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Demand for public transport outstrips government effort

MB Subba

The growing population and the expansion of Thimphu Thromde, coupled with increasing tcost of transportation, have made expansion and upgradation of the city’s public transport system urgent.

The capital city’s public transport system has improved in terms of number of city buses. However, insufficient capacity to meet ridership demand during peak hours and inadequate routes show that government’s efforts have failed to catch up with the growing demand for public transport services.

The rising traffic congestion due to growing number of vehciles is expected to get worse without a drastic improvement in the public transport system.

According to the Housing Census and Population 2017, the population of Thimphu reached 114,551 as of March 2017, and is estimated to increase by 4,200 people annually. And, the National Statistics Bureau (NSB) projects that at least 30 percent of the population will settle in the capital by 2047.

The total number of vehicles reached 104,963  as of August  this year, from 100,544 in 2018, which means that the country imported 3,270 vehicles in the first half of 2019.    

 About 30 percent of the vehicles are in Thimphu.

With the city bus service being the only mode of urban public transport, commuters are forced to use taxis or private cars. And lack of proper pavements and footpath networks have resulted in accessibility issues.

Thimphu Thromde’s plan to remove the parking at Norzin Lam after Thimphu Tshechu is likely to increase parking crunch in the city. Vehicles, however, will be allowed to ply and stop with blinkers.

Director General (DG) of the Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA), Pema Wangchuk, said that there was an understanding among stakeholders that the city bus service should be handed over to the thromde.

“We discussed the issue in a meeting involving the Ministry of Information of Communications (MoIC), RSTA, Bhutan Post, and the thromde,” he said.

The city bus service is operated by Bhutan Post, while the infrastructure, including the bus stand, is under the jurisdiction of the thromde.

“From the RSTA side, we want to make public transport more reliable, convenient and affordable. The long term solution to the problem is public transport,” he said, adding that additional fleet of busses would be purchased.

The government has allocated Nu 95.46 million (M) in subsidy to the City Bus Service for procurement of 37 buses in the fiscal year 2019-20.

There are about 45 city buses which is operated by Bhutan Post in addition to five private buses. The government plans to add 46 new buses to the fleet in Thimphu and deploy the rest to large towns in other dzongkhags.

The government plans to introduce a trunk route from Babesa to Dechencholing. A trunk route is a route that is fed by a system of roads reaching the neighbourhoods across a city and enables the buses to cross at junctions whereby the commuters can interchange to different buses for different routes.

The thromde also plans to introduce a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system to improve the transport system and ease the traffic congestion. BRT is a bus-based public transport system that is designed to improve the service in terms of capacity, reliability and cost effectiveness.

However, a thromde official said that the plans were in an early stage. He said that the there was no fund for the thromde to execute the plans.

The government has pledged to “revolutionise and harmonise” public transport and reduce traffic congestion in major towns, both through appropriate policies and regulations and by improving public transport services.

Introduction of electric busses within the thromde areas and exploring potential for introducing monorails in some suitable areas are some of the ideas.

Economic Affairs Minister Loknath Sharma said that works were underway to improve the public transport system. “Urban transport has to improve.”

However, it was learnt that no concrete decision on improving the public transport at the government and the Cabinet level.

Bhutan, today, faces the challenge of establishing a sustainable transport system. The government, through external support, has plans to procure 10 electric buses and 30 electric taxis.

Vehicle quota and EV

The government has pledged to provide  vehicle quota for each family and, at the same time, is promoting electric vehicles. This has raised questions on whether its policies are not contradictory.

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering earlier told Kuensel the government could not really impose this on users. “We will keep promoting EVs because that is better for the environment.”

However, he added that he was not sure of long-term business sustainability. “So, assuming that it’s coming, we will promote. There is not much harm and is environmentally friendly. At the same time, on fossil fuel, they will carry on.”

He said there were two aspects to vehicle quota—the existing quota system versus the family car quota that the government pledged. 

He added that the vehicle quota pledge was not off the table. If the pledge of one family car quota comes through, every family would be allowed to buy one car tax-free. “The second car, we will decide—200 or 300 percent tax. We will decide.”

The policy, he said, would limit the growth of the number of cars actually. 

“What you are trying to say is when we promote EV, we must discourage fossil fuel. I think we have not reached a stage where we should discourage. We will not encourage. We will slowly increase the tax. That is one way of discouraging.”

He said the number of the cars in the country would keep increasing and that only the rate of growth could be slowed. “But we should be mindful of the curve, it should not be steep. We should flatten the curve.”

He said he was interested in looking to reduce taxation of hybrid cars. “Today, the tax imposed on hybrid cars is the same as that on fossil fuel cars, which I think is not fair.”

On the overall quota system, he said the issue needed to be looked into carefully, saying that it was one form of incentives to the civil servants, parliamentarians and constitutional post holders.

Transport policy

Aimed at “providing the entire population with a safe, reliable, affordable, convenient, cost effective and environmentally friendly transport system in support of strategies for socioeconomic development”, the MoIC has drafted National Transport Policy 2017.

The draft policy supports development of transport master plans for each dzongkhag and progressive upgradation of all dzongkhag roads to all-weather roads based on traffic demand. 

The government will harness private sector efficiencies in maintenance and management of roads based on a value for money analysis, according to the draft policy. The policy mandates the government to create a dedicated Central Road Fund, which shall be used for construction and maintenance purposes.

The government will provide support to provide safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport services to connect all gewogs with nearest urban centers with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons. 

Today, bus services are provided only in major urban centres like Thimphu and Phuentsholing. By 2040, the bus requirement is expected to reach above 200 in Thimphu alone.

The draft policy document states these realities, Bhutan needs to take a number of measures to address various challenges of its urban centres.

The transport policy of policy 2006 does not adequately address these new requirements.

Road tunnels were identified along the various parts of the road network, including Gedu to Ganglakha, and Thimphu to Wangdue, in order to reduce travel distances.

But works have been stalled for want of feasibility studies.

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