Cabot Institute blog

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Wednesday, 17 May 2017

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.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Environments without Borders

The effects of climate change vary hugely across political borders, and have wide-ranging impacts on different communities and environments. Climate policy responses must recognise this global interconnectedness, and integrate international cooperation with effective local action. This is why global treaties such as the Paris Agreement are so important in the fight against climate change, but individual nations must also do their bit to achieve the objectives set out in the agreement. In Environments without Borders (part of Research Without Borders), a panel debate hosted by Bristol Doctoral College and the Cabot Institute on Wednesday 10th May, we will discuss some of these issues, using examples from our research on particular challenges facing our global ocean and water environments.

Iceberg photo taken on a research trip to Antarctica, by Eric Mackie

Rising Sea Levels

Many climate change impacts require a policy response that balances mitigation with adaptation. Mitigation, by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions to achieve a zero-carbon economy, can drastically reduce some of the worst effects of climate change. However, we are already committed to certain climate change impacts, and these will require humanity to adapt. Sea level rise is a prime example. Global sea level has already risen 20cm since 1900, and the rate of sea level rise is increasing. We know this trend will continue throughout the 21st century and beyond, but the question is, how much will sea level rise, and how fast? Projections of global sea level rise by 2100 range from a further 30cm, assuming drastic mitigation action, to 1m or more in “business-as-usual” scenarios with increasing carbon emissions. Cutting carbon emissions can hugely reduce the number of people at risk of displacement by sea level rise globally, from up to 760 million in a scenario with 4°C of warming, down to 130 million if warming is limited to 2°C in line with the Paris Agreement. Mitigation is therefore essential if we want to avoid the worst effects, but adaptation is also necessary to ensure humanity is resilient to sea level rise that is already locked in.

A coastal scene taken on a research trip in the South Pacific, by Alice Venn


Disappearing Islands

The South Pacific is home to some of the world’s states most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Sea-level rise threatens coastal erosion, the widespread displacement of people and the inundation of the lowest-lying islands in Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, while oceanic warming and acidification threaten the livelihoods of many remote coastal communities. More intense tropical cyclones, Cyclone Pam in 2015 and Winston in 2016, have recently resulted in tragic losses of life and damages in excess of $449 million and $470 million respectively. The devastation facing Small Island Developing States in the region, when juxtaposed with their negligible contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions which is estimated at just 0.03%, serves to illustrate the need for the international community to urgently step up efforts to provide support. Enhanced financial assistance for adaptation is essential, however this must be accompanied by strengthened legal protection for communities, readily accessible compensation for loss and damage, capacity building and a strengthened role for civil society organisations giving voice to community needs and traditional knowledge in policy-making processes.

The Lion Fish is an example of an aggressive invasive fish in the Caribbean Sea, and has had an impact over native species, ecosystems and local economies.

Invasive Aliens

Biodiversity in water environments can be adversely affected by invasive fish species, which originate from different sources, including marine ballast, fisheries improvements, and aquaculture. Invasive fish species can cause environmental concerns such as changes in the nutrients cycle, transmission of diseases, competence for resources, displacement and extinction of native species. Success in the establishment of invasive species depends on propagule size, physiology of the proper species, and current biotic and abiotic factors in the invaded system. Invasive species represent a global issue, and when combined with climate change their effects can be sharpened. Some limiting abiotic factors are expected to change as the climate changes, favouring new invasions and the spread of established invasive species to new ranges. Milder winters in northern latitude lakes, worldwide flooding and salinisation of coastal freshwater systems will provide suitable thermal conditions, new pathways for escape and dispersion, and the increase in dominance by invasive fish species adapted to brackish water systems. Deficient planning for future responses in water management can also result in favourable conditions for dispersion of undesirable aquatic organisms. For example, this is the case with the Nile tilapia, an invasive species in tropical ecosystems of southern Mexico and Tanzania, where flooding causes its dispersion but alternative management policies could improve the situation. More information see the Invasive Species Specialists Group.

Sustainable Resource Management

Against the backdrop of climate change, which will exacerbate the impact of human activities on natural resources, today’s environmental challenges require above all a strong and consistent commitment by national governments to better implement ambitious environmental policies that they previously adopted. However, traditional decision making approaches often are not equipped to ensure that precious resources are protected, if not enhanced. Sustainable management of natural resources is without doubt complex and creates conflicts between users that compete for access. For instance, there still seems to be too great a divide between the environmental and the business sector and these policy domains are as yet not fully integrated. Nonetheless, there are good examples of governments (and sub-national governments) that were successful in getting all key policy sectors on board when implementing difficult and ambitious environmental policies. For instance, the Scottish Government’s approach in implementing the Water Framework Directive demonstrates that with a strong political commitment, coupled with very proactive efforts in balancing the decision making towards more inclusive and cooperative policy processes, and with an intense and systematic use of evidence to back up policy proposals, it is possible to build trust between sectors and to act upon the barriers to implementation.

It’s clear that each of these challenges requires imminent action, but what are the right approaches, actors, and requirements to make meaningful progress? Whether you’re a member of the public, a policy maker, or someone working in the field, we invite you to join us at the Environments without Borders event on Wednesday 10 May for a lively and provocative debate about the challenges we face and how, collectively, we can spur action for change.

Blog authors (and panel members): Laura De Vito is a postgraduate researcher in the School of Geographical Sciences. Carlos Gracida Juarez is a postgraduate researcher in the School of Biological Sciences. Alice Venn is a postgraduate researcher in the School of Social Sciences and Law. Erik Mackie is a postgraduate researcher in the School of Geographical Sciences, working together with the British Antarctic Survey, and kept up a blog during his recent fieldwork in Antarctica. Blog originally posted on the Policy Bristol Blog.