They knew it was coming. The road closure was notified. The advice was to car-pool to avoid traffic congestion or take public transport. But three days after the Thimphu thromde diverted the traffic from the Zilukha-Hejo stretch to enable smooth and speedy construction of the road, what we see is confusion, frustration and pictures of long lines of cars. One had the time to make a video clip of the tariff moving at a snail’s pace while in line.

Managing the capital city’s traffic is difficult. If one stretch is closed, the others are overwhelmed. This is because there are more cars than the length of the road in the capital. Road infrastructure cannot keep up with the increasing number of vehicles.  Thimphu is expanding by the day. We see new settlements added every now and then. The lush green hillsides are turning into settlements as more and more people are flocking into the city.

Car-pooling is not a Bhutanese concept. It is also not feasible because the car is not used to travel to work only. In between office work, we have to go to the bank, hospital or pick and drop children. Unless those willing to pool cars work in the same organisation, it is not feasible. Public transport is seen as the means of transport of the poor. And it is not organized. Even if it is well organized, it is not convenient – if we have to go to the bank, hospital, drop children during office hours. Therefore, everybody needs to drive to work.

Going by the road safety and transport authority’s annual report, 68 percent of the 6,702 new vehicles Bhutan imported between June 2019 and July 2020 were light vehicles. We can conclude that small cars have become a necessity, as public transport, even if it has improved, is not convenient. Volume of passengers is also seasonal. During school season, there are more demand for public transport like city buses. When schools break for vacation, there is no volume to sustain public transport. We do not have the system of last bus leaving at 9pm or midnight?

What is also really missed is policy decisions. We talk about traffic congestion, but there are no solutions. The jam along the Taba-Thimphu road delayed the inaugural session of the Midterm review meeting of local governments. It could have nudged the policy makers, but like many others, the inconvenience is forgotten as soon as they reach their destination.

The transport authority feels the National Transport Master Plan is rudimentary and limited in scope. It says data driven traffic volume analysis and management is non-existent. It also highlights that “planning of public transport is at infancy.” This is from their latest report. The irony is that both  authorities and people have recognised this long time back. What is missing is decisions, hard decisions. 

The current jam along the Thimphu-Dechenchholing via Taba will be quickly forgotten when the Zilukha road opens. That will not solve the problem. The problem is in planning and decision making. Do we have a traffic engineer or an expert on traffic with the authority to even recommend solutions?

When the road safety authority was established in 1997, there were about 12,000 vehicles in the country. Today, in Thimphu alone, there are more than 60,000. How will we come with a long-term road and traffic policy?