Thu, Jul 25, 2019 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Car boom brings gridlock misery to ‘happy’ Bhutan

AFP, THIMPHU, Bhutan

Traffic is backed up on a road in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, on April 19.

Photo: AFP

Famed for valuing Gross National Happiness over economic growth, Bhutan is a poster child for sustainable development. However, booming car sales might impact efforts to preserve its rare status as a carbon negative country — and an increase in traffic is testing the good humor of its citizens.

Bhutan has seen a more than five-fold increase in cars, buses and trucks on its roads in the past two decades, Bhutanese Road Safety and Transport Authority Director-General Pemba Wangchuk said, with the capital, Thimphu, hardest hit by the influx of vehicles.

Phuntsho Wangdi, a media consultant, said the congestion and lack of parking make driving stressful in the tiny Himalayan kingdom where there are no traffic lights.

“I wish there were fewer cars. It wasn’t like this before,” he said of life in Thimphu, which is home to half the vehicles in the nation.

The Bhutanese economy has grown 7.5 percent each year in the past decade, according to the World Bank.

Officials estimate there is now one car for every seven people in Bhutan, which has a total population of 750,000.

However, the nation’s narrow country lanes and outdated city roads can barely cope.

A lack of infrastructure, along with poor driving etiquette — some simply leave their cars parked in the middle of the road — compounds the problem.

“Every year the number of cars and the number of people are increasing, and the roads have remained the same, and it’s a problem for us,” taxi driver Lhendup said.

Morning rush hour journeys that once took five minutes now take more than half an hour. This might seem a small figure compared with the hours of gridlock faced by commuters in Manila, Jakarta and Bangkok, but it is a step-change for the Bhutanese who say the situation has rapidly deteriorated in the past year.

“Its chaotic. I eat my breakfast in the car now to save time,” said Kuenzang Choden, who drops her four-year-old daughter at school every day before heading to work.

The traffic jams are a sign of the wider economic changes the nation is facing.

Bhutan is renowned for prioritizing Gross National Happiness over GDP, and has captured tourists’ imagination as a tranquil, idyllic land, but there are signs of malcontent.

According to last year’s World Bank report, the youth unemployment rate is high, as is rural-to-urban migration, which puts a strain on the resources of towns and cities.

The proliferation of the Internet and smartphones are fueling modern desires, while dealers are filling their showrooms with new brands and models from Japan and South Korea to lure buyers.

And while taxes have increased and restrictions put on vehicle loans, car buyers are not discouraged.

Local financial institutions gave 3.2 billion ngultrum (US$46 million) in car loans in 2015, but by last year the amount had reached 6.7 billion ngultrum.

The figures please local businesspeople, but worry environmentalists keen to ensure Bhutan remains one of the world’s greenest countries.

“As a nation that prides itself on being a carbon-negative country, the increase in the number of fossil fuel vehicles speaks poorly of our leadership position in environmental conservation,” environmental activist Yeshey Dorji said.

Bhutan and Suriname, both with lush forests, are the only two countries to claim they are carbon negative, absorbing more carbon pollution than they give off.

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