Record Nepal

How urban design and planning failed cycling in Kathmandu

Prashanta Khanal – June 22, 2021

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An assessment of the Tinkune-Maitighar cycling lane uncovers numerous design flaws born out of a centralized tendency to prioritize cars over public transport, pedestrians, and cyclists.

Arjun Jung Thapa, director-general of the Department of Roads, once told The Kathmandu Post that it was useless to make cycle lanes. 

“The city made the cycle lane but nobody uses it,” he said, referring to the 3.1 km Tinkune-Maitighar cycle lane constructed by the Department of Roads. 

Thapa is not the only government official to have made such a statement. And on a cursory look, Thapa and others like him might appear to be right. On the Tinkune-Maitighar route, cyclists appear to be using the motor road instead of the cycle lane, despite the risks of riding in mixed traffic. 

But a closer look at the cycle lane and its associated infrastructure reveals a different picture. Understanding why cyclists don’t use the Tinkune-Maitighar cycle lane requires careful observation and analysis of its design. The answer that emerges is not that people don’t ‘like’ to use the cycle lane, but that the urban design has failed. 

Design that failed 

For cycle lanes to function properly, they need to be convenient, safe, continuous, unobstructed, connected, and direct. The Tinkune-Maitighar cycle lane does not meet the first five criteria. 

First, the cycle lane is not convenient. Som Rana, a cyclist and urban planner, points out that the lane is uncomfortable to cycle on because of the type of surface material used.

In 2013, when the Department of Roads was building the cycle lane, a group of cyclists had asked that smooth asphalt or concrete be used instead of interlocking blocks as such blocks can make the surface uneven, which in turn makes cycling uncomfortable and also compromises speed. However, interlocking blocks were used regardless as the department said it had already called for a tender with those specifications. The design would be corrected in the next fiscal budget, department officials said, but that never happened. 

In 2015, Clean Energy Nepal/Clean Air Network Nepal — a sustainable energy and environmental research organization that I was part of —  assessed the cycle lane design — something that the department should’ve done itself — and presented the findings to two successive chiefs of the department. But more than five years later, the cycle lane remains as it is — unusable by cyclists. 

“The cycle lane is physically segregated — that’s the only good thing. The lane isn’t designed from the perspective of users,” says Shristina Shrestha, a conservation architect and urban planner, who is also associated with Nepal Cycle Society. 

This is largely a result of the Department of Roads’ planning practice that doesn’t hold consultations with urban planners, cyclists, and local communities. Designs and plans are made opaquely and put into place without accountability. Since cyclists were not consulted, the design did not cater to the targeted user group, and since urban planners were not consulted, there was little effort to understand how cycle lanes are designed worldwide. 

Design interventions that can make the Tinkune-Maitighar cycle lane better for cyclists. (CEN/CANN, 2015)

Second, the cycle lane is discontinuous and that makes it unsafe. In many places, especially where access roads are provided, both the sidewalk and cycle lane end abruptly with a sudden drop, impeding seamless mobility of cyclists. The drops almost function like a trap — cyclists have to either get down from their bicycles or learn how to bunny-hop. 

The Tinkune-Maitighar cycle lane has numerous drops for access roads that force cyclists to get off or learn to bunny hop. The lane is also paved with uneven interlocking blocks that make cycling uncomfortable. (Photo: Prashanta Khanal)

The cycle lane is interrupted by numerous bridges and intersections. In a couple of sections, it is completely missing. The intersections and crossings have not been designed with cycle lanes in mind. In conflict areas, painted lanes with signage could increase visibility and prioritize movement of cyclists but none exist. Free left-turns at intersections and the absence of crossing signals place both pedestrians and cyclists at risk of being run over by motor vehicles. 

Electric poles and raised manholes frequently obstruct the lane. In many sections, the cycle lane is raised from the adjacent motor road — in some instances, by as much as 0.45 meters. This not only makes cycling unsafe, but also impedes pedestrian mobility. 

Bus stops are placed inappropriately in between the sidewalk and cycle lane, creating conflicts between pedestrians, cyclists, and bus users. Adjacent establishments, such as the Kathmandu District Court, have encroached on the sidewalk, turning it into motorbike parking, and forcing people to walk on the cycle lane. 

Furthermore, the department recently built a pedestrian overhead bridge in New Baneshwor blocking the cycle lane. 

Finally, and most importantly, a network of cycle lanes is a prerequisite to building cycling culture. Simply constructing a few kilometers of cycle lanes will not encourage people to cycle. Just as motorable traffic requires a network of roads to function, so do bicycles. Without a safe, comfortable, and direct cycle lane network in the city, it would be futile to dream about creating a cycle-friendly city. 

In fact, a cycle-friendly city will require redesigning the roads throughout the city. Building wide multi-lane roads and encouraging cycling don’t go hand in hand — they contradict each other. First, the construction of highways and flyovers in the cities needs to be halted and second, any roads wider than four lanes should have two-way cycle lanes going in both directions, with a minimum width of 3 meters.

Cycling myths and excuses

The importance and benefits of cycling — not just on mobility, but also on public health, climate change, air pollution, economy, and its role in creating equitable, livable cities — are well known. The question isn’t whether Kathmandu can become a cycle-friendly city but rather, “how do we make Kathmandu a cycle-friendly city?” 

Building a cycle-friendly city doesn’t mean that every road should have separate cycle lanes, or that everyone must cycle everywhere, all the time. It simply means that those who choose to cycle have options to do so with ease and comfort. But many governmental officials, engineers, and people alike often argue that Kathmandu is not well-suited to become a cycle-friendly urban space. 

One common myth is that the Kathmandu Valley’s terrain and climate aren’t conducive to cycling. Yes, Kathmandu’s terrain isn’t completely flat, but the Valley is generally cyclable. From the 60s through the 90s, many Valley residents cycled. A 2011 study conducted by the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport and Japan International Cooperation Agency showed that the average travel distance for private vehicles in the city is about five kilometers, which is a walkable and cyclable distance. And even where the terrain isn’t too conducive for cycling, we can find ways to make road designs friendlier for cycling, such as reducing the road gradient and building connecting bridges. With electric-assist and geared bicycles, cyclists are easily able to cover large distances and uphill terrain. 

Besides some inconvenience during the monsoon, the Valley’s climate is comfortable for cycling — it is not too harsh in the winter or too hot in the summer. Plenty of people cycling in the Tarai during the summers and the monsoon, and in Copenhagen during the snowy winters, suggest that climate isn’t a key factor. Some urban design interventions, such as creating tree shades and rain shelters, could further add convenience for cyclists. 

Another excuse is that Kathmandu’s roads are already congested and aren’t wide enough to build cycle lanes. This begs the question: who do we prioritize first when it comes to road space. The priority has never been pedestrians or cyclists; it has always been motorized vehicles. Urban mobility is not so much about space as it is about priority. Globally, the accepted norm in urban planning is to prioritize pedestrians first, followed by cyclists and public transport, and private cars last. But Nepal’s cities plan in reverse — the car is at the center of transport planning. Unless we change our priority, and stop worrying about cars stuck in traffic over the safety and convenience of pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport users, inequitable access to mobility and congestion will continue. 

Design interventions that can make the Tinkune-Maitighar cycle lane better for cyclists. (CEN/CANN, 2015)

Space for cycle lanes on existing roads can be created by reducing their lane width. Urban roads designed as highways with 3.5 to 3.75 meter lanes can easily be reduced to 2.5 meters. This will also make roads safer for all road users, including private vehicles. On smaller roads, traffic calming measures can help make spaces safer for cyclists. 

Oftentimes, while sharing cycling success stories from European cities, a common response is that “we are not Copenhagen”; they are relatively wealthier, developed cities whereas we are not. But in fact, the Copenhagen of today wasn’t the same Copenhagen a few decades back. They too had car-centric transport planning, but in the 1970s, they made a turnaround, realizing the repercussions of car-centric transport planning, and became one of most cycle-friendly cities in the world. Funnily enough, the same response is never forthcoming while planning urban highways and flyovers in a city where the majority of residents can’t afford cars, unlike in European cities. Developing cities need to invest more in low-cost cycling infrastructure rather than expensive road infrastructure that rich cities can afford and we can’t. 

READ MORE: Cycling lessons from Copenhagen

Yet another argument that department officials often make for not building cycle lanes is that there just aren’t enough cyclists on the road. That is just not true — cyclists are just invisible to those who don’t want to see them. The approach needs to be one of ‘if you build it, they will come’. We cannot wait for cyclist numbers to increase before building a cycle lane. Not surprisingly, the same institution that wants to see cyclists on the streets before building cycle lanes has failed to build cycle lanes in the Tarai, where a great number of people cycle. 

There is even legislation to help planners and officials prioritize cycling. The National Transport Policy, formulated in 2001, clearly says that “in urban roads, cycle lanes shall be managed separately”, as does the National Road Standards. Among some other policies and plans, the Environment-friendly Vehicle and Transport Policy (2014) also includes provisions for cycling.  

For Department of Roads officials and many politicians, cycling symbolizes regression. To them, cycling connotes backwardness and a lack of progress while wide roads and many cars symbolize prosperity and development. 

More power to city governments

For decades, the Department of Roads has ignored the rights and needs of cyclists. It’s unfortunate that the department’s engineers do not acknowledge the need for cycling infrastructure as their priority appears to be to move vehicles swiftly at any cost, be it at the expense of people’s lives. 

The department’s road designs have killed thousands of people every year in accidents and injured many more. Data from the Metropolitan Traffic Police Division shows, in the Kathmandu Valley alone, road crashes kill over a hundred people annually. Pedestrians and cyclists are the most vulnerable, followed by motorbike riders. In the entire country, in 2019, road crashes killed 2,736 people and seriously injured 10,731. 

The Department of Roads has a very large budget, and almost all of it goes towards building and maintaining roads and highways. During the pandemic, the department had the opportunity to redesign the city’s roads and allocate more space for walking and cycling, as has been done in the many cities around the world. But not surprisingly, there have been no such plans. Instead, all they did was blacktop the same roads they had blacktopped a year or so ago.

In cities around the world, it’s not the federal government but the city government that invests in and builds cycling infrastructure. In Nepal, the city governments do not have jurisdiction over roads that are wider than eight meters. The Department of Roads is a federal entity that answers to the federal Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport. Roads within municipalities need to be designated urban roads so as to come under the jurisdiction of the city governments. The department’s budget needs to also be redirected to local governments. With larger budgets for their roads, municipalities could then allocate more funds to sustainable mobility.

“Despite the political change, from Panchayat to Loktantra, the top-down planning culture hasn’t changed,” says urban planner Kirti Joshi. “Local governments are not given enough power. City governments have to take permission from the Department of Roads for any interventions.”

The political decision of how to build the city and who to prioritize should be in the hands of the elected mayor, not some bureaucratic officials who aren’t accountable to the public. The Department of Roads should simply be an implementing partner or a technical agency; it shouldn’t be able to tell cities how to design their spaces.

“The lack of clear jurisdiction over the roads, clarity on road nature/hierarchy, and institutional awareness create barriers in swift planning for a cycle city,” says Shrestha. “Political will is the most important element in making changes and the Lalitpur mayor has displayed that.”

The construction of cycle lanes in Lalitpur shows the importance of local government. Despite resistance from the Department of Roads, Lalitpur Metropolitan City forced its way to build several kilometers of cycle lanes that are being further expanded. The city government was able to do this because it listened and consulted its people, many of whom are cyclists. 

Though Lalitpur’s marked cycle lane — instead of one that is physically segregated — is not the preferred design as it is not entirely safe, it has gained widespread attention and displayed inclusivity, giving a sense of respect and ownership over the city to marginalized cyclists, who tell me that they now feel that the road belongs to them too.

Lalitpur’s marked cycle lanes are only 1.2 meters wide. Safer cycle lanes require physically segregated lanes with a minimum width of 1.8 meters (for one way). This minimum width allows two bicycles or wheelchairs to pass each other comfortably. A cycle lane is safe enough only when a child can cycle with ease and safety, all on their own. 

“According to our observation, 30-40 percent of the marked cycle lanes in Lalitpur can be converted to dedicated cycle lanes,” says Rana, who is also associated with Nepal Cycle Society and is helping Lalitpur Metropolitan City design its cycle lanes. “But the Department of Roads hasn’t given us permission to install bollards to segregate cycle lanes from the motor road.” 

Making cities cycle-friendly is not merely a technical or financial issue, but a political one. The politics of whose interest to prioritize, of who owns urban spaces and roads. Do we design our mobility for the benefit of a few that can afford cars or for everyone else? Do we continue to spend money on roads that will further entrench inequality in the city, or invest in public transport, and pedestrian and cycling-friendly infrastructure?


Cover photo: A cyclist riding his bicycle on the marked cycle lane in Lalitpur. Without physical segregation, the cycle lane is very safe for cycling but at least, it provides a sense of acknowledgment and respect for cyclists. (Photo: Prashanta Khanal)

The article is Part 3 of a series on cycling in Nepal. For Part 1, A history of cycling in the Kathmandu Valley, click here. For Part 2, a history of women and cycling in Nepal, click here

Record Nepal

Riding into the future: A short history of women and cycling in Nepal

Prashanta Khanal – June 14, 2021

Despite conservative attitudes forcing women indoors, Nepali women in the early 20th century often broke convention and took to the streets on their bicycles.

The article is Part 2 of a series on cycling in Nepal. For Part 1, A history of cycling in the Kathmandu Valley, click here

Sarojini Manandhar started riding a bicycle on Kathmandu’s streets in the late 1940s. Back then, few if any women cycled in the city. Manandhar would ride her bicycle draped in a sari or long skirt. Riding a bicycle—primarily designed for men—in such attire couldn’t have been comfortable, and Nepali society at the time wouldn’t have approved of women, especially those married, being physically active outside of their homes. 

Yet Manandhar was young and fierce and rode a bicycle to explicitly break conservative social norms and pronounce that women were as capable as men. 

Born into a progressive Newa business family in 1937 in Kathmandu’s core city area and educated at a time when most of Nepali society didn’t even consider schooling girls, Manandhar was vocal about women’s rights from a young age. She was one of the few fortunate girls to be able to receive a formal education. Her father, Asta Narayan Manandhar, was a revolutionary who challenged societal norms by sending his daughters to school, treated his sons and daughters equally, and supported the growing movement against the Rana regime, according to his granddaughter Sumitra Manandhar Gurung

Sarojini Manandhar was thus educated at the Shanti Nikunja School, Nepal’s first co-ed high school, established in 1945. The school was one of the bases for revolution against the autocratic Rana regime, and a place for Manandhar’s political awakening. She participated in the movement for democracy alongside her close friend Mangala Devi Singh, a pioneer women’s rights activist and prominent democratic activist. The Rana regime would eventually fall in 1950, after 105 years in power.

Sarojini Manandhar (standing, left) giving a speech at a women’s meeting. Also seen in the picture is Mangala Devi Singh (seated, center), a pioneering women’s rights activist and freedom fighter, circa late 40s or early 50s (Photo: Mangala Devi Singh Collection/Sirjana Singh)

After the end of the autocratic Rana regime, Manandhar continued to work in women’s rights through the Nepal Mahila Sangh (Nepal Women’s Association) which Mangala Devi Singh co-founded in 1947. In 1960, Manandhar started teaching at the Kanya School, now Padma Kanya Multiple Campus. While attending meetings of the Mahila Sangh or going to work as a teacher, she always rode her bicycle, said Sheela Manandhar, Sarojini’s daughter. 

“Whenever Sarojini Manandhar visited our home, my mother-in-law [Mangala Devi Singh] would introduce her as the first Nepali woman cyclist,” recalled Sirjana Singh, who is a social worker. 

Cycling came naturally to Manandhar, as her family owned a bicycle shop—her father, Asta Narayan, had started Kathmandu’s first bicycle shop in 1925. But in the 40s and 50s, cycling was the exclusive province of men. Women, particularly married women, on wheels was unthinkable. But Manandhar’s case was different; she had the support of her family and she continued cycling well into the 60s, even after marriage. 

Riding to freedom

Before the 60s, it was mostly the wealthy elite males who rode bicycles in Nepal. Only after 1960 did Kathmandu’s cycling culture expand to the middle-class and beyond. But even then, it remained a solely male pursuit. Unlike in Europe — where women started cycling after the introduction of the “safety bicycle” in 1889 — women in Kathmandu were largely discouraged from taking up cycling. European women took to cycling in droves, especially after joining the industrial labor force in the early 1900s, and by the 60s, women were cycling extensively, as outlined in the book Cycling and Sustainability

When women entered the labor market to a greater extent in the 1960s, and their daily transport need increased, cycling women were an incontestable part of the cycling cultures in The Netherlands and Denmark. Cycling was integrated into typical women’s professions such as daycare and senior citizen care services as an option for travel and transport. Today women cycle slightly more than men and arguably have become primary carriers of the everyday cycling culture. 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, bicycles symbolized women’s emancipation in the West. Suffragettes rode bicycles to assert their rights. In 1896, Munsey’s Magazine wrote that a bicycle was more than a mere mobility tool for women:

To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.

But in Nepal, cycles were initially limited to those who could afford them. Born in 1930, Kishori Rana started cycling when she was around 12 years of age, inside the premises of Bagh Durbar, where she grew up. Despite being a member of the elite Rana family, her activities as a woman too were limited. She cycled until she was 17, which is when she got married and as a daughter-in-law, she wasn’t allowed to cycle any more. 

In the 1950s, Hasina Joshi, then a teenager, used to cycle around her Thimi neighborhood, swim in the Bagmati river, and go to cinemas despite reservations from her family. She too had to give up cycling after marriage. 

In the 40s, Kishori Rana cycled around Bagh Durbar but stopped after marriage, a story similar to that of many women in the city. (Photo: Pranaya Rana/Nepal Picture Library Collection)

At the time, Nepali society was much more patriarchal and women were circumscribed to household chores like cooking, cleaning, raising children, and farming. In an interview with Media Nepal in 1985, Mangala Devi Singh recounts a meeting in the 40s with then Rana prime minister Padma Shumsher to discuss women’s issues. Padma Shumsher apparently chided her, saying, “Why do you need women’s rights? A woman’s ideal characteristic is to stay home and serve the members of the household.”

“Society was conservative and married women especially were not allowed to go outside their homes and socialize,” said urban planner Kirti Joshi, explaining why her mother Hasina Joshi had to give up cycling after marriage.

In his book Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity, historian David Arnold recounts a similar pattern in Indian society before the 1960s:

In general, cycling was not common once women reached marriageable age. There was an argument (made mostly by men) that it was dangerous for young women to ride bicycles for fear of rupturing their hymens and so ruining their marriage prospects. There seems to have been a broad prejudice against the physical mobility and independence women might acquire by riding a bicycle… While for young men the bicycle might be a means to adventure (including visits to cinemas and brothels), for women the bicycle symbolized the constraints patriarchy imposed on their adult lives.

For Nepali women, bicycles came to symbolize freedom from societal norms and as Nepali society began to evolve, women took to cycling to assert their independence. 

Uma and Leena Manadhar fondly recall learning to ride bicycles in Patan when they were 10 to 12 years old. It was the mid-70s and they would hire bicycles from a nearby rental shop — Pandey and Rajbhai Cycle Shop — on an hourly basis for Rs 1.5 an hour. Until the 90s, there were many such cycle rentals and repair centers in the Kathmandu Valley but they slowly disappeared as private vehicles started to become more common. But at the time, as there were no bicycles designed for young people, the two sisters taught themselves to ride adult “gents’ cycles”. They would put their legs in between the bicycle’s frames and half-pedal sideways, a style that young kids still adopt when riding large bicycles, colloquially called ‘kaichi’ (scissor) style.

“Our legs would often touch the chain and get bruised, but we enjoyed riding bicycles. We used to ride around Lagankhel, Jawalakhel, and the newly built Ringroad,” recounted Uma Manandhar. “When we didn’t have pocket money, we would steal our father’s Hero cycle to go for a ride.”

But the unavailability of woman-friendly bicycles discouraged many others from taking up cycling. 

“Bicycles designed for men with straight horizontal crossbars were not comfortable for women to ride in their saris and long skirts,” said Sumitra Manandhar Gurung. “And wearing pants was unconventional; people would gasp to see women in pants.”

But even into the 70s, women riding bicycles often experienced negative attitudes from men. 

“Neighbors didn’t say anything about us girls cycling but one time, a driver, realizing a girl was cycling, drove his vehicle behind me honking continuously. It scared me,” Leena Manandhar recounted an incident from the mid-70s. 

Despite a few women who cycled as early as the 1940s in Kathmandu, bicycles never became a transport choice for most women. Even today, it is uncommon to see women cycling in the Valley. Cycling has always been men’s business and so it still mostly remains.

But unlike in Kathmandu, women in the southern Tarai-Madhes have a long and vibrant cycling culture, especially in industrial towns and cities such as Chitwan, Biratnagar, Birgunj, and Bhairahawa. 

A cycling culture in Chitwan

Hordes of bicycles parked outside schools, factories, and markets remain a common sight in Chitwan and other Tarai towns. During peak hours, cyclists rule the roads, and many of them are female. Women use bicycles to go to work, buy groceries, transport produce to the market, fetch firewood, and take their kids to school. Young girls often pedal their way to school and female community health volunteers conduct outreach on their bicycles. 

Sabitri Kandel, a social worker and political activist from Bharatpur who is now 61, still occasionally rides a bicycle. Her parents moved from the western hills in Gulmi to Chitwan in 1960, the same year that she was born. 

“I started cycling when I was nine years old. I used to ride my father’s bicycle to fetch fodder for cows,” she said.

After the eradication of malaria and a resettlement program in the late 1950s, many—over 100,000 in a decade, more later—Khas and Janajati communities from the hills migrated to the plains of Chitwan, the homeland of Tharus, Darai, Kumal, and Bote. 

After Kandel married in 1976, she started a small dairy business and vegetable farming to sustain her family and educate her kids. She didn’t want to place a financial burden on her husband who had gone to study in Banaras. 

“In 1977, I bought my first bicycle by borrowing Rs 200. Before that, I used to carry milk and vegetables on my shoulders,” she said. “After cleaning, cooking, and feeding my children and in-laws in the early morning, I used to go to deliver milk and vegetables door-to-door on my bicycle.” 

Sabitri Kandel sold vegetables and milk on a bicycle in the mid-80s. In Chitwan, many migrant women were involved in agriculture and dairy farming. (Photo: Sabitri Kandel Collection/Jyoti Photo Studio, 1985) 

In Chitwan, settlements were scattered, fields were farther away, markets too were a considerable distance away. For residents, bicycles became essential for mobility. Because the women also worked in the factories and engaged in entrepreneurial activities, riding a bicycle made getting to their jobs and transporting their produce more convenient. Gradually, women cycling became a norm, an established part of the culture. Women from all ethnicities and classes rode bicycles.

Parbati Kumari Chaudhary, a handicraft entrepreneur, started cycling regularly in 1978 when she was 16 years old. She would cycle five kilometers to school in Tandi from her home in Bachauli, passing through a forest and a river. 

“Earlier, I used to walk an hour, but the bicycle made it easier to reach school,” said Chaudhary. “I also used a bicycle to fetch snacks for farm helpers three to four kilometers away and transport fodder back home. A bicycle allowed me to do more work, more efficiently.” 

But according to Chaudhary, it was only after 1980 that Chitwan women started embracing cycling in large numbers, primarily because more women began to get involved in farming and dairies.

Many communities in Chitwan earn their living from farming and dairy production. Even women who had an earning husband would engage in entrepreneurial activities to supplement their income. Many women discovered that cycling gave them financial independence. 

“I trained many women in vegetable farming and to ride a bicycle so that they could earn for themselves,” said Kandel. “I would teach them cycling on moonlit evenings, as I was busy during the day.” 

A lack of public transport also facilitated cycling. Until the 1990s, there wasn’t any public transport in Chitwan, except for long-route buses on the highways, said Birendra Mahato, chairperson of the Tharu Cultural Museum and Research Center in Chitwan. There were some cycle rickshaws but they were only available in the main towns.

Other factors also helped cycling flourish in Chitwan — a flat terrain, a grid city design, and the comparatively milder climate of the inner Tarai. But Chitwan’s women cycling culture might also owe itself to the new mixed migrant society. The intermingling of different cultures made it easier for women to break certain taboos and social norms that they were accustomed to in their own society. As the social structure now consisted of people from many different backgrounds, women had to fear less social condemnation. This might have led Chitwan migrant women to embrace bicycles as a common utilitarian tool. And as a few women dared to ride bicycles, more women followed.

But Mahato says that Chitwan’s embrace of women’s mobility wasn’t just a result of new arrivals from the hills and the resulting mixed society. According to him, women cycling owes a lot to Tharu culture. 

“Because the Tharu community is generally less patriarchal and more matriarchal, Tharu women embraced cycling more enthusiastically and widely than women from other communities,” he said. “It is common to see three or four bicycles in a Tharu home.” 

In the 1960s and 70s, Chitwan was also fast evolving into a politically conscious, progressive society, where women too participated in the democratic movement against the Panchayat Regime. 

“It was natural for the newly settled residents to embrace, albeit somewhat reluctantly, the idea of women’s rights,” said Milan Shrestha, a senior lecturer at Arizona State University who also studies the urban environment and sustainability. “So, allowing greater mobility for girls and women was both a symbol of women’s rights as well as a necessity in an area with limited mobility choices.” 

Chitwan’s new cycling culture paved the way for women to take to the streets earlier than in other established urban centers like Birgunj and Biratnagar, where traditionally prescribed roles for women were less tolerant of women’s mobility.

“Even women who didn’t know how to cycle walked their bicycles to the market to transport produce,” said Dharmaraj Sapkota, a 46-year-old bicycle entrepreneur from Chitwan whose family migrated from Baglung in 1967. “They would transport sacks of unhulled rice on bicycle carriages or in-between the frames to rice mills or attach theki filled with milk or yogurt to each side of the carriage to take to the market.”

In the mid-1990s, when the drop-frame bicycle, colloquially known as ‘ladies’ cycle’, hit the market, both women and girls in Chitwan took to cycling with gusto. The new design, which also had a relatively smaller wheel size, made it much more convenient for women to cycle in saris and long dresses, giving them a sense of safety. The bicycle also had a basket attached to the handlebar, which made it easier for women to carry personal belongings and groceries. 

Women delivering milk on a ‘ladies’ cycle’ to a dairy collection center in Chitwan. (Photo: Rajiv Khanal, 2020)

The design was convenient and the ‘ladies’ cycle’ was widely employed by both women and men, the elderly and children. Families preferred them over regular bicycles as they could be used by all members of the family.

“In the 1990s and 2000s, ladies’ cycles were so popular that they were given as part of a dowry,” Kandel said. “My father-in-law did so when his daughter got married.”

In Chitwan, cycling is ingrained in women’s lifestyles. Chitwan locals even quip that if a woman doesn’t know how to cycle, she won’t be able to marry. 

“Chitwan residents see women who cycle as courageous and hard-working,” said Kandel. “People from Kathmandu would be surprised to see adult women cycling in Chitwan. Some even asked me if I felt ashamed riding a bicycle and some men told me that women shouldn’t be riding a bicycle.” 

In Chitwan, bicycles transcended class, gender, and ethnicity, contributing to its strong cycling culture. It is also common to see both men and women riding a bicycle that was designed for women. This absence of convention and stereotyping has helped women embrace cycling widely in Chitwan and other parts of the Tarai. 

But Kathmandu’s story is different. Society at large looked down on women riding bicycles and considered the new design inferior to the ‘gents’ cycle’. Men considered the ‘ladies’ cycle’ to be effeminate and something to be ashamed of.

In Kathmandu, women did not demand a new design and the market did not provide a supply. Historically, the key reasons that constricted women cycling in Kathmandu were a conservative society, gender discrimination on bicycle design, a market that catered only to men, and the lower participation of women in the formal economy.

“The bicycle not only helped me to gain financial independence,” said Kandel, “but also to connect with people who raised my social and political consciousness. The condescending question from men: aaimai le ni garna sakchhan ra? (are women even capable?) in fact encouraged me to cycle and become financially independent.” 

Kandel, now 61 years of age, still has her old bicycle. 

“Even today, I do [Vishwakarma] puja for my bicycle first,” she said with pride.

However, in the last 15 years or so, people in Chitwan, primarily in the city areas, have been gradually transitioning to private motor vehicles, much like in other parts of the country. Today, many urban Nepali women prefer motorized scooters as a symbol of their independence and social status.

But for women like Sarojini Manandhar, Sabitri Kandel, Parbati Kumari Chaudhary, and many others, a bicycle was far more than just a tool for transport. A bicycle symbolized emancipation and equal rights. 

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” Susan B. Anthony, a 19th-century American women’s rights activist, once said, “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

Kandel agrees. 

“Bicycles are women’s new feet,” she said.


This article is Part 2 of a series on cycling in Nepal. The next part will focus on cycling infrastructure, design, and transport policies. 

This series was produced under the Nepal Picture Library’s Kathmandu Valley Urban History Project Research Fellowship.

विश्व साइकल दिवस, नेपालमा साइकल चढ्न लाइसेन्स चाहिन्थ्यो


जुन ३, विश्व साइकल दिवस । संयुक्त राष्ट्र संघले सन् २०१८, जुन ३ बाट यसको सुरुआत गरेको थियो। सफा, स्वच्छ, वातावरणमैत्री, भरपर्दो, सरल, किफायती, स्वस्थ र चुस्त रहन मद्दत गर्ने सवारीको प्रवर्द्धन गर्ने उद्देश्यले विश्व साइकल दिवसको मनाउन थालिएको हो। 

नेपालमा पनि साइकल सम्बन्धी सरोकार प्रशस्तै फैलिएको छ। मुलतः कमजोर आय भएका वर्गको सवारी साधनका रुपमा लिइए पनि अहिले साइकल सौखिनको संख्या बढ्दै गएको छ । नेपालमा कुनै बेला साइकल चढ्नका लागि लाइसेन्स चाहिन्थ्यो, अहिले मोटरसाइकल चढ्न जस्तै ।

वि.संं २०२३ साल मंसिर १७ गते जिल्ला पञ्चायत कार्यालय, मोरङले जारी गरेको साइकलको लाइसेन्स ।
लाइसेन्स पाउनेको नाम थर वतनः कनैयालाल भगत, विराटनगर नगर पञ्चायत, मोरङ
साइकलको किसिमः चैम्पियन

नियमित शारीरिक गतिविधि जस्तै हिँड्ने, साइकल चलाउने र खेल्ने कार्यले मानिसको स्वास्थ्यमा धेरै फाइदा पुग्ने गर्छ । सबै उमेर समूहका लागि, शारीरिक रुपमा सक्रिय हुनु भनेको स्वास्थ्यमा फाइदासँगै सम्भावित हानिबाट जोगिनु पनि हो । केही नगरी बस्नुभन्दा सजिलो तरिकाको शारीरिक गतिविधि गर्नुले मानिसलाई स्वस्थ रहन धेरै मद्दत गर्छ । दिनभरि सक्रिय हुन सके मानिसको स्वास्थ्यमा नकारात्मक असर पर्न सक्ने सम्भावना ज्यादै कम हुन्छ । र, यस्तो व्यस्त जीवनमा शारीरिक रुपमा सक्रिय रहँदै स्वस्थ रहन साइक्लिङले निकै महत्वपूर्ण भूमिका निर्वाह गर्छ ।

साइकल कुदाउनुको फाइदा मानिसको शारीरिक तन्दुरुस्ती मात्र नभई वातावरणीय हिसाबले पनि उत्तम रहेको विभिन्न अध्ययनले समेत पुष्टि गरिसकेको छ । कुनै पनि राष्ट्रले साइकल कुदाउन मिल्ने गरी सडक निर्माण र साइकल कुदाउने मानिसमा लगानी गर्ने हो भने यसले राष्ट्रको बजेटसँगै नागरिकको जिवन पनि जोगिने अध्ययन, अनुसन्धानले देखाएको छ । यसले वातावरणको संरक्षण, गरिबी निवारणमा समेत सहयोग गर्ने सक्ने देखिन्छ ।

सहरमा जनसंख्याको वृद्धिसँगै उत्पन्न हुन सक्ने यातायातको समस्यामा पनि साइकल समाधानको उपाय हुन सक्छ । यसले वायु प्रदूषण उल्लेखनीय मात्रामा कम त गर्छ नै साथै सडक दुर्घटनामा पनि व्यापक सुधार गर्ने निश्चित छ ।

विश्व स्वास्थ्य संगठनको अनुसार पैदल यात्रु हिँड्ने र साइकल चलाउने पूर्वाधार स्वस्थ्य राष्ट्रको एक पहिचान र अनिवार्य आवश्यकता हो ।

सडक सञ्जालको राम्रो पहुँच नभएको र आर्थिक रुपमा विपन्न परिवार बसोबास गर्ने क्षेत्रका मानिसहरुलाई साइकल एक यातायातको साधनसमेत हो । यसका अलवा हिँड्ने र साइक्लिङ गर्नुले मानिसहरुमा हुन सक्ने हृदयघात, स्ट्रोक, क्यान्सर (विशेष किसिमका), मधुमेह र मृत्युको जोखिम कम गर्नसमेत महत्वपूर्ण भूमिका निर्वाह गर्दछ ।

सुधारिएको व्यवस्थित यातायातको साधनहरु सुविधाजनक भएपनि स्वास्थ्यको दृष्टिले खासै लाभदायक हुँदैनन् । यता, साइकलको विषयमा हेर्ने हो यसको खरिदमा कम लगानी हुनेसँगै यो सबैको लागि सहज, सजिलो र उपयोगी समेत छ ।

साइकल टिकाउ, विशिष्ट हुनुको साथै यसको बहुउपयोगी गुणलाई देखेर नै मानिले यसलाई दुई शताब्दीदेखि प्रयोग गरिरहेका छन् । यो सरल, किफायती, भरपर्दाे र वातावरण सुहाउँदो पनि छ ।

साइकल दीगो यातायातको साधन, वातावरणीय हिसाबले पनि उपयोगी र यसको प्रयोगले मानिसको स्वास्थ्यमा पनि सकारात्मक प्रभाव पर्ने भएको हुँदा ३ जुनलाई विश्व साइकल दिवसको रुपमा घोषणा गरिएको र मनाउन थालिएको हो ।

दिवसले संयुक्त राष्ट्र संघका सदस्य राष्ट्रहरुको विकासमा बढावा दिन, शिक्षालाई सुदृढीकरण, बालबालिका र युवाहरुका लागि स्वास्थ्य शिक्षा, रोगलाई रोकथाम, सहिष्णुता र पारस्परिक समझदारी र सम्मान र सामाजिक समावेशीकरणको सुविधाको लागि साइकलको प्रयोगलाई जोड दिन प्रोत्साहन गर्छ । यतिमात्र नभई संघले विश्व साइकल दिवसलाई शान्तिको संस्कृतिसमेत भन्ने गरेको छ ।

साइकल नै किन ?

– साइकल सजिलो, सस्तो, भरपर्दो र वातावरण सुहाउँदो यातायातको साधन हो ।
– साइकल विकासको साधनसमेत हो । यसले यातायातको अलावा शिक्षा, स्वास्थ्य सेवा र खेलकुद क्षेत्रको विकास र पहुँचमा समेत सहयोग पुर्याउँछ ।

– साइकल र प्रयोगकर्ताबीचको तालमेलले रचनात्मकता र सामाजिक संलग्नतालाई बढावा दिन्छ । साथै प्रयोगकर्तालाई स्थानीय वातावरण, समाजसँग तत्काल सम्पर्क गराउँछ ।

– साइकल दीगो यातायातको साधनसमेत हो । यसले दीगो खपत र उत्पादनलाई बढावा दिन सकारात्मक सन्देश दिन्छ । साथै यसको प्रयोगले जलवायुमा सकारात्मक प्रभाव पर्न जान्छ ।

सन्दर्भ सामाग्री

सामाजीक सञ्जाल
फोटो म्यूजियम नेपाल

A government official riding a bicycle in the 1960s. (Photo: University of Hawaii, Manoa)

The rise and fall of the Kathmandu Valley’s cycling culture- Prashanta Khanal

Sourced from: The Record Nepal

In the last century, cycles have gone from a symbol of wealth and power to one of poverty, but that is slowly changing.

In the early decades of the 20th century, bicycles were out of reach for most commoners. Bicycles then symbolized wealth and prestige, and only the Ranas could afford them in Nepal. 

Tirtha Narayan Manandhar, in his book Kathmandu: Then and Now, recounts how the first bicycles were imported to Kathmandu from Britain via India: “When my father was young, around the year 1903, some Ranas and certain dignitaries imported a few bicycles from India and they rode them for leisure. General Soor Samsher was one among them.”

Almost around the same time, cars too arrived in Kathmandu. Until 1953, as no motorable road connected the Tarai to the Kathmandu Valley, cars had to be carried on the backs of men from Bhimphedi to Kathmandu crossing the Chandragiri hills. 

“In those days, my father and his generation used to call them sala-mwaa baggi [a buggy that doesn’t need horses to draw or pull],” writes Manandhar in his book. 

Cars too were reserved for a few super-elites: the royals and the Rana rulers. The bicycles then were for rich elites.

Before 1953, as there was no road connecting Kathmandu, motor vehicles had to be carried in by porters to Kathmandu. (Photo: Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya Collection, date unknown)

In 1925, Manandhar’s father, Asta Narayan Manandhar, opened Kathmandu’s first bicycle store, named Pancha Narayan Asta Narayan in Kamalacchi, importing six British-made Hercules bicycles from Calcutta. Each bicycle cost around Rs 100 then, more than the annual salary of an ordinary government official. Later around 1934, the shop started importing Raleigh bicycles. And because they were able to reduce the transportation cost by packing as many as 25 disassembled bicycles in two large boxes, the Raleigh bicycle cost Rs 90. 

The bicycles were transported by train from Calcutta to Amlekhjgunj via Raxaul, by lorry to Bhimphedi, and then by ropeway to Kathmandu. Before the construction of the ropeway in 1922, porters carried the bicycles from Bhimphedi to Kathmandu. 

Bicycles in the 60s: from an elite toy to a commoner’s means of transport

After joining a government office in 1962, engineer Bharat Sharma bought his first bicycle, a Hercules, for Rs 1,000, which was equivalent to three months of his salary. He commuted daily on his bicycle to his office and cycled religiously until the 2000s when he had to give it up because of his health. 

Like Sharma, Padam Bahadur Shrestha, who worked as a musician with Radio Nepal in the 1950s, used to cycle to work every day — fifteen kilometers one way from Bhaktapur to Singhadurbar. In the 1970s, Radhakrishna Joshi, who taught at Tribhuvan University in Kirtipur too used a bicycle to commute to work from Dillibazar. 

In the span of a few decades, bicycles had become the common man’s ride and a big part of Kathmandu’s streets. This was possible because, in the 1950s, factories started mass producing bicycles across India. Mass production meant prices came down and more people could afford them. By the 1960s, Indian bicycles adorned many homes of Kathmandu’s middle and lower-middle class. 

“In the 1980s, our shop alone used to order 250 to 300 India’s Hero bicycles a month,” said Prachanda Manandhar, who used to run the Pancha Narayan Asta Narayan shop, established by his grandfather. 

Besides several privately owned cycle shops in Kathmandu, the government-owned company Nepal Trading Limited too used to sell China-made bicycles. Several cycle rental shops and repair centers catered to the cycling demand. In the 1960s, cycle races were also organized in Tundikhel during the Ghodejatra (Pachahare) festival, along with horse races, which added to the bicycle’s popularity.

Date: 1969 Location: Kathmandu, Kathmandu Description: View up New Road from top of the entry archway.
A cycle race organized during Ghodejatra/Pachahare in Tundikhel/Tinikhya, circa 1960s. (Photo:Shreedhar Lal Manandhar Collection/Nepal Picture Library)

Campuses and government offices even built dedicated parking spaces for bicycles. In 1965, Gorkhapatra published a tender call from the government to build parking spaces for 400 bicycles and 100 to 120 motorcycles in Singhadurbar. In the mid-1970s, the Institute of Engineering too added a dedicated parking space for bicycles, which reflects the burgeoning cycling culture of the time. Unfortunately, that space has now been turned into parking for motorbikes.

This picture, published in Gorkhapatra on June 8, 1984, shows a large number of bicycles parked at the flooded premises of Nepal Bank Ltd (Photo: Gorkhapatra/National Archive, 1984)

For middle-class and working males, the bicycle soon became their symbol of pride. They would often take portrait photographs with their new bicycles.

Cousins Prachanda, Prakash, and Pradip Manandhar (from left to right) ride their bicycles to the outskirts of the city. The Manandhar family’s bicycle shop is Kathmandu’s first. (Photo: Sumitra Manandhar Gurung Collection/Nepal Picture Library, circa mid-70s)

Bicycles were still a luxury not everyone could afford in the mid-1970s. But Sumitra Manandhar Gurung and her siblings and cousins had grown up around them. Her family owned a bicycle store in Ason, Kathmandu. Here, her brothers and a cousin are out on a ride to Chobar.

Soon, the bicycle became a tool to resist political oppression. In 1975, Shree Krishna Nakarmi, a theatre artist and school principal, and his friend organized a cycle rally on Nhu Daya (the Newa New Year) with slogans written in Nepal Bhasa. They strategically planned the cycle rally to protest the suppression of their language and culture by the Panchayat regime, which had forced an “ek bhasha, ek bhesh, ek dharma, ek desh” (one language, one way of dress, one religion, one nation) nationalism onto all Nepalis. 

“Each tol felicitated the rally participants and put tikas on them, which later turned into an annual practice of celebrating Nhu Daya,” recalled Prachanda Manandhar, who supported the rally by lending bicycles to participants from his shop. “The annual Nhu Daya cycle rally continued for a few more years and was later replaced by a motorbike rally.” 

1975’s first Nhu Daya Bhintuna cycle rally organized against the suppression of Nepal Bhasa by the Panchayat regime. (1975) 

By the time Kathmandu stepped into the mid-70s, farmers from the city’s outskirts too started adopting bicycles to transport vegetables to the city’s markets. Earlier, Bhaktapur and Thimi farmers would walk all the way to Asan or Kalimati, carrying their produce in a kharpan (a carrying pole made out of bamboo). Bicycles eased their travel and saved time. Small vegetable retailers in the city too used bicycles to fetch vegetables from the wholesale Kalimati vegetable market.

However, the ratio of cycle users to the population was relatively low, compared to European cities with strong cycling cultures. Until the 1980s, the Valley’s settlements were densely confined within the historical urban areas of the three primary cities: Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. People could easily walk from one end of the city to another. Social and marital relationships between the three cities were rare. This confined spatial and social environment limited the need for longer trips between the cities and thus the necessity of a bicycle. Also, because many people didn’t have office jobs, they neither required bicycles nor could they afford them.

The decline of cycling culture: From common transport to a poor man’s vehicle

Until the 1990s, the cycle was still the common man’s preferred mode of transport in the Valley. But after the 1990s that changed. And today, cycling culture has declined significantly. Once associated with social status, cycling has now been reduced to a vehicle for a poor person’s mobility. How did this shift happen? What were the turning points? What were social, economic, and political factors for the decline in cycling culture?

The easy answer to these questions is that cycling culture declined with the rise of motorbikes and cars. 

The middle-class’s attraction towards cars and motorbikes started as early as the 1970s. In fact, even by the mid-60s, pictorial advertisements for cars and motorbikes had already started appearing in newspapers. And they continue to this day. A 1969 full-page car advert published in The Rising Nepal promoted a car as “a sense of style and prestige.”

A motorbike advert (left) published in Gorkhapatra in 1965 (Gorkhapatra/The National Archives) and a full-page car advert published in The Rising Nepal in 1969. (The Rising Nepal/The National Archives)

Various foreign development projects in the country planted dreams of owning a car and motorbike among middle-class Nepalis, which earlier existed only among the elites, high-level government officials, and rich businessmen. It was around this time, in the 1960s, that many foreign investments and development assistance projects entered Nepal. These projects, especially hydropower projects, started providing their staff, both foreign and local, with cars and motorbikes for their daily commutes and field visits. Oftentimes, ministers and politicians misused the cars funded by the project for their own personal commute, which was infamously called ‘Pajero culture’. Gradually, the government too adopted the practice of giving a car or a motorbike to its employees. 

“USAID insisted that its government advisors ride in jeeps driven by Nepali USAID employees,” said Doug Hall, who joined a USAID project in 1971 as a science advisor to the Ministry of Education. In 1968-69, Hall used to cycle daily from Handigaon, and later from Patan, to Durbar High School in Jamal, where he taught as a Peace Corps volunteer. 

“After joining the project, I bought a motorbike for work and only occasionally rode my bicycle for a short trip to the bazaar,” he recalled.

After the mid-70s and 80s, many rich and upper-middle-class Nepalis purchased private vehicles, largely motorbikes, as they were far cheaper than cars. Motorbikes became a trend. 

“When I joined campus in the late 1970s, students had already started romanticizing motorbikes,” said journalist and editor Kanak Mani Dixit.

Slowly after the 80s, cars and motorbikes, not bicycles, began to symbolize social prestige. People started to see bicycles as playthings for children. Among teenagers, new Chinese bicycles with straight handlebars were trendy and the Indian design, with a curved handlebar colloquially referred to as ‘budo cycle’, was considered unfashionable. The charm of a bicycle among adults gradually faded. Mass media too portrayed riding a car or a motorbike as something desirable for anyone seeking higher social status. Society began to view a bicycle as a poor man’s vehicle. 

Bharat Sharma, the engineer, shares an incident he experienced in the 1990s: 

“One day while cycling, a man from my neighborhood stopped me and asked me if I was an overseer. Immediately after a breath, he asked if I was an engineer. When I told him that I was an engineer, he brooded for a while and apologetically said that he could not imagine an engineer riding a bicycle.” 

In a society where owning cars or motorbikes prevailed as part of social prestige, an engineer cycling, instead of driving a car or motorbike, appeared out of the ordinary.

Sharma was an exception, as most who could afford it shifted to private motor vehicles. As bicycles were associated with postmen, peons, and security guards, the rich and middle-class gave up cycling to maintain their social distance from the working class. 

Rapid motorization after 1990: Beyond personal preference

After 1990, with the re-establishment of democracy, motorization in the country grew rapidly. Consequently, cycling culture and its status too declined. 

In 1990, only 28,462 private motor vehicles (cars and motorbikes) were registered in the Kathmandu Valley, which is about 50 vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants (assuming private vehicles registered in Bagmati zone mostly ran in the Kathmandu Valley). But in 2011, this number had reached about 350 vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

While the Valley’s population grew at the rate of about 4.3 percent, motor vehicles grew at the rate of 12-13 percent annually. The share of private vehicles increased significantly from 13.1 percent in 1991 to 30.2 percent in 2011, whereas cycling declined from 6.6 percent to 1.5 percent.

As a result, roads and streets started to clog with traffic. The city’s roads turned unsafe, especially for walking and cycling, becoming more and more perilous every year. 

“The city’s narrow streets that once were not only for people to walk and cycle but also for the gods to go around in a chariot were gradually overtaken by motor vehicles,” said Sharma. 

After 1990, the democratic governments wholeheartedly embraced modernist development agendas. Big infrastructure and ‘chillo sadak, chillo gadi’ (smooth roads, smooth cars) symbolized modernity, prosperity, and development. Wide roads and motor vehicles that people were deprived of during the Rana and Panchayat regimes became symbols of progress for the masses. For politicians and planners, cycling meant regression. For corrupt politicians and planners, large road infrastructure projects also meant opportunities for commission. Low-cost incremental changes such as walking and cycling carried no clout.

“As economic and political elites couldn’t understand the benefits of cycling, bicycles became passe,” said Dixit. 

After the end of the Maoist conflict in 2006 and the end of the monarchy, the political rhetoric of ‘sambriddhi ra bikas’ (prosperity and progress) dominated the national discourse, which only exacerbated the same modernist development visions of megacities, wide roads, flyovers, cars, and metros.

Cycling had failed to enter the realm of political ambition. 

Then, in 2011, then prime minister Baburam Bhattarai started a road widening campaign to woo Kathmandu’s rich, bourgeois class — the ones who were stuck in traffic jams. Road expansion further fueled the growth of private vehicles, specifically cars. 

“The main reasons for the continuous rise in registration of new vehicles are road expansion, population growth, and the increasing purchasing capacity of Nepalis,” Devi Ram Bhandari, then director of the Department of Transport Management, told Republica in 2013. 

Annual car registrations increased from 7-8 percent before the road expansion to 12-14 percent. Because of the increase in motor vehicles and their speed on newly paved roads, the streets only became more unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists. 

For decades, Nepal’s transportation policies have centered around building roads and highways. And always, civil engineers and regional planners who do not appear to understand urban transport have led transport plans. 

In between the 1960s and 1980s, many Nepali engineers and planners studied in India, Russia, Thailand, and the US, where they picked up modernist development approaches. India, too, post-independence, adopted large-scale infrastructure and roads as the model for “national development”, which eventually trickled into the psyche of Nepali politicians, engineers, and planners. 

In 1960, when then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru used the phrase ‘cycle age’, adding that bicycles had “invaded the villages” and become “a very popular means of transport all over India,” he did so with evident regret that India was still a long way from joining advanced industrial nations in the age of electronics, jet travel, and atomic energy.

“One doesn’t have to travel to the 1960s or 70s to understand how engineering students were schooled,” said urban planner Padma Sundar Joshi, who teaches at the Institute of Engineering. “In 2010, a civil engineering student came to me for a suggestion for his school project. I advised him to do a project on cycle lanes in the Kathmandu Valley. But his fellow teachers discouraged him saying that engineers should focus on flyovers and big infrastructures, not a petty cycle lane.” 

The Department of Roads, which was dominated by civil engineers and contract managers with no expertise in transport planning, was entirely focused on building motorable roads and highways. To this day, in its 70-year history, the department has not only failed to consider cycling in its plans but has proactively opposed cycle lanes proposed by other government agencies and by civil society.

In cycle-friendly cities around the world, it isn’t the central governments but the city governments that plan, fund, and build cycling infrastructures. But Nepal’s transport planning approach to this day is top-down. The federal government continues to force its development agenda on local units, often without the people’s participation. Despite federalism, city governments don’t have jurisdiction over roads or transport. The bureaucratic chief of the Department of Roads or the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority decides how the city’s roads and transport should be, not the elected mayor.

Decades of political instability have swayed the focus from the people’s everyday issues and weakened local agendas, such as cycling. 

“While public discourse was diverted to managing political instability, the Kathmandu Valley destroyed itself through haphazard urbanization and motorization,” said Dixit. 

Besides the top-down car-centric planning, another reason that caused rapid motorization after 1990 was because of economic liberalization and privatization policies that Nepal embraced, which was seeded in the mid-1980s with the Structural Adjustments Program. Vehicle imports were eased and dealerships were set up. Private commercial banks and financial institutions, including foreign ventures, grew more rapidly after the decade-long armed conflict. The government in turn abandoned public transport entirely to the market.

Before 1990, there were only five banks, but by 2010, there were over 308 banks and financial institutions in Nepal. All of them competed to provide easy financing schemes for private vehicles with low-interest rate loans, longer payback times, and little down payment. Many vehicle dealers also own or have equity in private banks, creating a nexus for easy financing. 

As individual incomes, foreign remittance, and land value increased — hyped by the nexus between banks and the unregulated real estate market — many Nepalis could now easily afford private vehicles. 

“Before 2000, it was unthinkable for a middle-class family to take a loan or sell their land to purchase a car or motorbike,” said Joshi, the urban planner. “But after 2000, as society gradually became more materialistic, taking out a loan to purchase a private vehicle became the norm among the middle class.” 

The expansion of the city, which began with the construction of the Ring Road in the mid-70s and accelerated after the 90s, too encouraged private vehicle usage. Before the Ring Road, settlements were largely confined to the historic old core. As the city expanded rapidly, so did motorization.

Hope for a cycling renaissance: Reclaiming the dignity of cycling

Since the last decade, with growing environmental awareness and health concerns, more and more people have adopted cycling, at least in the Valley. This interest in cycling mainly took off after the mid-2000s, as environmental concerns began to grow and organizations and activists started organizing cycle rallies. 

“The decade I took over the shop saw historically low bicycle sales,” said Tirek Manandhar, who took charge of his great grandfather’s business — Pancha Narayan Asta Narayan, now called PANC Bikes — in 2000 after graduating as a mechanical engineer. “But the cycling campaigns began to attract people towards bicycles.” 

But it was only after 2009, when a group of youths started the ‘Kathmandu Cycle City 2020’ campaign, that cycling started to be seen as more than just about the environment. Environmental campaigns and cycle rallies before 2009 had not called for safer cycling infrastructures and rights to the streets. In the following years, cycling campaigns began to intensify, pushing policymakers and planners for cycle-inclusive transport plans.

The death of renowned conservationist Prahlad Yonzon in October 2011 in a road accident while cycling home from his office garnered much media attention and stirred discourse about the city’s precarious cycling environment. 

In April 2012, around 400 cyclists conducted a cycle rally and submitted a petition to government agencies, demanding safer cycling infrastructure. Cycle activists even gifted then prime minister Baburam Bhattarai and architect of the road expansion with a bicycle.

In 2012, 400 cyclists rallied for safer cycling infrastructures (Republica, 2013)

Responding to relentless pressure from the cycling community, in 2014, the government built a nearly three-kilometer cycle lane along the Tinkune-Maitighar road. However, the lane is not cyclable because of its faulty design. 

In the last couple of years, the mayor of Lalitpur Metropolitan City has spearheaded a marked cycle lane in the city despite the opposition from the Department of Roads, which had previously blocked plans to build the Tinkune-Maitighar lane in 2000. This success owes itself to the work of a cycling advocacy organization called Nepal Cycle Society, and to all cycling activists.

Crises too have, surprisingly, encouraged the use of cycles in Nepal. Last year, with the world at standstill because of the Covid crisis, cities around the world, including Kathmandu, saw an increase in cycling. Bicycle sales skyrocketed. 

“In the 11 years that I have been in this business, I have never seen such demand for bikes,” Santosh Rai, managing director of the Himalayan Single Track cycling tour company, told The Kathmandu Post.

Similarly, during the 2015 Indian blockade, many people had opted to cycle because of petroleum shortages. 

“Bicycle shops were out of stock,” said Manandhar of PANC Bikes. But as the blockade ended and petroleum imports resumed, nationalist sentiments faded, and most returned to the comfort of their private vehicles. 

And while there are positive signs for Kathmandu’s cycling culture, the road to achieving cycling dignity in Kathmandu remains long and hard. 

“People have finally started to understand the benefits of cycling,” said Dixit, the journalist and editor. “The goal now is to convert this into a viable political agenda.” 


[Image: A government official riding a bicycle in the 1960s. (Photo: University of Hawaii, Manoa)]

This article is Part 1 of a series on cycling in Nepal. The next part will focus on women and cycling history. 

This series was produced under the Nepal Picture Library’s Kathmandu Valley Urban History Project Research Fellowship.

author bio photo

Prashanta Khanal  Prashanta Khanal works in urban transport, air quality management, climate change, and sustainable cities.


World Bicycle Day

World Bicycle Day 2021 “I Cycle Because…”

On the occasion of World Bicycle Day 2021, we asked some fellow cyclists why they cycle. We have compiled all the submitted videos and have published them. It was really fun to hear your stories of what you think is needed to make bicycles a true part of everyday life, why it’s fun, why you love it, what kinds of things and places you see on your rides, and what you believe is needed to make bicycles a true part of life. And if you are trying to find a reason to cycle then join us in our campaign “My way, Greenway” through our mobile application. Thank you all for your participation and Happy World Bicycle Day 2021! #CycleCityNetworkNepal #CCNN #cycling #gogreen #healthylife #saveenvironment #WorldBicycleDay #WorldBicycleDayCampaign #purposeofcycling

Hari Bansha / Madan Krishna dai calls for citizens to unite for a cycle city in Nepal !

हरिवंश र मदन कृष्ण जोडिले हाम्रा शहरहरुलाई हराभरा बनाउन र साइकल चलाउन मिल्ने शहर बनाउन आवहान गर्दै आज ! यस्तै सकारात्मक परिवर्तनका लागि हामी नेपाली एक हौँ !

At today’s cycle rally organized by citizens, Hari Bansha and Madan Krishna (MaHa) showing support for a city that is greener and cleaner. Nepal unites for a cycle lane in Kathmandu and other cities in Nepal.

Go Cycling Around The Valley

This time of the year, when the harsh chill of winter is gradually replaced by warmer weather, is just the right time to embrace outdoor events during the weekends. The outdoor activities will help you rejuvenate from weeklong work and also prevent creativity burnout. Exploring the beautiful mountainsides that offer a good supply of fresh air is certainly a good idea for a weekend gateway. And if you add cycling to it, it can prove to be a whole new experience altogether.

Diwash Pradhan, 27, prefers to cycle during his weekend gateways with friends. Though, he has been using his mountain bike for daily commutation since the last four years, he still loves to go around on his cycle for recreation.

“When we used to travel on motorbikes, we just used to rush to the destination, laze around there and then head back. But as we started cycling, the gateways have become more pleasurable as we can enjoy the whole journey,” he says.

Due to the nature of the landscape of Kathmandu, experiencing mountain biking in and around the capital is highly recommended. There are various places around the valley which are regarded as training spots for cyclists to increase their endurance while cycling, especially in regard to fitness.

Mudku, the hilly station situated at the northeast of Kathmandu valley, on the way to Kakani, is also one such spot preferred by cyclists to boost their stamina.
“When the weather is clear, you can see 30-40 cyclists riding in that area. Mudku is a popular spot for cyclists,” says Pradhan.

Accompanying Pradhan on his cycling journey is his friend, Shramdip Purkoti, who prefers more adventurous journeys on his mountain bike. Though he hates to ride the cycle during monsoon, he says that otherwise, he prefers cycle over any other mode of transportation.

Purkoti started cycling three years back but then, it was just out of curiosity. “Back then, I was not sold on the idea that you can cycle every day, but since I was an environment student then, I started cycling in an effort to reduce my carbon footprint,” he says.

Pradhan and Purkoti venture to Nagarjun, Chisapani, Chitlang among other mountainsides around Kathmandu valley.

However, they suggest that beginners should try cycling inside the valley to get used to the vehicle and build their stamina before opting for adventure and long gateways. The alleys and alternate roads in the valley is a boon for cyclists, as they can easily avoid main roads and have a safe ride.

“The Durbar square areas are also enjoyable for cycling, and there are many such shortcuts that can be taken only on cycles,” says Pradhan. Apart from narrow alleys and alternate roads, one can also take the river corridors, which are generally wide and less busy.

Cycling has also become a fitness lifestyle choice for many. Outdoor events with friends on cycles not only make a pleasurable journey but also help to keep tabs on your health. It is regarded as one of the most enjoyable fitness routine all around the world.

“Though we miss our gym routines and lag behind on exercises, our cycle rides help us stay fit to a large extent,” adds Purkoti.

Riding cycles around the valley also helps one avoid the busy traffic. But Pradhan and Purkoti advise cyclists to use back lights and reflectors and strictly obey the traffic rules to avoid accidents. According to them, cycles are generally safe rides unless the rider is ignorant about the safety measures.

Cycle rides also help to cut the budget as the no-emission vehicle requires very less maintenance as compared to other motor vehicles. Cycling can be a best friend for people who are looking for a two-in-one activity that includes fitness and recreation. And since cycling is also a great way to explore the capital city, it is time to check the gears and go cycling.

Cycle Mela: Kathmandu University 2014


Marking the World Environment Day 2014 with the slogan “Raise your voice, not the sea level”, we, youth, cycle enthusiasts of Kathmandu University are intending to promote cycle and cycling culture through a day event titled “Bicycle Mela:2014” on 5th June 2014. We aim to encourage youths through entertainment, awareness, talk program and media for the promotion of cycling culture and eco-friendly mode of transportation. With this event we expect youth to be aware about the use of cycle in their day to day lives.



Cycle Rally
Talk Program
Stunt Show
Photography Competition
Cycle Miniature Design Competition
Slow Cycle Race
Treasure Hunt
Cycle Polo
Snake Trial
Bicycle Maintenance Training


Grand Prizes: City Cycles
Event Prizes: T-shirts, Gift Hampers, Chocolates and many more…



Kathmandu Cycle City 2020 (KCC2020) is a campaign that started in Kathmandu University in 2009 with the primary goals to make cycle friendly University and to make Kathmandu a cycle friendly city by 2020 with various cycle infrastructures. So far KCC has done discussions programs, talk shows, rallies, lobbying at different government agencies, department and ministries for the required policies and cycling infrastructures in Kathmandu. Recently we had gifted a bicycle to the Prime Minister on the World Environment Day as to appeal for the needed attention on the issue. In 2012, an NGO named Cycle City Network Nepal was registered under which various campaigns like Kathmandu Cycle City, Banepa Cycle City, Dharan Cycle City, Pokhara Cycle City etc are being conducted simultaneously.

Talking about the cycling scenario of Kathmandu University we had installed cycle stands inside the KU premises last year. This year we aim to take the campaign to the next level by
awaring the faculties and students about the benefits of cycling, physically and economically. We have been promoting cycling in Kathmandu University since last two years by organizing cycle rally on World Environment Day from Kathmandu to Dhulikhel.

Marking World Environment Day 2014 celebrating with the slogan “Raise your voice, not the sea level”, this year we are planning this program to be conducted on 5th June, 2014 (Thursday) primarily focusing on youth and enthusiasts of Kathmandu University and secondarily cycle enthusiasts all around Kathmandu valley and Kavre. We aim to encourage clean and green environment with zero emission through the promotion of cycle.

Bicycle Handed Over to PM Bhattarai- Media Coverage

Shail Shrestha, president of ‘Kathmandu Cycle City 2020’, a youth network working for the promotion and advocacy of bicycle and bicycle friendly infrastructures, handed over a bicycle (Jomsom Bike) to the Prime Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai today on the occasion of Environment Day at a program by Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology held at Nepal Academy Hall, Kamaladi.

They bicycle was bought from the fund collected from participant cyclists of Mega Cycle Rally conducted on April 6, 2012 in association with Clean Energy Nepal, Nepal Unites, World Cyclist’s Foundation Nepal, Come On Youth Stand Up, Step for Miles, Rotaract Club and Resources Himalaya.

The gifted bicycle is a Jomsom Bike, made for Nepal, assembled in Nepal, by Chain Bikes, which the organizers hope the PM will use after his much popular Mustang Jeep.

The purpose was to request the PM and all the stakeholders concerned to work for the betterment and safety of roads and make bicycle friendly planning which includes dedicated cycle lanes in Kathmandu, consideration of tax in bicycle and related accessories, programs to encourage bicycle use and cycle safety and inclusion of cycle in National Transport Policy. Cycle being a sustainable means of transport fits well into World Environment Day 2012 theme, Green Economy: Does it include you?



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