Urbanisation in Bhutan is comparatively a recent phenomenon. Be that as it may, with an urban growth rate of 2.8 percent in the country (one of the highest in South East Asian region) and as high as 3.1 percent in the capital city, almost 40 percent of the country’s population reside in the urban areas today. The past six decades of urban development have seen the country confronted by many urban challenges including that of environmental conservation and cultural preservation, but urban transport and mobility issues remain one of the greatest threats that urban areas like Thimphu is beginning to face. Transportation sector in its entirety offers a completely different set of challenges.
Daniel Gilbert writes in his book Stumbling on Happiness: “…we adapt quickly to the joy of a larger house because the house is exactly the same size every time we come in the front door. But we find it difficult to adapt to commuting by car, because every day is a slightly new form of misery, with different people honking at us, different intersection jammed with accidents, different problems with weather, and so on.”
In true sense of the word, urban transport and mobility is not merely a matter of technology or economics, but one of culture and psychology and of the vast variations in our preference.
Although the fact that development of transport-related infrastructure has always been at the forefront, be it the first motorways built in the 1960s or the bus rapid transit (BRT) lanes being built by the Thimphu Thromde currently, traffic congestion, road accidents, and pollution issues are becoming a daily occurrence. The most obvious assertion to the issues would be the increasing vehicle ownership in the country as compared to poor transportation infrastructure quality in the city. Inasmuch as the statement is true, an in-depth comprehension to the issue is imperative at this juncture. For instance, notwithstanding the exponential increase in vehicular ownership (more than 70 percent private/light vehicles), which is about 219 percent, increase from 2007-2021 (35704 to 114216) and majorly registered in Thimphu region (60813 cars), there has been several interventions to abate the said issues both at national and local levels. The increase in transportation infrastructure from a mere 3 percent of the total land area in Thimphu (26.1sq.km) in 2002 to approximately 14.9 percent (3.896 sq.km) by 2020, and likewise, increase in vehicle tax in 2014 are some of the interventions expended. Nonetheless, the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) 2017 states that the population to vehicle ratio in Thimphu is around 2.273, while some stretches of roads like Dechen Lam and Chogyal Lam have reached to a ‘volume to capacity ratio’ of 0.98 and 0.95 respectively. Similarly, some of the critical traffic junction such as the telecom roundabout and the BOD junction are reported to receive 28421 passenger car units (PCUs) per day and 24218 PCUs per day respectively. In addition to all these facts, the on-going congestion issue at the Taba-Langjophakha stretch, due to the closure and construction of other road stretches ascertains a transportation network that has already reached a saturation point and the futility that abounds the expansion or addition of new roads to the existing network.
The transportation and mobility issues in urban centres like Thimphu despite being so clear, might seem equally enigmatic. Nevertheless, what is most evident is the fact that like more (of course good quality) pedestrian footpaths attracts more pedestrians, more road infrastructure only entreats more cars, and needless to say, more cars on roads leads to more congestion. This is most relevant for private cars which predominates vehicle ownership in the county. As studies assert that, a smallest car when standing still takes 30 times the space used by a person (15sq.ft) standing and 7.5 times the space used by a person on a bicycle or on a bus. While the same car moving at 30 miles per hour takes up 20 times as much space as someone riding on a bus at same speed. Thus, considering the unsustainability of current development trajectory that calls for the perpetual development of road infrastructure to placate the said mobility issues, and considering the limited available land in Thimphu against the never-ending equation of car ownership, it is an indispensable step to change the development trajectory towards a more sustainable and efficient non-motorized or public transport options. Moreover, the soaring issue of congestion and other traffic issues confirm the traffic phenomenon called ‘commuting paradox’ (longer time people take for daily commute, the less happy they are with their lives) which as per many studies is a huge impediment to the psychological, or for that matter, in achieving Bhutan’s happiness goal for its people.
Without overriding the initiatives already taken by the government in promoting public and non-motorized transport and electrification of vehicles, it is also imperative to bring to light that the aforesaid initiatives are tenuous and meagre compared to that done, as explained earlier, for motorized transports infrastructure. Therefore, the trajectory for a new urban mobility should be based on a robust foundation of public and non-motorized transportation system that is integrated to the existing transportation network, and altogether, interwoven in an enabling policy, legislative, and technology-driven milieu. Taking this guide, following are some of the suggestions for the new urban mobility option:
· Promote and develop a ‘Public Transportation System’ imbued by attributes such as convenience, comfort, and affordability to address the mobility needs of the general public including the poorer section of the population. Meanwhile, the implementation of the system should also be backed up by a sustainability plan to invest and reinvest through an authorized agency empowered to aggrandize the public transport infrastructures such as bus stops, terminals, and other smart mobility options to ensure that the system remains abreast to the evolving needs of its citizenry. (Best Case: Tranmilenio system in Bogota, Columbia)
· Build more safe and convenient non-motorized mobility (pedestrian-bicycle paths and bridges) infrastructure. This will not only compliment the public transport system in places where the last-mile connectivity is difficult (separated by rivers and steep slopes or densely built areas), but also improve the health and social well-being of the people. (Best case: the revitalization of Cheonggyecheon stream-street, South Korea)
· Discourage use/ownership of private cars through the introduction of road utilization charge on the main roads, introduce high charges for parking facilities in the commercial areas and introduce “car-pooling” concept, where people from the same neighbourhood are, encouraged to make combined trips. (Best case: Electronic Road Pricing System in Singapore)
· Stringent Land use control for institutions and social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, which are the biggest attractor of traffic. The SEA report states unplanned location of schools and other bigger institution as one of the causes of congestion in and across the city.
· Encourage or enable finance and management of transport infrastructure through Public Private Partnership.
· Initiate the gradual replacement of fossil fuel-based transport to electric, and traffic parking and the transport management system to be smart/intelligent, efficient and effective.