A colleague of mine once told me that professionals who were responsible for designing public transport policies never used public transport themselves. This thought has been entrenched in my mind ever since. As a transport professional myself, I always try to use public transport whichever part of the world I visit, be it London, Delhi, Accra, Helsinki, or Colombo. It is one of the best ways to get a sense of how the public transport system operates in a particular city.
I joined the World Bank Nepal office some three years ago. I booked my temporary residence in a hotel through one of my friends. I had no idea how far the hotel was from my office so I took a taxi on my first day. Then I discovered that my hotel was close to a public transport route so I started using microbuses to commute to the office. On my way to work the microbus would never be full, so I could travel comfortably. But I hated my return journey as the microbuses would already be filled up at Shahid Gate and I would never get seats. Often I had to change buses and sometimes, if I stayed at work late, I had to take taxis as there were no buses after dark.
A lot of my Nepali colleagues also shared their experiences with me. A male colleague told me how he was mugged once. I also heard many unpleasant stories from my female colleagues on the experience of using public transport. I have to admit after this, I used public transport less frequently.
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.
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On the second day of the three day regional workshop on affordable land and housing in Thimphu, Bhutan, country representatives continued to share policies and projects that their countries have devised and implemented and with that, the ideas that have or have not worked. One common theme was the interest in the development of secondary cities either around the periphery of rapidly urbanizing growth centers or as growth nodes strategically located along infrastructure such as regional transportation networks to create a ‘system of cities’. These growth centers often present a wealth of opportunities for the poor who flock to the cities from villages with the aspirations of a better life. However, this influx often strains the city’s services and infrastructure at an unsustainable rate.
You might be wondering how buses and social accountability are related. In Baglung, western region of Nepal, they are not just related - one is the direct result of the other.
Nepal, with its diverse topography has amazing landscapes for tourism but when it comes to accessible roads, it is one of the rural community’s biggest concerns. In the hilly or mountainous regions, the problem is severe; the same can be said about the remote regions of Baglung where people were not getting any bus service from the centre to the upper faraway villages (up to Kalimati). As their only other option, they had jeeps (people carrier) as substitutes for public transportation.
“Now, it’s become easier for us to go to the villages as the bus is cheaper – it’s less than half the price of what we pay for jeeps. The jeeps cost us NRs. 150 to 200 (US$ 1.75 to $2.35) while the bus is just NRs. 40 (US$ 0.50). I am happy that the bus is in operation now but what is more exciting is - the bus service started as the direct result of the public hearing we had with the municipality last year,” says Pingal Khadka GC, one of the PETS members set up by Deep Jyoti Youth Club in the municipality.
Under the Program for Accountability in Nepal (PRAN), Deepjyoti Youth Club (DYC) organised one of the most effective tools of Social Accountability: a public hearing in a remote village of Baglung. The turnover of more than 2,500 people from local communities not just made an arresting sight but yielded results in less than two weeks. During the summer last year, the citizens had the opportunity to ask questions to the municipal officers and one of the concerns was the bus service. The people were promised the service to start as soon as possible and it did. The commitment of the Local Development Officer (LDO) in front of the entire community made the bus service a reality.
The emergence of mega-regions, as metropolitan areas merge to form a system of cities, has demonstrably contributed to growth in the developed countries. With South Asia experiencing one of the highest urbanization rates, connecting cities presents opportunity to mobilize people, goods and services, and develop supply chains over larger spatial areas. However, this also implies unraveling overlapping commuting patterns, economic linkages, social networks, multiple jurisdictional boundaries- which add to the complexity of decision-making for policymakers and practitioners.
At the 9th South Asia Economics Students' Meet on Green Growth, participants shared their vision about South Asian cities of the future. These are their innovative ideas.
The creation and expansion of urban centers has been a hallmark of the development process. As per capita incomes in South Asia have increased, urbanization has expanded from 18% in the early 1970’s to 30% in 2010. This will continue to expand as people are drawn to cities for the opportunities to realize their aspirations.
These large urban communities, however, provide significant challenges, such as a high density, pollution and traffic congestion, all of which reduces the quality of life for its residents. By designing cities with the environment in mind, we will be able to reduce energy use and limit waste. Green growth in the cities of the future will minimize the ecological footprint and improve living standards
What will it take to make this dream a reality?
What does one generally looks for while travelling? Quick, hassle free, safe and convenient mode of transportation! To get people to shift from private to public transport, the usability and access to public transport should be such that people choose it over their own vehicles.
This is however a classic chicken and egg problem because until the public sees an improvement in public transport they are not going to use it, and till the government sees people using it, it will not invest in public transport. In this case, the government will have to take the first bold steps and invest in the infrastructure of public transportation systems.
Points to be considered: