Yangon at a standstill: Traffic congestion is choking Burma’s former capital

“In 2012, it used to take 30 minutes to go from the airport to China Town [in the city center], now it takes one hour, sometimes one hour and a half,” says Tin Hla, a taxi driver working in Yangon, Burma’s former capital. As he stands next to its car trying to grab the attention of passersby, he complains about recent developments. “Business is not going well, the traffic is just too much and we are always waiting. It was better before.”

Taxi drivers are among the worst-hit by a surge in traffic that is clogging the city, but nearly everyone is feeling the pinch: from commuters to transportation businesses, there is no escape from long queues. It was reported last week that it’s now impossible to take a driving test in the city because the traffic is so bad.

Burma’s economic reforms have been a boon for many and local residents in Yangon tend to agree that the situation has improved over the past few years. The increase in traffic jams, however, has turned out to be a significant downside of development. According to a paper published by the Yangon City Development Committee, by August 2014 the number of vehicles roaming the city had grown to 600,000 units, twice as many as in 2013.

The motorization of Yangon means that during the day – and especially at rush hours, when workers and students hit the roads – honking cars mingle with loaded buses and vans to form endless lines of vehicles vying for space.

The committee’s report highlights that “the current rapid urbanization and motorization put more and more pressure on the existing transport infrastructure in Yangon City and its surrounding areas.” The authors conclude that “the deteriorating urban transport situation has become a serious concern socially, politically and environmentally.”

The difficulties created by the lack of modern infrastructures are not lost on Yangon’s residents. “Traffic has increased over the course of the past three years because there are too many cars and the roads are too narrow,” a young shop owner told Asian Correspondent, claiming that he currently needs 45 minutes to go to work whereas not long ago it would take him roughly half of that time. Mr. Toe, a tourist guide, laments that “there are more accidents and people are not respecting traffic lights”.

Making things worse, Burma (Myanmar) has what could be euphemistically called a ‘special’ way of driving: people drive on the right, but most cars – around 90 percent – are right-hand drive, meaning that more often than not drivers have little chance to see clearly what is happening up ahead.

This anomaly dates back to the 1970s, when General Ne Win abruptly ordered the country to switch to driving on the right. Explanations vary, but the most widely cited is that the general, following a suggestion by an astrologer, made up his mind that the best way to cope with a changing political environment was to move at least something to the right. Traffic seemed an ideal choice… to him at least.

For decades, as international sanctions and the country’s self-imposed isolation impaired imports from Europe and the United States, locals were left with little choice but to buy vehicles from Japan and Thailand, where cars drive on the left. Even the recent economic overhaul does not seem to have had much of an impact, as buyers have flocked to get second-hand cars from Japan.

Authorities have yet to tackle this peculiar issue, but they are beginning to upgrade the city’s infrastructure. Last year, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) held a seminar to present the results of the “Yangon Urban Transport Master Plan of the Project for Comprehensive Urban Transport Plan of the Greater Yangon (YUTRA)” which had been carried out over the course of the previous two years by JICA together with Myanmar’s Ministry of Rail Transportation.

According to surveys by the YUTRA, the Yangon metropolitan area population is set to increase from the current 5.7 million to 9.7 million by 2035, with the percentage of households owning automobiles expanding from 12 percent to 32 percent and transportation demand almost doubling. Against this backdrop, the YUTRA suggested a plan divided in three phases: a long term one (2015 to 2025), a medium term one (2018 to 2015) and a short term one, spanning from now to 2018.

JICA wrote that the latter should include the establishment of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system and an urban railway, the introduction of a traffic management system and the creation of an urban authority to oversee transport projects.

In spite of the growing attention to the problem, it is not going to be easy for authorities to meet the citizens’ needs. In January, the Myanmar Times reported that according to researchers from the JICA, by 2035 vehicle use in Yangon may rise 22-fold. Which means, they say, that even if the Yangon Urban Transport Master Plan is carried out, “average traffic speeds would still drop from 30kph (18mph) to 20-25kph (12-15 mph).” If it is not, the consequences could be even more severe.

Source: Asian Correspondent

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