It’s Embarrassingly Simple

 DEC 01 – Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex,” permaculture guru Bill Mollison once said, “the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.” Nowhere does this ring truer than in the field of Kathmandu’s transportation. The simple fact is, given Kathmandu’s geography, it is perfectly placed to lead a change towards integrating bicycles as very important components of transportation planning. 

Let’s do a simple math. With a ring road that is 28 kilometers in length, its diameter comes around 9 kilometers.{I will give you a formula for this calculation: Diameter is the multiplication of circumference and the inverse of the constant pie ( pie=22/7)} That is, if we draw a straight line between, let’s say, Kalanki Chowk to Maharajgunj’s Narayangopal Chowk, it will roughly be the ring road’s diameter. The mid-point would be around Ratnapark. Any place within Kathmandu’s ring road will not be over 4.5 kilometers away from Ratnapark. Well, Ringroad is not a perfect circle and, therefore, the radius or diameters are averages and not exact measurements. Some places might be closer than that radius while others are a littler further away. Still, anybody familiar with Kathmandu’s geography can say with confidence that any place within the Ringroad will not be more than 6 kilometers away. Plot the distance on a graph and most of the places will fall within 2-3 kilometers from Ratnapark. Ask any of Kathmandu’s health-conscious middle-class gym-goers and they will tell you that they run way more than that distance on their exercise belt machines each day. 

What does that mean? Technically speaking, much of Kathmandu’s mobility could be managed by building a network of bike-paths and promoting walking. Of course, the testosterone-heavy Kathmandu’s masculine culture has already bought into the two-wheeler dreams. Recently, Kantipuronline ran a report about phenomenal growth of motorbike sales in Nepal.  The share of motorbikes among the total motorised, fuel-consuming vehicles in Kathmandu shot up from 51% in 1988 to 69% in 2000. Remember, this is the increase in the proportion. Think about the absolute numbers. In 1988, it was a common sight to see a lot of people walking home from work or school. The per-person vehicle ownership in Kathmandu went up from .036 in 1988 to .11 by 2000. This means, for a population of 2 million, there are 2 lakh vehicles on the streets within Kathmandu’s ring-roads. I do not have the statistics for 2009, but I am sure this rate has gone up significantly given the scale of concentration of wealth and people in the city we saw during the last decade. Almost 96per cent of these vehicles run on oil.

We don’t get to hear this often, but a lot of local towns in the U.S. and Western European countries have included bicycle as very important modes of mobility. The European towns and cities were built before the oil boom. These were built around horse-drawn carriages and human feet. Therefore, it is a lot easier for them to integrate bicycles into their city transportation system. But the case in the U.S. was different. Much of urban development in the U.S. occurred in the era of oil boom. The aftermath of the Second World War saw the frenzy of highway building. By then, the car industry had already joined hand with other forces in dismantling the elaborate public transit systems in cities like the Los Angeles. After five decades of oil-based boom, the reality seems to be hitting hard. It is interesting to note that, in the recent housing market debacle, most of the decline in housing prices occurred in the sub-urban areas. The oil price had reached over U.S.$140 a barrel and the suburban dwellers were spending a very sizable chunk of their income on commuting to their work on increasingly gridlocked highways. But a lot of transition towns have begun planning for life after oil and bicycle has increasingly become the sexy new toys. It is becoming very clear that the oil price spike is going to occur in not so distant future. 

I visited Copenhagen in March 2003. I mostly walked around the city with a couple of tram-rides that my Danish friends had paid for. My friend Tim took me to his parent’s house in a town by the beach two hours train-ride away from Copenhagen on that weekend. We walked to his parent’s beach house that was 3 minutes away from the train station. After a lovely weekend walking along the beach on those stunningly clear but freezing days and watching huge oil tankers sail by out on the horizon, we hit back to Copenhagen together with Tim’s parents. At Copenhagen we all got off. To my surprise, Tim’s parents, both university professors, picked up their bicycles from the bike racks and cycled away to work while Tim and I walked to his apartment.  

It is heartening to see that around 40 Nepali youths are going to Copenhagen to participate in the global conference on climate change. They have even started the ‘Stop Melting Life’ campaign to raise awareness about the potential impacts of glacier melts. Last week my theater-artist friend Yubaraj sent me a picture of one of the Copenhagen’s Climage meetings venues. The big electronic screens were showing the Himalays. Obviously, the melting glaciers are going to be the hot topic during the conference. 

But let’s also not forget, the melting glaciers are the symptoms of the deeper malaise of a society that is increasingly built around increasing throughput of nature and ever-expanding disposal of nature into wastes-into our landfill sites, our rivers, and the global commons such as the global climate. Bicycle provides a perfect symbol for imagining life away from the dominant industrial models built around oil and coal as sources energy and ever-increasing consumption as the source of stimulus for the economy. 

I am sure Nepali youths will go to Copenhagen to present their message to the world leaders. But hopefully, they will also go around checking out bicycle stands. I am sure they will also go around checking out stalls of people who have been working on making bike an important component of our mobility, besides our beloved feet. After all, however complex the world’s problems look, at times there are embarrassingly simple solutions around. 

Anil Bhattarai

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