From the outset, I was interested and intrigued by research on gender issues in public transport in Kathmandu. Familiar with the chaotic, noisy, and smelly traffic of Kathmandu, the everyday challenges people face in their commutes to work and school were as well known to me as regular excuses for colleagues being late to meetings; buses were ‘full’, ‘late’, ‘broke down’, ‘did not come’. But I was also aware that women in Kathmandu are often quite tough, feisty and assertive especially compared to those in cities of neighbouring countries I had experienced. What were the issues going to be?
My team of a dozen researchers comprised eight women and four men, all in their twenties and thirties. Most, but not all, had long abandoned using public transport themselves, preferring the reliability, control, comfort and safety of riding scooters or borrowing the family car. So, my first task was to get them all to experience public transport again. They spent a whole day travelling on different forms of transport all over the Kathmandu area, between them covering from day break until the last bus plied in the evening. As they travelled they chatted to fellow commuters. The following day the team re-convened and shared their public transport experiences. We worked through simulations of commuter behaviour - dramatizing what happens when waiting for, getting on, traveling on and getting off public transport. We noted the contortions required to avoid touching people in crowded and cramped spaces. We talked through what was acceptable and unacceptable.
All of this helped us draft a short questionnaire to capture the issues which emerged as important. We were very conscious that we would have to administer these in situ as people were commuting and that they needed to be simple. When we came to undertake the study, riding on transport ourselves and conducting approximately 500 interviews, we did not anticipate the enthusiasm with which people wanted to engage. Commuters, women and men, wanted to pour out their frustrations to the researchers and felt that the questions being asked went straight to the heart of the issues which concerned them. ‘Putting up’ with uncomfortable, overcrowded, unreliable, dirty, unhygienic, unsafe travel and the reckless driving, offensive banter between drivers and conductors, pickpockets and harassment had become normalized. Enough was enough.
What would best describe public transport use in Kathmandu is ‘survival of the fittest’ - it is the elderly, people with limited mobility, those travelling with small children, those who are smaller and weaker, pregnant women are specially at risk on public transport here. The current conditions severely hamper their travelling options.
Since the study I have been very aware of my commutes on public transport in other cities in other countries. What seems to work in terms of improving commuter experience in crowds and at peak times? Spacious standing areas, adequate well placed holding bars, glass partitions to lean against, facing seats, priority seating for those for whom there is no doubt that they are a priority, messages which imply there is surveillance and zero tolerance for anti-social behaviour. But most of all it is social norms-what people accept as tolerable.
Can we convert a Pandora's Box of frustrations into a movement? Let’s hope there is enough momentum for a social movement here in Kathmandu towards change.
Read the full report and a summary here: Riding a Bus in Kathmandu: Gender and Transport in Nepal
Photo: Kshitiz Khanal/World Bank