Yangon new bus system gets moving

The residents of Myanmar’s main commercial city are slowly adjusting to the new transport system, introduced nearly a month ago by the region’s chief minister.

“It was chaos to begin with, but now we’re getting used to it,” office worker Mi Mi Chan told Asia Focus as she waited to catch her bus to work downtown. “But it still takes me more than an hour longer to travel to and from my home,” she lamented.

There are still teething problems, Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein admitted as he caught a ride on the second day of the Yangon Bus Service — quickly becoming known as YBS for the abbreviation emblazoned on all the vehicles in service.

“We will review the system and identify the difficulties for commuters and all other participants [bus operators, drivers and conductors] in YBS,” he told reporters who travelled with him. “After the review we will discuss the situation with all stakeholders and find the best solutions.” This would take around three months he said.

Phyo Min Thein heads the new Yangon administration, appointed by the National League for Democracy government of Aung San Suu Kyi, which took office nearly a year ago after a landslide victory in the national elections in November 2015.

The introduction of the new bus service was a radical step by the city administration to tackle the increasing traffic problems on its congested roads. The number of cars has skyrocketed since the previous government of Gen Thein Sein liberalised restrictive import licences for motor vehicles six years ago.

“Yangon’s traffic jams were not only a headache for local residents, but were proving to be a major obstacle to attracting foreign investors,” said Thet Aung Min Latt of Diamond Intelligence, a business consulting company. “The traffic is one of their biggest complaints.”

A few years ago, foreign businesspeople were able to hold as many meetings a day as they wanted, but now they spend as much as four hours a day in traffic between meetings.

For local residents, just getting to work was the biggest headache. According to recent census figures, 7 million residents travel to school or work each day in Yangon. Most of them use buses or taxis. “It was obvious that Yangon needed a new transport system,” Ye Min Oo, a member of the NLD’s economic policy committee and a Yangon resident, told Asia Focus.

In addition to promoting the YBS, the city administration plans to rationalise the use of all forms of transport. The bus service was the priority as it carries more than 5 million passengers a day. The city’s private bus services were notoriously overcrowded, as owners, drivers and conductors were paid by commission, and crammed in as many passengers as possible, often overcharging them too.

The drivers were also reckless, speeding and dangerously cutting across traffic, and sometimes racing down the wrong side of the road to overtake stopped traffic in order to maximise their daily profits. . This resulted in many accidents and increased traffic congestion.

The new bus system is meant to end bad practices. Drivers and conductors are paid a monthly salary, removing the incentive to overload the buses. Passengers pay a flat fare of 200 kyats (5.20 baht) per journey — around double the old fare.

The aim in the next few months is to introduce an electronic swipe-card system. “That [kind of] system is not new, it’s international and we are late to use it,” Phyo Min Thein said.

The government is in discussions with banks to design a card that can be used at mini-marts, restaurants and shopping malls as well as on buses, trains and a planned water taxi system, he added. It hopes to introduce the system by the end of the financial year in March. Then the bus service will be running much more smoothly, he insisted.

But this does not placate Ko Nyunt Wei, who spoke with Asia Focus as he waited to catch a bus after his university class had finished. Huge crowds are still congregating at bus stops in the morning and the evening, he said: “They are either late for work in the morning, and are never sure if and when they’ll get home at night.”

To satisfy these complaints, the government has extended the bus operating time until 10pm.

But on Monday, Jan 16, when the service made its debut, there was absolute chaos, as hundreds of commuters gathered at their regular stops with no idea which bus to catch: the route numbers had been changed overnight. The previous 300 routes had been reduced to 70. The Yangon government did produce a guide to the various routes, which were posted at every stop. Within days it also produced a colourful leaflet showing all the routes, handed out to everyone around the bus stops by volunteers — even to motorists passing by.

Still, the early days of the YBS were a disaster. Commuters were not only confused about the routes, most had to catch two or three different buses to get to their destinations and so the journey cost them much more — as much as 400-600 kyats compared with 100 kyats previously.

To make matters worse, many people were late for work and had their salaries docked. Workers lost more than 2 million kyats in wages as a result of being late on the first day alone, according to Thet Aung Min Latt.

Things have improved since then. “Despite the teething problems, public support is incredible,” said Ye Min Oo of the NLD. The problem, he feels, was that the scheme was rushed into service too quickly. “They should have spent more time familiarising commuters with the changes and waited until there were more new buses available.”

Transport authorities admit insufficient buses on hand represented a big problem. When the YBS made its official debut, it did so with 2,000 buses — half the number available under the old system.

The plan now is to introduce more new buses fuelled by liquefied natural gas (LNG), which will also reduce the cost to the city and help reduce emissions. There are plans to import at least 1,000 buses by the end of February from South Korea, Japan and China, according to the region’s minister for finance and planning, Myint Thaung. This will improve the service and substantially reduce queues and waiting times, he said.

“Urban planning is one of the key concerns the new democratic government needs to urgently address,” the historian and author Thant Myint Oo told Asia Focus. He is also the key figure behind the Yangon Heritage Foundation that is trying to preserve the city’s historic buildings.

Apart from the building of the new capital Nay Pyi Daw, more than a decade ago, Myanmar’s military rulers paid little attention to city planning and regulation. Their primary concern was control, so keeping tabs on the population — especially those who might be activists — was their main motivation. Strict residential registration and restrictions were the extent of their urban planning. This also meant restricting the import of vehicles, and in Yangon banning motorcycles altogether.

So for the new democratic government of Aung San Suu Kyi, urban planning and infrastructure development are a daunting task — especially in a country where transport routes,, except between major cities, are virtually non-existent.

“Infrastructure is one of the key priorities of this government,” Finance Minister Kyaw Win told Asia Focus.
But where to start remains a conundrum. For the Yangon administration, dealing with congestion on the roads is a major priority, and it has begun to tackle the problem. For Dr Zaw Myint Maung, the chief minister of Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city, providing public transport is not as critical. “We have to deal with the burgeoning use of motorcycles on our city roads,” he told Asia Focus.

Substandard city roads are problematic in Mandalay. Many are unpaved and deteriorate drastically during the rainy season, so repairs and paving are priorities.

Ultimately what the country needs, according to Thet Aung Min Latt, is a national master plan for transport. So far the government has not announced one, though it is working on one with international institutions including the Asia Development Bank and the World Bank.

Source: Bangkok Post

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