A major woe facing Bhutan today is the high number of vehicle imports and the resultant outflow of foreign currency, inflated fuel imports and crowded roads. There are also associated problems that come with this like air pollution, noise pollution and limited parking space.
This problem will only continue to escalate and get worse in the coming years, imposing all kinds of economic, infrastructural and environmental costs on Bhutan.
A viable and much talked about solution to the problem is improving public transport. It is hoped that once there is an efficient public transport people will not feel the need to buy many private vehicles.
A family car is a status symbol that many Bhutanese families in the coming years will hope to achieve.
What makes Bhutan’s vehicle problem worse is that given the inadequate state of the public transportation system pretty much every working member of a family, sooner or later, feels the need to get a car. Therefore, it is not a surprise to see even middle income families having two to three cars parked outside with some even spilling onto public roads at night.
Public transportation in Bhutan can only take off if it can give the same things as a private vehicle, which is mobility to reach different places, reliability to be there when you need it, safety of the service and comfort. Status symbol is still an issue in our status conscious society but the cheaper cost of travel will appeal to many to not go for that car which they won’t really need.
In that sense public transportation in Bhutan needs to improve at two levels. One is within cities and Dzongkhags and the other is between Dzongkhags at greater distances.
Within cities, the government should ignore any taxi or other narrow lobbies and go ahead with installing more buses. This is because the public benefit is much more as a lot of people working in already unaffordable cities like Thimphu and Phuentsholing end up spending a major part of their income on overpriced taxis.
As it is, quite a few of these taxis are operated by overtime civil servants and corporate employees already in fairly well paid and protected jobs, compared to their private counterparts.
The public transportation routes should be planned well within cities to pick up major population centers, areas of movement and have well connected destinations. The prices should be affordable, but at the same time it should not make public transportation a loss making venture. Public vehicles should also get priority in parking areas and movement into certain areas.
For public transportation in between Dzongkhags and cities, the issue is of both safety and comfort. It is also in this long distance travel that a lot of Bhutanese lives and limbs can be lost, as past examples have shown. In that sense, the RSTA and the Traffic Police should do regular checks both outside and inside the vehicles with regard to the engine, breaks, driver professionalism and also vehicle comfort and cleanliness. The current standards and monitoring are far from impressive.
Vehicle passengers should be treated like clients by vehicle owners, drivers and regulators and not cattle to be transported from point A to B. There should also be transparency on the rates charged for additional luggage which should be well defined.
So, if public transportation is improved within cities, both quantitatively and qualitatively, then there will be fewer reasons for a family to go for multiple vehicles and they can either save the resources or invest it in more productive endeavors.
In cross Dzongkhag travels the onus is even more, as people will prefer to take a safe and reliable bus than risk driving on their own with all the associated hassle of parking etc.
Ultimately the road ahead is clear for Bhutan and what choices we make now will define our trajectory in the coming years.
“An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars; rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation”