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Strangled by traffic in Yangon

An influx of cars and a lack of ideas have choked the city streets of Myanmar's booming former capital.

Last updated: 12 Apr 2014 09:28
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The number of vehicles in Yangon has nearly doubled since 2007 [Reuters]

Yangon, Myanmar - Three years ago, tens of thousands of vehicles flooded into Myanmar's largest city after international economic sanctions on the country were eased.

Now, Yangon's asphalt arteries are gridlocked. What was once a 15-minute commute from the downtown area to Yangon International Airport - just 16 kilometres away - can now take as long as 90 minutes during peak traffic. In 2007, there were about 180,000 vehicles on the city's streets, but that number has now nearly doubled, according to the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC). 

On the five main roads running east to west in downtown Yangon, pedestrians often move faster than motor vehicles. A city-wide ban on bicycles and motorbikes is forcing many to walk through congested roads - weaving between cars in makeshift parking spaces that are replacing Yangon's once wide and plentiful sidewalks.

As a result, the region saw 506 traffic-related fatalities in nearly 3,000 vehicle collisions last year, police officials told local media organisation Mizzima. This was a 6.5 percent increase in fatalities since 2012, which saw 475 road deaths from around 2,100 collisions.

A grim prognosis 

With the city's population of five million expected to continue growing and little being done to develop road infrastructure, experts warn that traffic accidents will likely become even more frequent.

Foreign investment drives Myanmar growth

"Vehicle growth and use is changing very rapidly and, with this congestion, pollution and road safety are becoming worse very rapidly," said James Leather, the Asian Development Bank's principal transport specialist. "Action must be taken to support sustainable urban transport at the earliest opportunity."

Without a sustainable plan, Leather said, Yangon may begin to take an unhealthy piecemeal approach to transportation infrastructure that prioritises vehicles over pedestrians - which would only worsen the situation. 

"Some parts of Asia are now trying to reverse decades of investment into roads for private vehicles, and instead invest in public transport and public spaces," he said. "Yangon should leapfrog these lost decades and strive for a transport system that serves the people, not the car."

Since economic sanctions were lifted, Myanmar has become one of the fastest-growing countries in southeast Asia, with the Asian Development Bank predicting growth in the country's economy by 7.8 percent in each of the next two years.

Rapid development

With Yangon now home to more than half of the country's total workforce, the city has become home to countless new development and infrastructure projects.

"Given the [limited] availability of space and location for developments, it is possible that nobody has paid any attention to the traffic issues," said Richard Emerson, the Myanmar country manager for international realty firm Savills. "There seems to be an understanding that it is an issue, and those involved are willing to wait on it for the near future."

Emerson said that, while modernising the cityscape may not immediately affect development projects, authorities will at some point have to consider imposing stricter regulations, such as requiring that new projects have parking spaces allotted.

In April 2013, the YCDC and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) unveiled a plan to deal with the traffic problem. "A Strategic Urban Development Plan of Greater Yangon" advises the construction of more efficient public transportation options, upgrading traffic navigation systems and decentralising the heavily populated downtown business district.

The report also noted that Yangon suffered from an "extremely high" rate of traffic accidents, with pedestrians especially at risk.

According to a YCDC transportation official, who asked not to be named because they were not authorised to speak to the media, the city's ability to develop the necessary infrastructure has been limited by budgetary restraints as well as a lack of interconnectivity between municipal departments. "We have tried to implement change, but we do not yet have the technology to do so, while the budget is another problem," the official said.

More people, more cars

There has been no indication when or if the plan will be implemented. Meanwhile, Yangon's population continues to grow by 2.6 percent a year. The city's population is expected to nearly double to 10 million by 2030.

At the same time, more and more vehicles clog the roads. According to the Myanma Port Authority, more than 230,000 vehicles entered the country's ports between 2011 and the end of 2013, while other government data suggest that 66 percent of the country's vehicles are driven in Yangon.

"Now is the time to say something about offsetting any future growth [in vehicle numbers]," said Megan Quirk, an urban planning fellow at the Yangon Heritage Trust. "There are only limited ways to get in and out of the city and the city is put under a lot of pressure."

Quirk said one of the major problems that has arisen in recent years was the conversion of many of the city's pavements into parking spaces. "I personally find it heartbreaking," she said. "The overall space in Yangon has been given up to cars and not pedestrians - and I think that's regrettable."

In addition to the high number of cars on the road, Quirk said the problem had been worsened by Yangon's roughly 30,000 taxis. "That's more than double [the number of taxis] in New York."

Follow Philip Heijmans on Twitter: @HeijmansPhilip

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Al Jazeera
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