than the surface-run bus transport.
Given the rapidly increasing population of the Valley, an underground metro rail with a transportation capacity of 20,000 to 50,000 passengers in each direction every hour may be a great option to cater to the future traffic demands. Proponents of the underground metro rail system propose the main arteries of Kathmandu, Patan and the Valley’s Ring Road as the principal routes with a total of 54-km in length. Many new Asian cities with high residential density have more recently integrated bus and commuter rail and metro services into their transportation systems. However, the Kathmandu Valley seems to be still some time away from realistically implementing an underground metro system.
A metro rail in the Valley will present many engineering and cost-related challenges because it will require tunneling for almost 60-km distance including several kilometers of viaducts to smoothly operate the proposed three principal train lines. Though the introduction of a metro system would be good for environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and an improved quality of life, the local governments in the Kathmandu Valley may not be able to build a metro rail in the near future given the high cost, challenges related to urban geography, construction and economic viability, seismic vulnerability, and potential disturbances to the historic resources. Probably, an underground metro-rail system for the Kathmandu Valley will become more feasible in around 2030-35 after completing detailed studies.
Electric Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) System
A Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a high-quality bus-based transit system that provides efficient and rapid transit. It typically includes dedicated travel lanes (which can be fenced), bus bays, prioritized traffic signals, and separated platforms at stops. It also includes a fare collection system on the ground, and bus stops that provide amenities and safe mechanisms for the riders to cross the road. Experience in other cities has shown that a BRT system can: 1) operate in varied topographic conditions; 2) adapt in varied socioeconomic and demographic conditions; 3) operate quickly, incrementally, and economically and its capacity can be modified even for large metropolitan areas; 4) operate in a wide range of environments without requiring expensive new road construction; 5) operate in a cost-effective manner in city streets in mixed traffic systems; 6) operate at a lower cost than a railway system; and 7) operate at high speeds and on dedicated high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes or on general-purpose highways and streets covering a variety of urban and suburban environments.
Many cities in neighboring India have successfully adopted BRT systems to improve their transportation situation. Examples can be seen in Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Indore, and Surat. Looking at the current transportation and related pollution problems in the Kathmandu Valley, a realistic possibility will be to start with an electric BRT system and gradually move to streetcar and eventually to metro rail. In the end, all of these systems can work in tandem to improve the transit system in the Valley.
The authors estimate that implementation of a BRT system will help reduce daily vehicular emission by approximately 7,500 tons as the BRT will shift more commuters to high occupancy buses. Moreover, when these high occupancy buses are electrified, vehicular pollution in the Kathmandu Valley can, perhaps, be reduced by over 16,000 tons a day. Such a reduction in vehicular emission will drastically improve air quality while making the transit system more efficient.
Because of dedicated lanes, BRT vehicles operating in the Valley can maintain optimal speed (more than 40 km per hour) thus reducing pollution levels and increasing transportation efficiency. Proper management of public transit systems can help increase the average vehicle speed even during the peak hours.
Low occupancy vehicles contribute more per-rider emissions than high occupancy vehicles. For example, a car on average generates 9.41 metric tons (1.882 metric ton/person assuming 5 persons per vehicle) of CO2 equivalent throughout the year, while a motorcycle generates 13.7 metric tons (6.85 metric ton /person), which would contribute 3.5-fold more pollutants per rider. High occupancy vehicles, such as the bus, emit less pollutants per rider than the low occupancy vehicles. For example, a bus can replace 17-20 motorcycles to carry the same number of passengers. This will also reduce the traffic jams and possible accidents. Measured for passenger-km travelled, the fuel efficiency of a fully occupied bus is six times greater than that of the average single-occupant auto.
Electric buses operate at zero emission levels, not counting the embedded carbon in the bus manufacturing and electricity generation process. If the proposed BRT system utilizes electric buses, the quantity of emissions can be reduced even more drastically. As the urban environment (air quality) was improved with electric tram, around the turn of the 20th century, many other Asian countries opened electric tram systems, for examples: a) 1899- Peking; b) 1904- Hong Kong;c) 1904- Mandalay (Myanmar); d) 1905- Manila;e) 1907- Mumbai; and d)1908- Delhi.
One of the challenges of using electric vehicles is making electric charging stations available widely. Advances in technology to generate clean electricity at competitive prices will likely motivate entrepreneurs to promote electric vehicles. Additionally, tax and financial incentives can also help promote the use of electric vehicles. Some countries have already followed this model, for example, Norway, subsidizes 45% of the electric vehicle cost, while China subsidizes 23% of the electric vehicle cost. Nepal can explore similar policies.
As a rapidly urbanizing area, the Kathmandu Valley currently faces major problems related to transportation and air pollution. Many potential transit systems to help traffic and pollution are feasible, but some of the options will require more time and bigger investments. At this point, an electric Rapid Bus Transit (BRT) system seems like an attractive option for Kathmandu. Electric buses emit zero air pollution, energy stored in batteries can be used later; and they need reduced maintenance and operating costs due to reliability of electric motors compared to diesel engines. Initial costs of electric buses and vehicle charging infrastructure are still high. However, by identifying and implementing appropriate technological solutions for electric buses, a BRT system that works well for Nepal can be devised. A BRT will help improve the traffic, mobility, and accessibility and drastically reduce air pollution in Nepal.
Gradually, as the population and resident income increase, Kathmandu can supplement the BRT system with a light rail transit system, and eventually an underground metro.
(Keshav Bhattarai is Professor of Geography at University of Central Missouri, USA. Ambika P Adhikari is an Adjunct Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Integrated Development Studies (IIDS), Nepal.)