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Than Htwe lives in Hlaing Tharyar, a sprawling township 20 km west of central Rangoon, but his job is downtown. Every morning he wakes up in the early hours, quickly downs a cup of tea and rushes to the bus stop at 6:30 just so he can get to his workplace by 9 o’clock.
He meets his fellow commuters – men and women, young and old – already sweating in the packed bus and gearing themselves up physically and mentally for the grueling daily journey.
“It used to take only an hour and a half each way to get to and from work. Now I’m having to spend about six hours every day,” Than Htwe said. “I can only get home at 10 at night. There’s no time to rest properly, I just spend my time on the bus.”
Kay Thi Tun, a sales clerk in a clothes store in downtown, spends at least four hours each day on the bus from her home in the North Dagon outskirts. “If I don’t get to the store before it opens, money is docked from my salary,” she said.
Than Htwe and Kay Thi Tun are among the millions of commuters who find themselves spending hours on Rangoon’s old and overburdened public transport system every day, a routine that takes its toll on the health, well-being and income of the city’s residents.
Without an efficient mass transport system like those in other cities in the region such as Singapore, many Rangoon commuters have to rely on old Japanese and Chinese buses that are notorious for overcrowding, rude conductors, and for women, sexual harassment.
And the situation is only getting worse.
LIBERALISING CAR IMPORTS
When Burma’s military-backed civilian government took power in March 2011, one of its first reform measures was to liberalise the import of automobiles, a sector that had been monopolised by a handful of businessmen with close links to the ruling establishment. The move caused car prices, which for years were exceptionally high, to plummet. Car showrooms popped up on almost every corner and new vehicles flooded the streets.
Four years later, Rangoon, the country’s commercial capital, now rivals neighbouring capitals such as Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila in the dubious honour of having some of the worst traffic jams in Southeast Asia, while lacking a mass rapid transport system.
The government has been playing catch-up ever since, enlisting the assistance of foreign donors to build bridges and flyovers, and to improve traffic management systems.
Experts, however, say a holistic approach is needed – and urgently – to solve Rangoon’s ever-worsening traffic problem.
“In order to mitigate the traffic situation, [authorities] need to do a number of things. What is needed is a combination of hard and soft measures,” said Sanjo Akihito, a senior representative of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) office in Rangoon, which has worked with authorities to develop a master plan to overhaul the city’s transport system.
These measures could include building new roads and mass rapid transport systems, as well as ensuring that existing laws and regulations are respected, Akihito said. Traffic signals should also be part of an integrated system to better manage the traffic flow, which is not the case at the moment.
“Subway could be one of the components, but that is not the only solution. It should be combined with other solutions, including other mass rapid transport systems, as well as looking at things like (preventing) illegal parking,” he said.
SIX TIMES MORE TAXIS THAN NEW YORK
The situation is urgent as Rangoon has more than doubled the number of vehicles on its roads in the past four years, according to Kyaw Soe, a Rangoon Region minister for forestry and energy and a spokesman for the Rangoon Regional government.
By October 2015, there were more than 500,000 vehicles in Rangoon , compared to 214,000 in August 2011, according to Rangoon Region government figures.
There are 349 bus lines currently serving around 7 million people in Rangoon Region, and each bus carries between 4,500 to 4,900 passengers a day, figures from Mahtatha (the control committee for private bus lines) show.
The Mahtatha also estimates there are now 100,000 taxis in Rangoon , representing a fifth of all cars on its roads. In comparison, New York City, home to 8 million people and a global financial centre, has fewer than 14,000 licensed taxis.
“The lifting of import restrictions was done so that middle class families could also afford cars, the whole country can afford cars now. But Rangoon is the place where the largest number of cars have been imported so we are experiencing traffic problems,” Kyaw Soe told a news conference on the congestion issue on 9 December.
Mayangone Township Deputy Traffic Police Officer Win Naing told the same news conference that drivers’ lack of respect for traffic rules exacerbates congestion, adding that more road space needs to be created. “If the road already has all the cars it can take, there’s just no way we can solve this with only human resources. You need engineering solutions,” he said.
Long hours spent commuting on overcrowded buses can be detrimental to the health and well-being of city residents, according to Dr. Aung Soe Win, a medical consultant to private companies in Rangoon. Passengers can suffer from stress, disruptions to eating patterns, insufficient air circulation, carbon monoxide gases and dirty surroundings, he said.
“Some women feel worried about possible sexual harassment on public buses, and people have to spend their precious time amid traffic congestion,” he added.
Figures from the Thai capital Bangkok offer an indication of the health costs of traffic congestion. According to a US Environmental Information Administration report from 2001, airborne particle matter was estimated to have caused 3,300 premature deaths and almost 17,000 hospital admissions in Bangkok at a total health care cost of up to US $6.3 billion.
Ko Aung, a bus driver from Line 39, said the strain of long, congested journeys has made drivers feel exhausted and irritable.
“Traffic congestion has made us ill-tempered and we then break traffic rules. We feel more tired at the end of each working day compared with the situation five years ago. So we go to bars for a drink afterwards. This lifestyle has negative impacts on your health,” he said.
Zaw Min, a taxi driver, said the effects of traffic congestion go beyond health complaints and stress, as for taxis it has also meant a fall in income.
“We cannot ask more taxi fees from the potential passengers because of the traffic congestion. We now have to take about two hours to reach destination for a route that would take only 20 minutes some years ago,” he said.
A LACK OF SOLUTIONS
A major challenge in dealing with traffic congestion is a lack of government funds to find traffic and infrastructure solutions, said Kyaw Soe, the Rangoon Region minister.
He said four fly-over bridges have been constructed so far and three more are underway in Rangoon . “The congestion has eased because of these fly-over bridges but has not been totally solved,” he said, adding that new projects such as bypasses may be implemented in the future.
When authorities in Rangoon attempted to start a boat ferry project along the Hlaing River to divert traffic in the western part of the city, the scheme fell through as few people used the boats.
Than Htay, head of the Department of Engineering at Rangoon City Development Committee, said an offer has been made to companies for a project to supervise a traffic light system that could improve flows.
However, experts say Rangoon should look at how other cities, especially those in Southeast Asia, have tried to solve this problem. There, solutions range from underground and overground trains to motorcycle taxis, bus-only lanes, congestion charges in downtown areas, and park-and-ride systems.
Bangkok, which struggled with traffic problems in the 1990s, launched its skytrain system in 1999 and a metro in 2004. It also allowed for licensed motorcycle taxis, a solution Rangoon cannot yet implement as motorcycles are banned.
In Jakarta, the government implemented controls on motor vehicle ownership, increasing the tax of vehicles and fuel, while also improving the train system and designating special bus lanes.
A BETTER PUBLIC TRANSPORT SYSTEM
Other solutions that JICA has proposed include operating a bus rapid transit system (BRT), installing cameras at traffic points and upgrading the local railway system. A BRT is a system to speed up buses by giving them a dedicated lane. A number of bus stops have been built for the BRT system which is expected to run beginning this year.
“You have to get people out of private cars and into different transport modes: buses, bicycle, walking, subway, light rail,” said Akihito, the JICA representative. “That’s what Rangoon really needs to be focusing on because you cannot just keep building roads and squeezing cars in.”
Myat Nyana Soe, a Rangoon Region MP for the National League for Democracy which will form a government next month after winning the 8 November general election, said improving the city’s public transport system should be a priority.
“Even though Rangoon has a circular railway for example, few people rely on it because it is not efficient,” he said, referring to the decades-old, slow-moving railway that rings Rangoon. He said authorities should consider developing a skytrain system like that of Bangkok.
POOR CITY PLANNING
Yet the city’s approach still seems to be focused on the construction of flyovers. Currently, they are being constructed at four major intersections, leading to severe bottlenecks in and out of the city.
A police lieutenant colonel from Rangoon Traffic Police Force, who declined to be named, told Myanmar Now that flyovers would not resolve underlying problems and merely offered the public an impression that something is being done. “Overpasses are appearing in Rangoon at random, instead of projects focused on reducing traffic in one particular area,” he said.
Myat Ko Ko, an official with Rangoon Region’s Civil Engineering Department, said many residential apartments constructed during the junta era lacked parking areas, a planning error that has contributed to congestion by increasing the number of cars parked on the streets.
“All downtown areas in Rangoon need multi-level parking garages, although the six major downtown areas have no more empty plots for building construction,” he said.