Bumper to bumper: Better public transport options to alleviate congestion in the capital

Although it may be the least densely populated country in the world, Mongolia’s capital has serious traffic problems. Migration from the provinces to the urban centre and a lack of infrastructure development have left Ulaanbaatar with downtown gridlock throughout the day. It is a city built for 70,000 cars; it now has 150,000. Over the past 20 years, the number of vehicles in the city has increased 4.4 times and the growth rate is still about 25% a year. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the average speed of cars in city centre during rush hour is 5-8 km an hour. It is getting to the point now where the congestion is more than an inconvenience. Business is being affected. Costs are increasing. And the health of individuals living in the city is starting to suffer. Expectations are that the situation could worsen as the population and the rate of car ownership continue to increase.

Solutions, both short term and long term, are being devised. The congestion can certainly be alleviated through better traffic planning. Crossroads, in particular, are being improved, and this will help as junctions tend to be the most problematic bottlenecks. But the consensus in the development community is that a mass transit solution is desperately needed. A modern transportation system would reduce the dependence on cars for those driving downtown. But that is where agreement ends, and two schools of thought have been quietly battling it out: one calling for a bus rapid transit (BRT) system and the other pushing a metro, including a subway portion. Both are making headway, and it is possible that the capital may end up with both.

Underground

The idea of an Ulaanbaatar subway has long been treated as an absurdity (a fake website is in fact dedicated to a non-existent line), and any talk of an underground has been met with scepticism. The city is seen as too small to warrant a full-fledged metro, and many are concerned about the cost and complications of building an urban rail line. Almaty’s metro, which took 23 years to finish, is regarded as a cautionary tale. But in recent years, a subway in Ulaanbaatar has received serious support and very quickly, in the first few months of 2013, plans seem to have become a reality. Early in the year, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) presented a pre-feasibility study to the city government, and by June 2013 it initiated the construction of the first line.

The line will cut through the city along the main thoroughfare, running from Amgalan in the east to Tolgoit in the west via downtown and Peace Avenue, a route totalling 17.7 km in length. Stations will be 800-1000 metres apart, and the trip is expected to take under 30 minutes. Early estimates put the cost of a ride at about MNT600 ($0.36). The line will run both above and below ground, and is forecast to cut traffic in the city by 16%. The subway is also expected to reduce air pollution. Funding will total $1.5bn, with 49% coming from JICA. Construction is scheduled to finish in 2020.

Plan B 

Another option is to build a BRT – in which dedicated lanes allow buses to travel free of traffic – and this is what the ADB has been promoting. The bank is providing $215.9m toward a $272.9m project that will improve the transportation situation in Ulaanbaatar in a number of ways. It will upgrade 7.7 km of road and expand a bridge for the BRT system, and it will also finance the upgrading of 14 km of electric trolleybus infrastructure. In phase II, three additional bus terminals will be built and another 11.1 km of trolleybus infrastructure will be improved. A phase III will further expand the BRT system. The programme also has a major IT component, such as e-ticketing, as well as an emphasis on building relevant expertise, management skills and capacity. In total, 64.5 km of BRT lines will be developed. The first lines will run north and south. Next, the network will be extended east and west. Finally, it will be pushed out farther east.

The ADB believes that the BRT is the right way to go.

It points to successes throughout Asia, such as Guangzhou, where this sort of system has been implemented and has had a positive impact on traffic flow.

Most of all, the bank says that it is cheaper. According to Raushan Mamatkulov, senior transport specialist at ADB’s Mongolia Resident Mission, a kilometre of rail can cost $80m, while a kilometre of BRT runs $4m-5m. A BRT solution would allow the city to improve its traffic situation without going as heavily into debt, a major plus as the country bumps up against its debt ceiling and as its foreign exchange reserves dwindle. The other plus for the BRT is that it is much less disruptive than the rail option. Building a subway will require ongoing works for years in some of the busiest and most important parts of the city, potentially making traffic worse for a time. Even light rail requires a degree of inconvenience for residents and visitors. A BRT can be achieved without the same level of disruption.

However, BRT systems are not without their issues. They often take up lanes that could otherwise be used by cars. They are not particularly fast or comfortable. And they take a high level of planning and cooperation to function properly. Sometimes, they do not work at all. The BRT in Delhi has been deemed a failure, while the BRT in Jakarta is also struggling. To be sure, the failures are usually the result of design flaws. The systems have not been put in the right places or they have not been properly linked to existing transport networks. But BRTs are also built upon a premise that may not actually in the end hold: that people will give up their cars to ride a bus. The BRT does not offer the high speeds and relative comfort of a subway, so the argument for switching is not all that strong.

Traffic Management

As the large projects are being developed, a range of other efforts are moving ahead to deal with Ulaanbaatar’s traffic. In addition to the reconstruction of crossroads and the building of new roads, these include the banning cars with licence plates ending in certain numbers each weekday – effectively reducing traffic 20% every work day; an increase in the number of traffic police; requiring civil servants to use public transportation; and the implementation of public transportation-only lanes. As of August 2011 civil servants have been required to start the day at 8.00am, so they are on the road slightly earlier than the general public, while the government is also working to get people from parking on the streets, so that fewer lanes are taken up by parked cars. The measures, even those considered inconvenient, have proven popular. In an informal poll conducted by Mobicom in late 2013, more than 70% of those responding said they agreed with the traffic restrictions.

A combined Effort

A combination or all the above might be what relieves gridlock in Ulaanbaatar. The subway appears to be a certainty, and a BRT might be built along with it. They might work well together and complement each other, each pulling riders from their respective catchment areas and delivering them to the combined network. Efforts by the government to alter behaviour will further reduce pressure and might push people toward taking public transportation.

The big question is cost. Proponents of sizable investment in buses and subways argue that the additional capacity will be needed in a few years time, and what might look like overkill now will be a necessity then.

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The Report: Mongolia 2014

Transport chapter from The Report: Mongolia 2014

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