Yangon’s mobility crisis: A governance problem

A mobility crisis has arisen in Yangon, Myanmar, as growth-induced congestion is slowing travel times for the city’s widely used buses, thereby incentivising car ownership and increasing traffic further. The key cause is poor governance, which manifests itself through fragmented planning, low public infrastructure investment, and a ban on motorcycles and bicycles.

Home to more than 5 million people and producing nearly a quarter of Myanmar’s gross domestic product, this metropolis is once again buzzing with activity as it reopens to the world after decades of military rule. But Yangon’s potential to serve as an engine of economic growth for the nation is being severely undermined by a mobility crisis. As the economy speeds up, the city slows down.

Journey times have skyrocketed in the city as the streets become ever more crowded. Some estimates suggest travel speeds at peak times have dropped from 38 km/h in 2007 to 10-15 km/h in 2015. This slowdown matters for several reasons. First, such high congestion places a significant drag on productivity by raising the cost of doing business and generating friction in the greater Yangon labour market. It is harder for workers to commute to the jobs they are qualified for. Second, the worst affected are the poorest. As a group, they spend the highest share of income on transport and the most time in traffic, which impedes poverty reduction efforts and adds to inequality. Third, air pollution has reached dangerous levels. The World Health Organization finds that Myanmar has some of the worst air pollution in the world, due in part to “inefficient modes of transport”.

The proximate causes: liberalisation and economic growth

Yangon’s mobility crisis is a positive indicator insofar as it reflects robust economic growth. Estimating the city’s growth rate is challenging due to a lack of economic data. However, by exploiting satellite images of night-time lights, which can be used as a rough proxy for economic activity, we can get an idea of the pace of growth. Figures 1 and 2 show images of Yangon at night in 2003 and 2013, respectively. Over this period, the level of luminosity nearly tripled, which we estimate translates into an impressive average annual growth rate in output of 8.5%. Growth appears to have been accelerating, given our estimate that the city grew at an average annual rate of 11.2% between 2008 and 2013.

Figure 1: Luminosity in Yangon Region, 2003


Figure 2: Luminosity in Yangon Region, 2013

Since 2011 this growth has been accompanied by a large expansion of personal automobile usage. It was virtually impossible to import automobiles prior to 2011 due to heavy restrictions imposed by the military. The relaxation of vehicle import restrictions, as part of a wider range of liberalisation reforms in recent years, has revealed extensive pent up vehicle demand and allowed a precipitous decline in car prices. Yangon’s burgeoning middle class has jumped at the opportunity to acquire newly imported vehicles and escape the deteriorating bus system. Official figures indicate that there was a 153% increase in registered vehicles in Yangon between 2011 and 2014 alone.

The congestion incentive spiral

The surge in automobile ownership has set in motion a “congestion incentive spiral” that has exacerbated traffic. Prior to liberalisation, buses were by far the dominant mode of transport. The bus system was run as a competitive cartel with a restricted number of private bus owners competing for passengers on similar routes. This incentivised overcrowding, reckless driving, and under-investment in bus fleet maintenance — all of which contributed to congestion and a poor passenger experience.

For those who can afford a car, abandoning the buses is rational. Cars are more comfortable and always quicker than buses. The ability to go directly from origin to destination without stops or transfers significantly reduces the overall journey time. There remains a dilemma: the more people abandon buses, the worse traffic becomes, and the greater the incentive to use private transport. It is an incentive spiral that can only be broken by dramatically increasing the costs of individual car use or by providing an attractive alternative.

Fragmented governance as a root cause

There is no ready alternative to buses and cars in Yangon due to a legacy of poor planning, low public investment, and the fact that motorcycles and bicycles are banned in the city. In fact, there has been no significant investment in public transport infrastructure since the colonial era when the city’s Circular Railway was built. The railway is running and affordable, but its slow speed and limited coverage mean it attracts only a small fraction of Yangon’s commuters.

The emergence of the dysfunctional private bus cartel was an organic response to the lack of alternatives, which in turn was a consequence of the systematic lack of public investment in transport infrastructure and services. This crisis of governance persists today despite the energetic efforts of the current Chief Minister of Yangon, who has driven an impressive reform of the bus system by breaking the cartel and introducing proper public oversight.

An improved bus system, however, will not be enough to break the congestion incentive spiral now that so many people have purchased cars. What is required is a comprehensive and financially viable transport plan developed and implemented by a public transport authority with a metropolitan remit. Currently, the delivery of city infrastructure and services is fragmented across three tiers of government and dozens of agencies and offices. This fragmentation of governance is the true underlying cause of Yangon’s mobility crisis.

A path forward: governance then infrastructure

It is important to frame the problem as a mobility crisis, not a traffic congestion crisis. People can move through cities in many ways, and all large cities have traffic congestion challenges. More prepared cities do not suffer from mobility crises because other transport options are available: bus rapid transit systems that are insulated from traffic; cycling infrastructure; rail networks; and pedestrian-friendly mixed-used developments that reduce the demand for vehicular travel.

Relatively modest public investment could help Yangon. Nonetheless, a bus rapid transit plan announced in 2014 unfortunately appears to have been shelved. The mostly flat topography of Yangon is conducive to cycling. Relaxing restrictions on the use of bicycles on key arteries and in the city centre, combined with modest investments in cycling infrastructure, could provide an affordable alternative mode of individualised transport in the city.

These initiatives require significant governance reforms to succeed. Yangon is projected to join the ranks of the world’s mega-cities (i.e. cities with 10 million or more inhabitants) by 2030. With this growth comes physical expansion, which alters commuting patterns and transport demand. Without a concerted and sustained intervention by a metropolitan-scale transport authority with a mandate to maximise urban mobility, Yangon’s transit woes will surely worsen and further undermine the city’s enormous potential to support Myanmar’s economic renaissance.

This blog is written by Dr Sean Fox (Political Economy of Development & Urban Geography) and originally hosted on the IGC blog.

Why cities are crucibles for sustainable development efforts (but so hard to get right)

Figure 1. Rural and urban population trends, 1950-2050.
Fox, S. & Goodfellow, T. (2016) Cities and Development, Second Edition. Routledge.
Sustainable Development Goal 11 outlines a global ambition to ‘make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. It is arguably one of the most important of the 17 recently agreed Goals, but we’re unlikely to reach it in most parts of the world by 2030.
The importance of Goal 11 stems from global demographic trends. As Figure 1 illustrates, over 50% of the world’s population already lives in towns and cities, and that percentage is set to rise to 66% by 2050. In fact, nearly all projected population growth between now and 2050 is expected to be absorbed in towns and cities, and the vast majority of this growth will happen in Africa and Asia (see Figure 2).

These trends mean that when it comes to eliminating poverty and hunger, improving health and education services, ensuring universal access to clean water and adequate sanitation, promoting economic growth with decent employment opportunities, and creating ‘responsible consumption and production patterns’ (and achieving many other goals) urban centres are on the front line by default.



Figure 2. Estimated and projected urban population increase by region, 1950/2000 & 2000/2050
Dr Sean Fox, Lecturer in Urban Geography and Global Development, University of Bristol
But cities are complex political arenas prone to the kinds of conflicts that can thwart ambitious visions for transformative development.

To appreciate just how difficult it can be to achieve seemingly obvious and desirable improvements in cities, it is useful to examine some practical challenges. Consider the goal of ensuring access to clean, affordable water for all (Goal 6, Target 1; Goal 11 Target 1). In cities across Africa and Asia, a significant share of households live in informal settlements that lack piped water infrastructure. As a result, most residents rely on water provided by private vendors who sell water by the bucketful from tanker trunks or standpipes that they control. Perversely, the poor often end up paying a significant premium for their water on the open market, while more fortunate residents who are connected to municipal infrastructure pay far less. This perpetuates inequality, both between socioeconomic groups and between men and women (as women generally bear the burden of water collection in such contexts), and it also means that there are groups of people with fairly strong incentives to resist infrastructure investments: the water vendors. And these vendors sometimes take aggressive steps to protect their captive markets and thwart infrastructure development.

A similar dynamic is often at play when it comes to upgrading informal settlements more generally. In many cities poorer households do not have formal (i.e. legally binding) tenure security but rather pay some form of rent to a third party in return for protection against eviction. This form of ‘land racketeering’ is often undertaken by the very politicians and bureaucrats who should be seeking to improve citizens’ lives.
In other words, urban underdevelopment creates profitable opportunities for some, which in turn creates interest groups opposed to change.

But even rich cities, with well-developed physical infrastructure and formal tenure arrangements, often suffer from political gridlock that impedes progress. Consider the city of Bristol in the UK. Bristol was recently voted the best place to live in the UK, yet the city also suffers from dangerous levels of air pollution, which is linked directly to debilitating levels of traffic congestion in the city.

While Bristol’s transport woes have long been recognized, it has proven fiendishly difficult to tackle the underlying problem: a lack of metropolitan-scale transport planning and investment integrated with land use plans. This is due to a legacy of ‘horizontal fragmentation’ and ‘vertical dependence’.
Figure 3. Map of Greater Bristol with council boundaries

Horizontal fragmentation refers to the fact that Greater Bristol—i.e. the functional area of the city as defined by daily commuter behaviour—is home to over 1 million people spread across four different local government areas, each with its own budget, council, transport planning processes, etc. As Figure 3 clearly shows, the local government boundaries (in red) carve up this functional urban region into four artificial parts). Indeed, in some places, such as north Bristol, local government boundaries run straight through clearly contiguous built-up areas (represented as grey). The challenge of coordinating planning and investment across four councils is compounded by the fact that in the past any major infrastructure investment needed to be approved and funded by the UK central government (i.e. the problem of vertical dependence). This support is not necessarily forthcoming. An ambitious plan tabled around the turn of the millennium to integrate city transport with a tram network, and make the whole system more inclusive for low income residents, was rejected by central government. This is a prime example of how political challenges in wealthy countries impede development progress.

In sum, there are significant political obstacles to progress in poor cities and rich cities alike. But this doesn’t mean that progress is impossible. In fact, recognising and understanding these political complexities is helpful in identifying effective courses of action, whether as citizens, activists or policymakers. I doubt we will fulfil the aspirations of SDG 11 in a convincing manner by 2030, but I am hopeful that progress can be made if we approach the challenge with our eyes wide open to the political dynamics that could undermine our efforts.

Blog by Dr Sean Fox, School of Geographical Sciences. Originally hosted by the Policy Bristol blog.

The views expressed here are personal views and do not reflect the views of the funders of our research.


Saving Species

Last night the Cabot Institute hosted a recording of the BBC Radio 4 programme Saving Species from the Great Hall here at the University of Bristol. The panel comprised the philosopher and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency Professor Jacequeline McGlade, Professor Aubery Manning of the University of Edinburgh and the Cabot Institute’s own Dr. Jon Bridle, who is a Senior Lecturer in Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences. As Cabot’s Director I was delighted to welcome such an eminent panel to the University and to run an event with the very dynamic Julian Hector from the BBC Natural History Unit which is based here in Bristol. The topic of the show was “Saving species: sustaining life” which the panel debated in response to audience questions. The idea was to explore the extent to which an increasing human population can be made compatible with efforts to preserve the natural world.

The thing that amazed me is how effortless every involved in the production, both the BBC crew and the major events people here at the University, made it look. I’ve rarely been to such a large event that has been pulled together so quickly and yet which seemed so serene. I wandered along a hour before the event to help with last minute panics and found myself very surplus to requirements. In the end I really could just stroll around meeting and greeting which was great. The other pleasing thing was that even on a wet and cold Monday evening in November the city of Bristol still turned out an audience of over 700 to watch the recording. I don’t know many other cities where this would happen and where the audience questions would be so perceptive and challenging.

I guess the crux of the programme was the extent to which one adopts an essentially neoMalthusian stance and argues that there are finite limits to population growth that can only met through population control, or whether one argues that it is not only how many people there are but how those people actually live that matters. The paradox seems to be that the things that lead populations to naturally restrict their growth (female education and emancipation, access to better healthcare and contraception, growing economic opportunities etc) have also historically led to significant increases in resource consumption: the development of aspirational middle classes in the developed world has significantly increased the total amount of the Earth’s resources that we use. How we construct a future development path for the planet that doesn’t lead to the resource depletion associated with the current western world economic model is a tough question to answer. There were some quite radically different views on this expressed by the panel, but instead of spoiling the plot I’ll let you listen to the broadcast to find out.

For me the event was excellent, and hopefully the audience enjoyed things too. If you’d like to listen to the programme it will be broadcast on Radio 4 at 8.00pm on Friday 23rd December.

Professor Paul Bates is Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol and undertakes research into flood risk and uncertainty.