Big Wheels Keep on Turnin'

Features Issue 24 Aug, 2010
Text by Keshab Poudel

Astaman Tandukar, 89 years  old, a resident of Koteshwor (four  miles east of  Kathmandu), re-members the first public transport in Kathmandu. “I rode a lorry for the first time in my life in 1951. I was 26 years old. I had to push through many others to secure a space in a lorry,” said Tandukar. “I paid 10 paisa to go to Bhaktapur. It was a memorable part of my life.”

From his first riding until now, Tandukar has seen many new modes of public transport in the Valley. “The only thing that remains the same is pushing and pulling to secure a place. Whether trolley buses or mini-buses, you need to use your strength and power,” observed Tandukar.

Kathmandu Valley’s population has drastically increased in the last 50 years from less than 100,000 to 1.7 million. At the same time, public means of transport have increased from a few lorries to more than 200,000 vehicles including 1500 buses and 2000 minibuses. The lorries traveled 14 kilometers of unpaved road in the 1950s and today there are 800 kilometers of roads (with virtually all the major routes paved) plied by public transport in the Valley.

The Valley has seen various phases and models of mass transportation: from second world war American-made Dodge and Ford lorries to Indian buses to Chinese-donated trolley buses to Nepali gasoline and electric tempos. While the number of modes of transport expanded, the length of time needed for traveling from place to place shrank.  Before the lorries, most journeys were on foot. The lorries took many hours off travel time, initially requiring two-three hours to complete the 14 kilometer journey from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur on earthen roads. The trolley buses further reduced the time to about one hour (the road was blacktopped in 1972), and taxis now travel the same route in forty-five minutes or less.

Early Transport

The lorries, which carried up to 30 people over unpaved and steep roads, had a virtual monopoly through the 1950s. Helpers had to run behind the trucks going up steep hills, ready with blocks of wood to put under the tires to stop the lorries from falling back. The less-used Willis jeeps of the same era seated 10-12 people and were a bit less likely to roll out of control but still far from luxurious. Riding the old lorries and jeeps was definitely an adventure.

The Tribhuwan Rajpath,the first highway linking the Valley to the southern plain, opened in 1955, making travel in that direction more accessible and increasing contact with the outside world. Around the same time Kathmandu Valley residents saw many more lorries and jeeps rolling the dusty and bumpy roads which were built for the Rana’s new cars and older horse carts.

Nepal Transport, a private company, was first to introduce commuter bus service in the Valley in the 1960s. In the mid-1960s Sajha Yatayat, a cooperative-based transport owned by many shareholders, introduced dozens of buses ferrying passengers between various destinations including Ratnapark (Kathamndu)-Lagankhel (Lalitpur), Ratnapark-Balaju, Bansbari and other such places. Despite the arrival of the Tata buses from India, the lorries continued to be a popular mode of commuting to Bhaktapur, and the transport management of the buses was similar to that of the lorries. The buses departed once they were almost packed and operated without following timetable.

The Trolley Bus

In the 1970s, the Chinese government donated trolley buses to revolutionize the Valley’s transport system. With an aim to improve transport and reduce  emission levels, the trolley began its service in 1977 between Suryavinayak (Bhakatpur) and Tripureswor (Kathmandu), a 13 plus kilometer route. With the initial investment of Rs.40 million, the trolley bus supported the urbanization process in the Valley. “When the trolley bus was introduced in the Valley, no countries in the region had this type of modern transport system,” said A.B. Shrestha, the former general manager of the Transport Corporation of Nepal, which oversaw the trolley system. For many years, Nepali policy makers talked about the need to extend the transport in and around the Valley. Unfortunately, the trolley bus could not expand its service beyond the original route.

In the year 2000/01, the trolley bus provided service to more than 1.3 million passengers. In its peak time in 1982, the trolley fetched 5 million passengers. Since the management was inefficient to compete with private transport entrepreneurs, its daily income was not enough to pay its employees and it incurred big losses.

Following a cost-cutting decision by the government, the trolley bus route has been reduced to six kilometers between Tripureshwor and Minbhawan. The first environmentally friendly transport is now struggling for its survival. “This is one of the best transport systems for places like the Kathmandu Valley, but we are unable to understand its importance,” laments A.B. Shrestha.

Proliferation of Roads and Vehicles

In the 1970s and 80s, road building took off in Kathmandu Valley. With the completion of the 26 kilometer long Ring Road in 1977, the Kathmandu Valley had an additional route to operate mass transport. Other internal routes like Kathmandu-Bansbari, Kathmandu-Gaushala-Boudha and Jorpati were blacktopped and invited more bus and car traffic. And outer-lying routes including Bhaktapur-Maitighar, Pharping-Balkhu, Lagankhel Godavari, Trishuli-Balaju roads were also completed during this time.

In the 1980s, a few years after the introduction of the trolley bus, the Japanese government provided some modern Japanese buses. This was part of a larger commitment to improve public transport in the Valley which continues to this day; for example the traffic lights installed at Kantipath and Trivedi Marg this year were also sponsored by the Japanese government.

As more foreigners started to arrive in the valley, in the 1970s to 1990s, modern vehicles with all the facilities including air conditioning were imported into the Valley. Most of these transports are used to ferry foreign tourists. Some private companies have also introduced air-conditioned buses (and video coaches, where Hindi movies are played) for the upscale Nepali public. From cars to jeeps to vans to tuk-tuks to mini-buses to buses, people now have all kinds of choices of public transport.

In the course of improvement of mass commuting in the Valley, many  private companies came with investment in buses, mini-buses and cabs. From American Dodge and second-hand German Mercedes-Benz, to Indian Ashoka Leyland and Japanese Isuzu and Mitsubishi, all kinds of modern vehicles entered the Valley, but have not changed the basic tradition of riding the bus. Whether at peak hour or leisure time, people still have to travel by  squeezing in.

Still the Same
In the last five decades, the mode of mass transportation has transformed from one to another but the Valley is yet to receive respite from the phenomena of over-crowding and pollution. The culture of mass transportation is yet to change and no one sees any better system in the near future. “Citizens of the Valley learned to use mass transport by occupying whatever space was available for them. Despite five decades of modernization, the practices to use the public transport remained unchanged,” noted Dr. Rishikeshab Raj Regmi, professor of anthropology at Tribhuwan University central campus. “Although new modes of transports are available in the capitol, people still follow their old practice inherited in early days.”

Astaman Tandukar has seen American, Chinese, British, Indian and Japanese vehicles rolling in the Valley. From sitting in the lap of other people in the old lorries to traveling in modern reclining seats, Tandukar continues to see the rush of people and passengers barely hanging on to public transport in the Valley – still the same.