Distilling the pandemonium of public transportation in Kathmandu into a discrete and predictable system requires a fair amount of faith: that somewhere within the relentless waves of chaos there exist a set of rules, maybe even an organization, that control, regulate and facilitate the operation of all the different vehicles. Well, faith we had, and so we plodded into Kathmandu on July 7th, 2012, embarking on an ambitious project to map out, on OpenStreetMap, the myriad means to getting through Kathmandu on the cheap.
This is necessitated by the fact that there exist to date no reliable systems in which the public can look up a public transit map, with routes, fares or stops. In truth, the latter is quite flexible, but is nevertheless loosely bound to neighborhoods along which a route runs. We sought to document and map these stops in a small way to begin the ambitious project of putting Kathmandu’s public transportation on the map.
We began with a short walk to Jawlakhel Chowk, busy with mini- and micro-buses and safa tempos (the iconic electric three-wheelers) all hurried amongst motorbikes, taxis and private cars. Bright, thankfully dry and scorching – perfect weather!
Tempo drivers, the quietest of the lot, were surprisingly eager to chat and explain the circuit that comprises Jawlakhel Chowk – route number 14A and B (former clockwise, latter counterclockwise), as well as chat about their organization and regulation. We learned of a committee that sets routes, frequencies and fares within route 14. It appears each tempo “route” has its own committee whose directives the drivers follow.
Microbuses, on the other hand were impossible to get a hold of curbside, making the tempos look positively idyllic by comparison. We realized soon that we would have to ride one to get them to talk – clever of them, really. We got a hold of one headed to Ratna Park, and found it was also route 14, that which goes from Ratna Park to Lagankhel (and sometimes beyond).
“We realized soon that we would have to ride one to get them to talk – clever of them, really.”
These “micros” were regulated by a different committee than those of the tempos, the driver informed us gloomily, as he expounded his belief that there was altogether too much bureaucracy involved in the regulation of public vehicles. ”Who knows,” he would answer most frequently, “even the people who are in charge don’t know” to our questions about ownership, regulation, and even barriers to entry. He had been driving this route for 6-7 years, and had known no other route in that time. Still, he was eager to answer all that we asked, rattling off all the stops in sequence (he recited them both rapidly and lazily) and giving us a casual tour of landmarks along the route (Supreme Court, Palace, RNAC, Thulikel, to name a few). He forced us off at Ratna Park, explaining that he needed to pull in with an empty bus to attract more people, to which we happily obliged.
Collective member Aashish Regmi asking questions about public transport.
A brief shortcut through Ratna Park brought us to the Old Bus Park. True to its name, the park is old, and full only of buses, both mini-, micro- and regular. Terrified of what surrounded us we knew not where to start as buses came and went in every direction, the soothing honks and shouts deafening us with the familiar ambiance of modern day Kathmandu. Still, by a stroke of fortune, the man we happened to ask turned out to be a regulator of a route, rendering our question as to his existence thankfully moot. He explained that each route that left the park had one person assigned by a committee to be in charge. This person coordinated drivers and arranged departures (the serious ones carried stopwatches!) and generally managed the chaos of queuing up buses. Asked if there was a central repository of route information, he confidently told us that there was.
Well, perfect! Where? He laughed. “No idea, ask the Traffic [officer]” he pointed. We tried to solicit the traffic manager’s enclave and were informed that there was one officer on duty who was not to be bothered. There was nobody else there, said the stranger with a straight face, unwilling to both explain why he was sitting there and why we could readily see a pair of legs prone on the cot inside. Still, like all the kung fu movies, nobody ever chooses the easy way. So we went back and ground out an afternoon worth of interviews, tagging each regulator in charge of each of the lines, taking detailed notes as to the routes, departures, frequencies, fares, distances &c. Happy to escape the ennui of idling at a bus park, we got many an enthusiastic driver and conductor to pitch into the conversation. Countless lively disagreements about distances and times ensued, and at the end of it, we emerged with a surprising amount of information.
As it turns out, almost all lines (unbeknownst even to most regular passengers) had a route number, as well as standardized fare and expected duration of travel. Buses usually left when full, though everyone happily claimed they left “about every 5 minutes or so” and the park was organized by length of travel, ranging from the minibuses that stayed within Kathmandu from the left to the out-of-towners to the right. Still, despite exceeding expectations, there were two route #20, though one was technically 20 क , explained the overly defensive driver (not the good kind of defensive driver, either!). Nevertheless, credit where it’s due – we left with a mountain of data we did not expect existed, and an odd respect for the someone somewhere that begot all this organization…though nobody seems to know who!
We rode back on microbus route 14 with just enough time to stop by Jawlakhel for ice cream and momos. After all, with our faith rewarded, it was time to indulge in the simpler things in life.