By: Cilla Khatry
It’s been two weeks since Biniti Tuladhar, 24, has been sporting an ankle brace. She suffered a nasty slip while strolling around in Kupondole happily shopping for her upcoming wedding. The fall resulted in a sprain that now requires her to strap on a support just to be able to walk a little less painlessly.
In a congested city like Kathmandu, it’s difficult to walk on the footpaths. It’s either occupied by construction materials and garbage or encroached by street vendors, if not dug up for other purposes. That aside, the state of many pavements has deteriorated over time, making the simple act of walking a task requiring navigational skills. A stroll around Kathmandu will reveal a wide variety of pavements. From the tiny narrow ones in New Road, to the bumpy ones in Kupondole to the wide spacious ones in Singha Durbar and the dusty ones in Bag Bazaar, the city has it all.
Devendra Karki, Regional Director at the Department of Roads, attributes this to the fact that construction of pavements and sidewalks has not been looked into by the same department. The work has been divided among the municipality, the government, private agencies, and the Department of Roads. He mentions that there is a lack in the uniformity of design because of this very fact.
“Sidewalks have been constructed as per need and without proper study which is why the design and organization seems to be haphazard. In some places, locals have decided to construct sidewalks on their own after the municipality refused to allocate budget citing lack of funds,” he says.
The minimum width for a standard pavement is 1.7 meters but there are pavements measuring less than that in many places throughout the Valley. Bhai Kaji Tiwari, Chief Urban Planner of the Kathmandu Valley Town Development Committee, blames the residents for encroaching on land while making homes, which has made the job of building sidewalks of the required standard an unattainable task. (As for examples of other mindless encroachment, note the entrance to the Bank of Asia at Tripureshwor and the gate to a private house near Tukucha, opposite Bluebird Mall.)
“In areas like Baluwatar and Bhat Bhateni, we couldn’t build pavements of the required width because there’s no space. We couldn’t take up space from the road so that left no land to build pavements on,” clarifies an enraged Tiwari. “The public is so quick to pin the blame on the government but fails to acknowledge the repercussions of their own actions.”
Tiwari is of the belief that proper pavements for pedestrians can be attained only by the combined efforts of the public and the government alike.
Sanjay Raj Upadhaya, department chief at the Department of Physical Planning and Works, agrees with Karki on his statement that the pavements have no uniformity and adds that they don’t meet the set standards.
He expresses his disapproval of the demolition of sidewalks in the current road widening campaign but is quick to add that the campaign has been first and foremost initiated with the aim of easing traffic congestion and whether or not footpaths will be constructed in certain roads is yet to be seen.
Upadhaya does his best to explain why this is the case. According to him, the minimum required width of a one-lane street is 3.5 meters. If that standard were to be followed, the average width of a two-lane street is supposed to be seven meters. The roads in Kathmandu measure approximately six meters, a meter less than required. Such roads are in the process of being reconstructed. If standard pavements are built on either side of these roads, then the problem of traffic, which the road widening campaign aims at solving, will remain the same.
Karki, on the other hand, firmly believes that safer footpath is the right of every pedestrian and ensuring pedestrian safety should also be one of the focuses of the government even during this campaign.
“We have to maintain footpaths and reconstruct those that have been demolished. We need to come up with an integrated framework regarding pedestrian facilities,” says Karki, reiterating that sidewalks can’t be neglected while building wider roads.
In Kathmandu, a large percentage of the population prefers to walk, according to a 2010/11 study carried out by Clean Air Network Nepal. Almost 20 percent of the daily trips are made entirely on foot. This shows the importance of good pavements, keeping in mind the convenience of the commuters.
Walking on good pavements is a pleasurable experience, shares Prapti Basnet, a resident of New Baneshwor, who finds walking along the stretch of Maiti Ghar a great stress buster as well as an inexpensive way to workout.
“The footpath in this area is brilliantly paved and smooth. I like walking around soaking in the hustle bustle of daily life,” says Basnet. “But not many people walk on these pavements, which I feel is the reason why they are still in good condition unlike the heavily used pavements in certain areas of the Valley.”
The uneven and rugged pavements around Lainchour and Nag Pokhari validate Basnet’s statement. Lainchour has the highest flow of pedestrians while Nag Pokhari comes in second with approximately 900 people per hour, according to a survey done by Clean Air Network Nepal.
Also the sidewalk demolition drive of the Metropolitan Traffic Police Division in different locations for the road widening campaign has left many pavements, including those in Lainchour and Nag Pokhari, in ruins and awaiting reconstruction. This has made commuting extremely difficult for those who walk along those stretches of roads on a daily basis. The pedestrians have over time expressed their discontent and rage over the footpath destruction.
Prenit Gurung, a resident of Lainchaur, hopes the government will not ignore the needs of pedestrians like him who walk to and from work on daily basis. He is both saddened and angered by the current demolition but also adds that bad sidewalks are better than no sidewalks.
“The pavements were uneven and in some places muddy and dusty. At least, they are gone now and finally I won’t trip and hurt myself. It had become a daily ritual, so much so that if I didn’t fall one day I’d think something was missing,” laughs Gurung. “Now I just hope the government builds better sidewalks,” he adds, echoing the voices of many like him.
Good sidewalk construction needs proper framework, concrete placement, finishing and curing. The framework should be strong and straight and the concrete needs to be leveled. Curing is the final and the most crucial step in sidewalk construction that ensures protection against damages.
Sidewalk construction is a relatively simple process but the heat expansion and soil movement eventually cause it to crack, resulting in uneven surfaces, making it hazardous to falls and trips. The average life of a sidewalk is 20-40 years, but problems can occur as early as within one to five years after construction, depending on the quality of materials and use of the sidewalk.
Tiwari shares that it is the management of pavements rather than building new ones that holds the key to making the city friendly for walkers. Proper and timely maintenance of sidewalks will keep them in good condition and he assures that his department is looking into it. On the other hand, he is also set on his mission of constructing new high quality pavements within the Valley. He ensures that the construction will be handled by experts and the result will be a walk-able Kathmandu.
“I know that in a city like ours, walking is the easiest mode of transport. But for that, the pavements need to be good. We realize that and are working to it, be it by constructing new ones or maintaining the ones we already have. Soon, the Valley will witness better pavements, and walking in and around in the city will be a pleasure.”
This assurance indeed comes as a relief to Tuladhar, and she beams as she says that she will stop accusing the city and its officials now and look forward to a better Kathmandu, hoping by that time her swollen ankle is back in shape and she can enjoy a lazy stroll along the city without a care in the world.
Published in Republica on 13 April 2012.