Yangon traffic conundrum
A dive into the problems of traffic congestion in Myanmar’s busiest city
Beep, beep…! The cars on the roads of Yangon howl at a high pitch together, composing a symphony of off-key noise. The traffic is loud enough to be an alarm clock at as early as 6 a.m. The sound of car horns in Myanmar’s busiest city is everywhere. According to a research published by Khin Khin Tun and Szpytko Janusz from the Technological University at Kyaukse and the University of Science and Technology at Krakow in Poland, the transportation of Myanmar in general faces a lot of problems. In fact, only around two-thirds of the roads in Myanmar are paved with gravel, the remaining roads are hardly reachable by saloon cars. They can only be accessed by jeeps and ox carts. Yangon’s roads are generally reasonably paved which is good news to many who visit or reside in the most important commercial centre of Myanmar. However, having more automobiles on the roads also raises another problem – traffic jams.
Personal ownership of cars is growing. And buses compete for space. In addition, taxis provide an option for locals and tourists alike. The number of tourists visiting Yangon rose almost four times from 214,312 in 2007 to 1,080,144 in 2016, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism says. More people then become personal drivers for tourists or simply taxi drivers just to meet the market. According to Yangon’s minister for electricity, industry and transportation, there are more than 80,000 licensed and unlicensed taxis in the city. To a lot of foreign visitors, it is very affordable to travel by taxi. A five-kilometre drive costs about 2,400 kyat on Grab, a Singapore-based taxi mobile app – which is equivalent to around $1.76. Nevertheless, it may cost you more than 30 minutes as well. “Traffic jams happen everywhere,” says Zin Phyo Aung, a driver at Motherland Inn 2, a hostel in Yangon. He has been working at the same hostel for four years since he was 18. Two years after that, he started driving for the clients, mainly for pick-ups and drop-offs at
Zin Phyo Aung notes a quirk of driving in Myanmar. As normally around the globe, if drivers sit on the right, they drive on the left side of the road. However, in Myanmar everything happens on the right side. Rumour has it that it is because General Ne Win had a vision in 1970 that the country should change their direction by changing what side of the road people travel. Apart from the rising number of tourists, the city itself has also been expanding in terms of population growth. The number of people living in Yangon has surged from 3,553,000 in 2000 to 7,355,075 in 2014, according to the Census Department. The increase is more than a double in less than one and a half decades. This in turn adds more burden to the narrow roads of Yangon, causing more congestion than ever. Also, since the 1990s, most of the residents in Yangon have been relying on mass transportation like rail and bus. According to Tun and Janusz, approximately 2.5 million commuters travel in Yangon by bus per day. When you walk in the streets of Yangon, not only will you find the roads overcrowded with vehicles; inside a bus, sometimes people are packed like sardines, too. Residents in Yangon opt for the bus because it is convenient and economical.
Zin Phyo Aung used to enjoy driving a lot, but not anymore. “Because there’re traffic jams all the time! But this is my job, I do it for my family.” By working as a driver at this hostel, he earns less than $150 a month. Some drivers are even able to enhance their language skills by doing this job. “I love driving tourists and showing them around!” says Tin Oo, a local taxi driver, with articulate English. “If you want to speak good English in Myanmar, you need to go to private schools. I was not rich enough to go there, but I got to learn English from all these tourists.” According to Zin Phyo Aung, a lot of wealthy people own cars in Yangon, but they don’t necessarily know how to drive - some don’t even have a driver’s license.
The fact that those people are driving like they are the only people on the roads also increases the congestion. “Even when they get caught by the traffic police, they can just give the police money and they won’t get into trouble,” says Zin Phyo Aung.
He recalls an experience in which he was driving on the road and he was following all the traffic rules as usual. He stopped when he saw a red light. Yet, another car simply cut through as if it hadn’t stopped just when the light started to change. It crashed into Zin Phyo Aung’s car. “Another example of how people don’t know how to drive. They just cross whenever they want.” It turns out that Yangon is not the only city that suffers from bad traffic and absurd driving in Asia. There are videos on YouTube showing the traffic situation that might have gone viral. For example, a two-minute clip called “Rush Hour Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam” posted by the user cambridge has received more than 2.3 million views. Even more wildly, “Insane Chinese traffic jam” by Sploid has gained more than 7.2 million views.
Looking through those videos, there is seemingly an order amidst all the candid crossings and crazy congestion. You may call it a cultural thing, but perhaps it is also an actual issue to be tackled as soon as possible in all these Asian cities.