Eight years ago, Kinga, a traffic policeman, could easily direct the Thimphu traffic on his own. Today, four policemen are required to do the same job in the citys busy traffic points.
With Thimphu and Phuentsholing townscape cluttered with vehicles and added to it the scarce parking space, many believe the traffic gridlock is just around the corner.
Exaggerated, may be, but apt to describe the frenetic scene today.
Since 1997, the number of cars in Bhutan has grown about 14 percent a year. According to the RSTA, there are 19,463 vehicles in Bhutan, excluding those belonging to the security forces.
Many believe that the vehicle traffic in Thimphu is growing at too quick a pace for the citys infrastructure to catch up. We wait in line at rush hour every morning and evening, says a taxi driver, who says the scenario was unthinkable only a few years ago.
The Thimphu region has 10,959 vehicles with more than 70 percent concentrated in the capital. The RSTA estimates the citys vehicle population growth at about seven to eight percent, which means about 500 cars are added to the citys traffic each year.
For motorists in Phuentsholing, Bhutans commercial hub, the congested streets have become a nightmare. A growing number of vehicles, lack of adequate parking spaces, and limited scope of expanding the existing roads have aggravated the situation. The Phuentsholing region has 6,056 registered vehicles today.
Why the sudden boom in vehicle population? Analysts say the answer lies in two words: necessity and affordibility. With the per capita income in Bhutan estimated to have grown at 12.5 percent (Central Statistical Organization, 1998), the purchasing power of the people has shot up, more so in the urban areas. Between April 2000 and April 2001, Thimphu residents bought 1,000 vehicles.
Besides the growing affluence, the financial institutions have come up with loan schemes to get rid of excess liquidity. For example, the RICB financed the purchase of about 698 vehicles in January 2000 to May 2001.
On the other hand, cars have become a necessity rather than a luxury, particularly in Thimphu. It is difficult to get jobs done without a car especially during emergencies, says a resident. There is an immense demand for mobility by individuals, says Karma Ura, head of the Centre for Bhutan Studies (CBS).
What emerges out of this scenario is that the congestion is likely to get worse, not better. The Thimphu expressway, for example, will not be enough, some say.
While traffic congestion is one of the results of increasing number of vehicles, the environmental pollution has also alarmed people. The urban residents are becoming more aware of the noticeable difference in the air they breathe.
According to the National Environment Commission (NEC), most of the vehicles in Thimphu fail to meet the accepted emission standards. And more congestion means more emission.
When we stop our cars at the traffic, the engine is kept on thereby burning fossil fuel, and from it ensues toxic particulars like carbon monoxide and lead which are harmful to the health of both the people and the environment, says the NEC environment assessment officer, Nidup Tshering.
Vehicles which have low specific emission level like the EURO 2 should be imported, Nidup adds. Since these vehicles are expensive, it would stop both the environment pollution and the rampant purchase of cars.
Karma Ura delves on the question: how best can we solve an individuals rising desire for mobility? Individual rationality doesnt necessarily lead to collective rationality, he says. He added that such a problem arises when individuals are left to solve their own dilemma of mobility. The opening of new roads and enhancing public transport system will solve the problem.
While the Thimphu city corporation feels that the financial institutions, when introducing certain schemes, should take broader issues into account the RSTA says that a rule requiring building owners to have car parking space for at least eight cars will soon be enforceable.
Meanwhile, Bhutan Post in the recent months has taken over the city bus services from the city corporation. The move is expected to promote convenient transport facility to the public and improve Thimphu citys environment. With a 30-minute frequency, the buses serve all the residential areas with the shortest possible connection to all the major destinations.
By Kencho Wangdi