Road classification in Bhutan


Bhutan is a small, landlocked country, situated between China (Tibet) and India. It is located in the eastern Himalayas and is mostly mountainous and heavily forested. It borders Tibet (China’s Xizang Autonomous Region) to the north and northwest and the Indian state of Sikkim to the west, West Bengal to the southwest, Assam to the south and southeast, and Arunachal Pradesh to the east. The Indian state of Sikkim separates Bhutan from Nepal, while West Bengal separates Bhutan from Bangladesh (these notes are based on the description in the Bhutan Statistical Yearbook of Bhutan 2012, ref. 871).

The country has a population of some 742,737 and an area of 38,394 The population is still mainly rural, although more people are moving to urban areas. As recently as 2007, 21% of the population lived more than four hours away from the nearest all-season road.; and according to one World Bank report (ref. 879), not so long ago several rural areas of Bhutan were located 2-3 days’ walking distance from the nearest all-season road.

Road transport

In 2012 there were a total of 9491.5 km of roads (from surfaced expressways to unsurfaced power tiller tracks and forest roads); the figure quoted for 2007 was 3318.6 km. Another source (ref. 879) says that in 2007 there were  4,153  km (around 62 percent paved) of  roads and  more than 4,300km of mule tracks.

The first appearance in the country of a motor vehicle was in 1962. The Statistical Yearbook 2012 says that by 2011 the number of registered vehicles in the country had risen to 5285. The country is busy making provision for “modern” road transport solutions – for example the 2012 Road Bill (ref. 869) makes provision for cycle tracks, whilst the structure plan for Thimpu (the capital) shows a concept plan for pedestrianisation of the central area (see ref. 880).


bhutan 01

(The figure is taken from a graphic in the Statistical Yearbook of Bhutan 2012 (ref. 871)

 The Statistical Yearbook of Bhutan 2012 says that the country is governed through three levels of administration –

  • The Central Government (consisting 10 ministries), Departments, Autonomous bodies, Institutions and Corporations.
  • 20 Dzongkhag  (districts),  each  headed  by  a dzongkhag administrator (Dzongdag).
  • The Gewog (Block) Administrations consists of 205 Gewogs

There are also Thromdes, urban municipalities subordinate to the Dzongkhag administration. By 2007, nine of the Dzongkhags had one or more sub-districts (Dungkhags) which consist of one or more Gewogs, with 16 Dungkhags in total.

Road classification

bhutan 02

The concise 2009 document on road classification in Bhutan (ref. 846) introduced a new classification of roads for the country. This supercedes the classification given in the Road Act of 2004. The new classification was codified in the Road Bill of 2012 (ref. 869).  As described by the 2009 guidelines, the new road classification has five categories (see table).


The Road Bill of 2012 describes the powers and function of the Department of Roads. These include implementing and monitoring “compliance  of  road  standards  including  technical  standards relating  to  the  construction,  maintenance,  repair  and  improvement  of  roads  which  are administered and managed by a local government including all access roads”.

 The Fifth Development Plan (1981 to 1986) estimated that Bhutan also needed some 2,500 kilometres (1,600 mi) of mule tracks to connect the nation’s 4,500 settlements (link). A more recent World Bank report (ref. 879, 2007) said that Bhutan had more than 4,300km of mule tracks. A separate document (ref. 886 / 2003) says that “most footpaths are abandoned by a larger population today as network of motor roads reaches even the remotest corner. Still some paths continue to serve as important communication line between different societies and valleys”.

Paths and tracks are important to one sector of the tourism industry, an industry which the government wants to see grow.

 Classifying and mapping Bhutan’s nationwide networks of trails and tracks should be a worthwhile exercise, both in terms of studying rural access and also in terms of supporting tourism. Bhutan already has appropriate tools for this – for example a  computerised road information system and GIS systems. In fact a number of trek route maps can already be found elsewhere on the Internet, such as those by the Tourism Council of Bhutan (e.g. here) and others ( here and here). The Center for Bhutan Studies (publishers of ref. 886) might also be interested in such an exercise.


846 – Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Royal Government of Bhutan “Guidelines on road classification system and delineation of construction and maintenance responsibilities” Thimpu, Bhutan, 2009

871 – National Statistics Bureau, Royal Government of Bhutan, “Statistical Yearbook of Bhutan 2012”.

869 – The Bhutan Road Bill of 2012 (download link)

879 – World Bank, report 38312-BT, “Project appraisal document on a proposed grant for a second rural access project”; 2007

880 – ADB / Australian Aid, “Bhutan Transport 2040 Strategic Vision”, ADB 2013

886 – Penjore, Dorji “On the Mule Track to Dagare”, Center for Bhutan Studies; Thimphu, Bhutan, 2003


About roadnotes

Robert Bartlett is an international consultant with over 30 years of professional experience as a highway and traffic engineer with leading companies and organisations in several countries, including Germany, China (Hong Kong), Qatar and the UK. Specialised in urban studies, transport and the use of GIS, research has included new ideas on subjects such as the study of social justice using GIS, the dimensions of vehicles, and comparative geometrics (highways and transport).
This entry was posted in classification, roads and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Road classification in Bhutan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s