As we drive to work, home or for leisure, a common subject of discussion among the capital’s residents is the traffic issues – congested roads, shrinking parking spaces and the growing number of vehicles. Ironically, it was a problem that our policy makers saw a long time ago, not because they could predict, but because they saw the same problems other countries going through.
Going through the pages of old policy papers, conference minutes and newspapers, as old as 20 years, the problem was recognised years ago. Warnings were sounded off. It was as if they saw what was coming. They knew traffic would be a big problem for a small country and they warned about the consequences. We are still talking about it without solutions.
Thimphu has, many say, seen a sudden increase in vehicle numbers. Many say that vehicles from Phuentsholing Thromde have come to Thimphu because of the restrictions and lockdowns in the border town. There are no records. It could be true, but the truth is that we are seeing about 20 new vehicles added every day.
According to the annual Road Safety and Transport Authority’s report, there were 114,646 vehicles in the country as of June 31. Two months later, As of August 31, the number increased to 115,897. This means we bought 1,251 vehicles in two months, since the report was published. It is 625 vehicles a month or 20 a day.
In Thimphu, the most populated dzongkhag, there were 62,198 vehicles as of August 31. With a population of 138,736 people, there is a vehicle for every two people in Thimphu. In other words, we have reached the saturation point.
The capital city’s road infrastructure cannot cope with the increasing number of vehicles. An evidence is vehicles occupying road sides, foot paths or public space, parking problems in the office premise or at residential areas.
Not long ago, we used to thank the stars that we were different from other South Asian cities. We forgot to translate policies into actions and we are now in the same boat. Given the shortage of space, the topography and the uncontrolled buying spree, we could eventually be worse.
The only hope is that we are still not too late. If we can intervene through policies, we will not repeat the mistakes other countries made. To prevent that we need bold policies. Controlling the vehicle buying spree through taxation or other policies can be sensitive or unpopular, especially for elected governments. But even from a lay point of view it would seem that we need a researched decision on the number of cars that our roads can safely carry and our towns can accommodate. And then we need the policy and the rules to maintain a healthy proportion between the population, road length, and cars. Higher import duties and road taxes might be a good start. Even higher taxes on luxury cars or on second and third cars sound more reasonable. Somebody has to make the decision. Today, there are more and better initiatives on selling new cars or making money available than finding solutions to the problem.
It is better late than never.