Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Cycling Yangon’s gridlock apocalypse

with 8 comments


The author enjoys/endures a bike ride in The Golden Land of Gridlock. (photo by Aung Htay Hlaing)

I wrote the following long essay/rant one morning last week, immediately following a 13-mile bicycle commute during which I was nearly knocked off five or six times by very bad drivers. This is not an unusual occurrence while cycling in Yangon. I think my frustration is fairly evident.

ONE of the great advantages of cycling in Yangon is the fact that you’re not delayed by the increasingly problematic traffic and congestion.

But cycling also makes you more vulnerable to the root causes of that congestion: not only the growing number of cars on the road, but also the astoundingly rude, ego-centric driving habits of many of the city’s residents.

The general philosophy among many drivers in Yangon seems to be that it’s okay to do whatever is necessary to shave three seconds off your own driving time, even if that means putting lives in danger, delaying everyone else, and contributing to the traffic chaos for 500 metres in every direction.

The city’s traffic police are all but useless in solving these problems: A few seem to be on the ball, but most operate under the impression that standing on the corner and wailing away on their whistles will somehow magically dissolve the gridlock. In reality, all this does is create noise pollution and make the cops look lazy.

Many city planners around the globe have discovered that bicycle riding not only allows individuals to beat congestion, but can also be a means of reducing the congestion itself – if concerted efforts are made to urge more people to get out of their cars and rely on pedal power.

In short, if you encourage cycling, more people will cycle; and if more people cycle, the roads will be less congested.

Smart Growth America, a national coalition of organisations dedicated to improving living standards in US cities, writes on its website that “designing streets only for automobiles reduces opportunities for safe travel choices that can ease traffic congestion: walking, bicycling and taking public transportation.”

One common method of getting people out if their cars is integrating dedicated bike lanes into urban planning.

A study of 90 of the 100 biggest cities in the US by researchers Ralph Buehler and John Pucher, published in July 2011, found that “cities with a greater supply of bike paths and lanes have significantly higher bike commute rates”. Other studies have found that the presence of bike lanes reduces traffic congestion and actually provides an economic boost to business districts through which bike lanes pass.

Unfortunately, the Yangon Traffic Police and Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) are not among the enlightened in this regard. They have always taken a backward approach to cycling in Yangon, and continue to do so.

Too much congestion? Why, let’s ban bicycles and force more people to rely on motorised transport in precisely those areas where the problem is at its worst.

That’s exactly what the Yangon Traffic Police did on July 5, 2003, when they announced that certain “busy roads” would be closed to bicycles, namely Pyay Road, Kaba Aye Pagoda Road, U Wisara Road, University Avenue and Kandawgyi Park Loop Road.

The downtown area would be a logical place to encourage people to get out of their cars, but instead the police banned bikes from a big chunk of the grid: from Bogyoke Aung San on the north (inclusive) to Merchant Street on the south, and from Phone Gyi on the west to Bo Aung Kyaw Street on the east. (Oddly, the downtown restrictions are in effect from 5am to 11pm, while the “uptown” roads are closed 24 hours a day.)

With traffic congestion growing worse in Yangon, has this attitude changed? Not one bit. One YCDC spokesperson told The Myanmar Times earlier this month that there was no special plan to accommodate cyclists in Yangon because “Yangon is not a bicycle city like Mandalay”.

Let’s apply this mind-blowing logic to another sector:

Patient: Doctor, what plan do you have for operating on my cancerous tumor?

Doctor: I have no plan to operate on your cancerous tumor because you already have a cancerous tumor!

Patient: Whaaaaaaah?!?!?!?!?

Another YCDC official, Department of Engineering (Roads and Bridges) deputy director U Myo Min, said there was no plan to include cyclists in the traffic plans “for at least the next three years”.

“We are improving the standard of roads in the city but it is not sure for bicycles. We are not sure about including special lanes for bicycles,” he said.

One gets the distinct impression, upon hearing this supremely wishy-washy response, that bicycles are nowhere close to becoming part of Yangon’s road-planning equation.

In the meantime, we who cycle in Yangon must continue dealing with the situation that has been handed to us.

I spend a significant amount of time cycling around the city, usually about seven or eight hours a week. I live in Insein township and work downtown, and my commute (which I usually do five days a week) is about 21 kilometres (13 miles) each way. This takes me 45 to 50 minutes one way, up to twice as fast as I can cover the distance in a taxi.

Before moving to Myanmar I lived in Los Angeles for 10 years, and before that spent three years in New York City. In both cities I cycled nearly every day, and throughout that entire 13-year period I didn’t experience as many close calls with bad drivers as I do in Yangon on a weekly basis.

Anyone who mounts a bicycle in Yangon will face crazed drivers who don’t seem to know what traffic lanes are for, or swerve without warning, or make abrupt turns without signaling, or think it’s a good idea to crawl up the opposing traffic lane. The worst are bus drivers, who apparently believe that beating the other driver to the next passenger stop is more important than life itself.

And a note to drivers: If a pedestrian is crossing the road 100 metres ahead and they’re already three-quarters of the way to the curb, it’s not necessary to honk at them. They’ll be long gone by the time you get there. Honking can be a useful means communication when used judiciously, but when every fool on the road honks at every shadow that moves, it’s reduced to annoying background noise that doesn’t communicates anything to anyone.

Pedestrians are another hazard, and they’re often less predictable than drivers. I’ve had people stand on the curb watching me pedal closer, closer, closer, and then when I’m 2 metres away they decide it’s the perfect time to step in front of me and start crossing the road.

There are also the human squirrels who step forward, then back, then forward, then freeze, then step back, then forward until you have no idea what they’re going to do next. Another all-too-common oddity are pedestrians who walk across the street while staring intently in the opposite direction from which the traffic is coming, a habit for which I have no reasonable explanation. (Are they time travelers from the past? Do they think it’s 1961, when Burma was still a left-hand-driving country?)

One must also expect the unexpected: Two weeks ago a pedestrian who was running for a bus ploughed into me at full speed while I was sitting on my bike waiting for a red light. I saved myself from being knocked over by putting my hand out and propping myself up on a car parked to my right. The pedestrian bounced off me, muttered an apology and continued his blind, thoughtless dash for the bus. As I type this, I’m still feeling shoulder pain from the collision.

Sad to say, but other cyclists also cause plenty of headaches. They can be just as unpredictable as drivers, but without the speed or deadly force. It’s especially strange how the slowest among them (including trishaw drivers) are the keenest to place themselves at the front of the queue waiting for the light to change green.

A city with dedicated bike lanes, and competent police to enforce their proper use, would not have such a big problem with this.

This essay appeared in slightly different form in The Myanmar Times Wheels in Motion Supplement.

Written by latefornowhere

March 27, 2013 at 2:48 am

8 Responses

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  1. I’m about to jump on my bike and ride some back roads in rural Central PA in the USA and will encounter no bike lanes. Yet I am sure to encounter several idiotic drivers who will not have high traffic to blame for their aggressive driving. That said, it’s classic silliness for urban planners to pass up the opportunity to ease congestion by building bike lanes into their plans. What’s the logic of Yangon not wanting cyclists?

    George Potor

    March 27, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    • Yes, at least here I don’t have to worry about hillbillies throwing empty Big Mac wrappers at my head as they drive past, which is something I endured during long bike rides in central PA in the 1980s. I think part of the resistance to cycling is the general view in Myanmar (as in many developing countries) that bicycles are for poor country folk, while cars are a sign of urban affluence — as the country marches toward development, no one with money wants to be seen riding a bicycle because keeping up appearances is more important than environmental concerns. But it would be nice to see city planners take the lead and work to change people’s minds in this regard. As Petro Gustavo, Mayor of Bogota, said last year: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.”


      March 28, 2013 at 2:33 am

      • When in 1988-89, there was a habit that downtown people use a lot of bicycle. My family earned small money by renting bicycles. Ycdc won’t do plan the lane for bicycle because they think that anything to do with wheels that didn’t attach to engine will make traffic jam. Bicycle, tricycle and trolley. My grandpa used to ride bicycle from south okkalarpa to downtown and return everyday. For Yangon’s car driver once they got on car they don’t care about people on the street. And ofcourse there are senceless walkers on street. Be careful on the street, if you are keep riding in Yangon where craziest drivers and people live.


        April 8, 2013 at 9:26 am

  2. Dear Sir,

    I have creating some blogs in a couple of days ago to educate drivers from Yangon and those are totally not for commercial use. I would like to post your essay both in Burmese and English. It is Ok. Page links are (Myanmar Version) and (English version)

    Thar Lay

    January 19, 2014 at 6:12 pm

    • Posting my story on your blog is fine with me — the more people who read the story, the better


      January 20, 2014 at 4:18 am

      • Thanks Sir. I also have posted on facebook in Burmese last few days ago.
        and it received attention from the audience. Sorry for not being requested your permission to translate and post it at that time. But your name and source were included in the translation.

        Thar Lay

        January 20, 2014 at 7:07 am

  3. This article is right on the button. I’ve recently arrived in Yangon to work and will be here for about 2 years. I was shocked that drivers seem to be equipped with absolutely no road skills. The driving test must be a tick box exercise…pay your money and get your licence. Once I have found myself an apartment (don’t start me on property prices) I plan to purchase a bike for Bike World and try to get out of the city a couple of times a week. If I only ride within the city it will drive me crazy. Thank you for an excellent article.


    January 20, 2014 at 5:40 am

  4. The fact is this: We don’t understand the concept of Lining up. That white paint on the road? That’s just a suggestion. Any form of transportation will fail if we can’t even line up.

    Pye Phyoe

    June 5, 2014 at 9:31 am

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