Sunday, July 4, 2010

COMMENTARY: A Traffic Solution?

The traffic in Ulaanbaatar is at a standstill. All the time, every day. The streets are so clogged that it could take 30 minutes to an hour just to travel a mile or two across downtown. This is not a problem of too many cars it’s a problem of not enough streets. The traffic problem is more than nuisance; it’s a danger. Emergency vehicles, police cars and fire engines can no longer get around the city. Pedestrians consider themselves fortunate if they make it across the street in one piece.

The city of Ulaanbaatar has taken some steps to alleviate this problem. A new road has opened that connects Olympic street to the Big Ring Road. Some of the alleys between apartment blocks have been upgraded to drivable roads. A pedestrian tunnel was built under the road near the Teacher’s College.

But these small measures have so far had no impact and the traffic continues to worsen by the day. What might help, someday, is the new Big Ring Road being constructed around the city. But this will not be complete for several years.

So can anything be done in the meantime? I think so. In 2008, a few weeks before the Olympics, the authorities in Beijing launched a new traffic scheme. According to the plan, cars that had license plates ending in an odd number were allowed to drive on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Cars that had a license plate ending in an even number could drive on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Anyone could drive on Sunday. A driver driving on the wrong day could be pulled over, fined and have his license suspended. I think such a plan would be worth trying in Ulaanbaatar, at least until a better road network can be constructed. Besides relieving traffic there are other side effects, such as improved air quality and safer streets. The plan would likely increase the use of public transportation, ride sharing or biking. If nothing else, it would get people out of their vehicles and walking more.

Anyone else have any ideas how to alleviate traffic in UB? Please send me your comments.


  1. Some kind of public education on driver politeness might be in order. And maybe incentives to slow down for pedestrians and other drivers. A lot of the craziness seems to be frustrated or entitled-feeling people in a hurry.

    I learned on my previous trips to look for mothers with children or elderly people and cross with them on the theory that they will be given at least a little more leeway.

    Some drivers seem to think everyone else is like livestock in the countryside and that the thing to do is speed up and honk to scatter them out of the way like they were goats or sheep. But they're not riding horses now, they're driving cars.

    I agree that urban planning is the only long-term solution. I would imagine that funding would need to be found to bring in people with that kind of expertise to even get the ball rolling. Does the UB city government have a planning department?

  2. Re-educating the public/drivers on traffic rules. This can be done via TV, newspapers, ads, billboards, a printed version of the rules of the road. UB is like a city of 16 yr. olds cut loose with their brand new driver's licenses. I'll bet have of the drivers grew up in the countryside where there are no paved roads, street signs and forget about rules of the road. And yes, how about a little respect for pedestrians. Where's the horse race in town? Why does every driver have to be the first one to the horse race? Also Traffic cops do NOTHING, esp. when it comes to pedestrians. I had a driver make a sudden right off of Peace Ave onto the road along the Dept. store, he sideswiped me as I crossed the road with a friend. The traffic cop amazingly got out of his car, ran after the driver. The driver looked at me and said it was my fault. The cop asked where I was from, USA I replied, and he quickly joined sides with the driver. So much for pedestrian's rights. Traffic lights in front of the State Dept. store would also be a smart move.

  3. Thanks for your post Jules. All good points. As for the intersection in front of State Department Store, I think there are plans to build an underground pedestrian tunnel.

  4. Guys, this city is fucked. Took me two hours to get to school (less than a mile away), and that was LAST year. This year...

  5. I think the answer is a better public transport system before people learn to absolutely depend on cars, as in Los Angeles. An underground is planned in UB in four years or so, but the city also needs more buses. They would then be more frequent and more people would use them as they wouldn't have to wait around too long in the cold.

    This is a great site - thanks for setting it up.
    Paul, London