I’ve been on the streets in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Dublin, Miami, Mumbai, Beijing, and Buenos Aries. Anytime you put a million-plus people in a city, you will be able to complain about the challenges pedestrians face. I wouldn’t say Kathmandu was more challenging. I would say there are different challenges.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, so there are not many private cars. Cars are expensive; I once heard the tariff was 100%, pretty much pricing the middle class and even the upper-middle class out of the market. This means most of the people who can afford a private car can also afford a driver. But most people will never own a car. Certainly not a new one.
what’s on the street
Consider a school teacher, who might make 30,000 rupees ($242 USD) a month. This person is not going to buy a car. They will opt for a motorcycle, and you often see whole families on one motorcycle. With over a million motorcycles and scooters on the road, they represent the most challenging aspect of crossing the street.
Traffic includes buses of all shapes and sizes; very crowded ones that take locals around the city and home to their villages in the mountains, as well as buses and vans of all sizes carrying tourists and school children. Then add delivery vehicles—trucks, more vans, micro vans, motorcycles, bicycles, and pushcarts.
And taxis, very small ones, made by Suzuki or Hyundai, are privately owned. About 7500 of them. One way people make money here is leaving the country and working in the service sector of oil-rich countries in the Mideast or manufacturing in Indonesia or India. They leave their families (creating a host of social problems) and make a pile of money. Then they return and buy a taxi or delivery vehicle (or perhaps buy or build a house).
So, that’s the mix of traffic you contend with. Did I mention the motorcycles, which flow in and around the traffic and up onto the sidewalks?
how to cross the street
With all these vehicles on the road, you need to know two things.
First, traffic will not stop. And two, you will not die.
OK, maybe you will die. There are about 5 pedestrian deaths a month, but the traffic police maintain a heavy presence, and running over people is frowned upon. Plus, I expect there is extra paperwork if a driver hits a foreigner.
Anyway, if you are afraid of dying, you will never cross the street. So, if you are going to cross the street, your real concern is this: the traffic doesn’t actually stop, except at major intersections where police officers hold lines of traffic, so other lines can turn. Even then, some traffic will always be moving through the intersection.
For this reason, crossing the street in Kathmandu takes a little getting used to. So, here are some tips:
- Look right before you step into the road. Vehicles here follow the Indian/British model of driving on the left side of the road. The most essential thing is to look right. If you forget this, you actually may die.
- The traffic is not going to stop, even if you are in a cross-walk. Cars will slow down and motorcycles will adjust their trajectory, going ahead or behind you.
- Because of this, you learn to sense a pulse in the traffic and then just walk into the road. Really. Just walk without hesitation into a busy road and traffic will flow around you. If you hesitate or stop, you may get hit. Pro-tip: you are allowed to stop halfway across the street to sense another pulse.
- Until you get used to it, it’s best to stand beside or behind a Nepali and do what they do. But once you get the hang of it, it feels like a superpower.
- You may slow traffic by holding your hand out about waist high. This creates a force field that keeps you safe. Or gives you that illusion. Actually, drivers are already watching you and may slow down—but probably not because you held your hand out. They are generally nice people, and often a car will slow way down and wave you across.
- Lanes and crosswalks are for decorative purposes only. Traffic is a river and people wade in, just about anywhere.
- On some busier roads, you may be able to walk a few blocks and find a pedestrian bridge. But you don’t have to.
You can cross the street anywhere if you have nerves and faith.
Or you can catch a taxi.