MoIC banks on STP for solution

Yangyel Lhaden 

If the progress of a country’s development were measured by the number of vehicles on the roads, Bhutan is a rich country.

There are more than enough vehicles to line up the entirety of the Thimphu -Trashigang lateral highway. As of September of this year, there are 116,926 vehicles registered with the Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA). Taking the average length of a vehicle to be 4.5 metres, the total vehicles in the country would cover 526 kilometres.

The increase in the number of vehicles is putting pressure on road infrastructure. Last year, 6,702 new vehicles were registered with the RSTA, which translates to an average of 18 vehicles daily. The capital city is already reeling under the pressure of the increased number of vehicles. Thimphu alone has the highest number of registered vehicles with 62,850 as of September of this year. Traffic congestion, shortage of parking spaces, and pollution are becoming a problem in the city.

A policy document, the Bhutan Transport 2040 Integrated Strategic Vision, states that population growth, large volume of intercity travel, and more travel within Thimphu will increase congestion and environmental degradation. Transport, it stated, will be increased by a boom in hydropower, industrial development, rural-urban migration, poverty reduction and growing wealth, among others.

The guiding policy to provide a holistic view to Bhutan’s transport sector was developed in 2011. It remained on paper, according to critics, as traffic congestion has become an everyday problem in the capital city.

“It takes almost 20 minutes to drive five kilometres around the city,” said a commuter, adding that it is worse during rush hours. “There is no policy to cap the number of vehicles because it is politically sensitive,” he added. “Our policy makers should consider the road’s carrying capacity. We cannot stop people from buying, but we can have policies to discourage people from taking loans and buying vehicles.”

Surface Transport Policy 

An official with the Ministry of Information and Communication (MoIC) said that the RSTA is coming up with a comprehensive surface transport policy (STP) and that the authority is also taking stock of the implementation of vision documents such as Bhutan Transport 2040 Integrated Strategic Vision to meet the emergence of new technology and development in the surface transport sector.

He said that the STP would be guided by promoting sustainable and inclusive surface transport services that are safe, reliable, affordable, and contribute to the goal of remaining carbon neutral, improving regional connectivity by augmenting border roads and infrastructures, etc.

The STP aims to explore alternative modes of transport such as a rope-way, cable-car, railway, and riverine transport to reduce dependency on road transport. It also has provisions to use an intelligent transport system leveraging ICT in the transport sector to control and manage traffic.

Public transport initiatives

In this financial year, Nu 5.020 million (M) is allotted to install GPS tracking systems in all passenger buses to ensure better public transport management, ensure safety, and provide effective passenger transport to the general public.

MoIC officials said that by making public transport reliable, it would help people to shift from using private cars to public transport.

RSTA is also installing variable message boards in Thimphu and Phuentsholing bus terminals displaying real time bus information such as arrival and departure times at a cost of Nu 2.360M budget allocated in this fiscal year.

The official said that last mile connectivity was important to make public transport convenient for the public. “As of September 2021 there are 88 public transport operators operating in 146 routes which connect 151 gewogs and all dzongkhag headquarters.”

He said that MoIC would continue working on last mile connectivity.

Transportation and pollution 

While the country’s source of energy is from renewables such as hydropower, wind, and solar, 78 percent of the country’s energy consumption is supplied by fossil fuels, largely for the transportation sector.

The idea and drive to promote EV began in 2014, but it has yet to see results. Of the 116,926 vehicles registered as of September, only 191 are electric vehicles (EV). The government owns 46 EVs, private and taxis take up143 and diplomats, 2 EVs. This is 0.16 percent of the total registered vehicles.

MoIC officials said that there were no clear policies in the past or adequate infrastructures to support the EV ecosystem. “EV was an entire new technology and people were skeptical,” said an official.

To encourage EV in public transport, a project “Bhutan Sustainable Low Emission Urban Transport Systems” was implemented in 2019 with the aim to replace 300 taxis. A total of 211 out of 300 have booked for an EV through the project. However, due to the pandemic, not all EVs have reached the country.

MoIC officials said that with the situation improving, they are hoping that by the end of September 2022 all EVs through the project will reach the country.

He said that to address EV drive in the country, a draft Electric Vehicle Roadmap 2035 is in its final stage of review and approval.

MoIC officials said that 22 charging stations in six dzongkhags were covered by the Global Environment Facility fund. He said that in the remaining 14 dzongkhags MoIC has allocated Nu 69M to install charging stations to promote uptake of EV. “With the EV Road Map 2035 and infrastructure development, we are headed in the right direction.”

He said that, additionally, the Low Emission Development Strategies (LEDS) for the surface transport sector were launched, aiming at creating synergies between existing national development goals and the interventions to ensure a low-emission development path.