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What Opening Up an Isolationist Nation to the Global Economy Does to Traffic

Three years ago, traffic may have cost Burmese 24-year-old Kyaw Kyaw Win his job.

He migrated to Yangon, the commercial capital of the country now known as Myanmar, in search of worktwo years after the start of crucial economic development reforms that opened the once-hermit nation to international investment.

The country of more than 51 million hosts the continent’s fastest-growing economy. Proof of progress is especially evident in Yangon, where the skyline changes by the week.

Kyaw Kyaw Win found a job at a security-systems company in the city’s antique downtown centre. To get there from his home, he walked 15 minutes to catch a standing-room-only bus and then spent a boring hour in commuteunless it rained. Then, traffic got terrible, he said.

“If you’re late so often, you get kicked out of work,” he added.

Three months after he was hired, his boss gave him the boot.

Traffic is more than annoying in Yangon. It means missing interviews, infuriating cab rides to the airport, and even, for one international organisation, a complete restructuring of the workday to accommodate commutes.

“It’s already quite bad, but it’s going to get worse.”

And it can constrain where we go and what we do,according to International Growth Centre (IGC) Myanmar country economist Tim Dobermann.

“If it’s very congested, then it becomes less and less feasible for someone to seek employment opportunities downtown, so they’ll be confined to their local area,” he said. “That’s what we’re seeing in Yangon.”

Years in the making

The steep spike in vehicles driving around Myanmar—more than twice the amount in 2015 than in 2012, according to the Asian Development Bank—has its roots in car import policy, which used to be heavily restrictive but has since eased.

“The past couple of years—largely related to the opening-up and development as people have gotten a bit richer—you’ve seen a big increase in imported vehicles,” Dobermann said.

“The wave happening now is the general development aspiration. As you become more wealthy, you want to own a car.”

Registered vehicles in Yangon have doubled over the past three years from around 300,000, according to an official with the city’s municipal planning body, Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC).

“It’s already quite bad, but it’s going to get worse,” Dobermann said.

Four years ago, Burmese poet Ko Ko Thett wrote that the urban heart of Myanmar had grown to look like Manila or Bangkok—cities synonymous with traffic.

One way the previous government sought to fight congestion was to rise above it. The administration spent years—and millions of dollars—building vehicle flyovers, despite experts contesting these overpasses transfer clots to a different spot.

“You’re just moving the traffic jam to another place, because it doesn’t depend on infrastructure. [It] depends on the car numbers,” said Jean-Marc Brule, leader of Franco-Myanmar NGO Green Lotus.

Planning experts didn’t recommend building these sky-high shortcuts,but construction proceeded anyway,with some suggesting corruption as a motivation.

It may be that, as Ko Ko Thett wrote in 2012, “Just as they were in the old days, Burmese officials remain prepossessed with the appearance of development rather than actual development.”

Changing of the guard

Three years later,the country’s landmark elections in November saw the National League for Democracy—led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi—sweep parliaments at national and local levels.

The new guard has started to scrutinise and in some cases, kill, developments initiated by the previous government, ultimately refusing to build two flyovers that would have cost nearly $27 million USD, according to state media.

“This [new] government also realised [flyovers] were not a solution for the long-term,” said YCDC director of urban planning Toe Aung. “They are trying to improve public transportation.”

The Japan International Corporation Agency (JICA) helped draft plans to support them—but some say YCDC was left baffled in their wake.

Meanwhile, traffic volumes have increased faster than infrastructure and other solutions have improved, according to JICA chief representative Keiichiro Nakazawa.

High expectations for mass transit

The city has taken steps forward, however:a rudimentary bus rapid transit (BRT)system has started chugging along Yangon’s crowded streets, and its historic circular railway—carting thousands of people downtown every day—now boasts Japanese train cars.

There are further moves that government—and the people who elected it—can make to combat problems. Brule, who is also a Paris region MP, suggests the administration should stop building flyovers, direct investment into public transport infrastructure, and reserve space for that public transit.

But the city’s complex bus system, which has historically supported the biggest share of commuters and whose orientation toward profit hampered the previous administration’s transport plans,presents a major challenge among others,according to U Toe Aung.

“What we need is to change some of our regulations,” he said. “[The new government] is more active. They’re going to rush all the development.”

JICA said Japanese experts have already started working with the new administration and that its plans for Yangon would be revisited very soon.

Meanwhile, Toe Aung envisions a single institution empowered to oversee the appendages of Yangon’s transport network, including its circular railway.

“Just as they were in the old days, Burmese officials remain prepossessed with the appearance of development rather than actual development.”

Though the circle line’s 45.9-kilometre loop takes three hours, it feels much preferable to sitting in traffic downtown. A breeze from outside—the train’s doors never close—and old-school fans in wire caging keeps the cars cool on this humid day at the beginning of Myanmar’s rainy season. A monk clad in saffron and orange snoozes across the aisle from Kyaw Kyaw Win as our picturesque tourist jaunt around the city concludes.

While somewhere car horns are blaring as cabbies inch round roundabouts, it is quiet now as the 24-year-old reminisces about the stress of his daily commute three years ago—the worry that traffic would make him late to work, and what his boss would say when he arrived.

 

Source: Mother Board

 

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