Friday, August 18, 2017

Cars instead of footpaths: How Yangon is losing its charm

Have you noticed that Yangon’s footpaths have been disappearing recently? Has the spot you used to sit down for tea in the morning or where you set up to sell newspapers for the day been replaced by the back end of a car?

A pedestrian walks on the recently narrowed footpath on Anawrahta Street in downtown Yangon. (Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times)A pedestrian walks on the recently narrowed footpath on Anawrahta Street in downtown Yangon. (Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times)

You are not alone. A Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) program to replace large sections of footpath with car parking spaces began last year, and the results have been seen within six months. The aim is to reduce traffic congestion by making more room for roadside parking.

No doubt YCDC is acting with good intentions. There is a huge traffic problem in Yangon and something must be done. However, the experience of cities all over the world, from Los Angeles to Beijing, has shown that making more room for cars does nothing to reduce traffic congestion.

As a result of this program, we are losing one of the greatest heritage, economic and liveability assets Yangon has – its welcoming and generous footpath network – for no gain at all.

If you have been to Bangkok, Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur, you will know that what Yangon has in its wide and generous footpaths is a rare blessing. Not having to fight your way through packed crowds from one end of the city to the other, and the way that vendors, teashops and restaurants have plenty of room to ply their trade while still allowing room for passersby, is worth protecting.

I remember the first time I came across the new replacement footpaths. People were funnelled up off the ground onto raised platforms – some as high as 500 millimetres, or about 20 inches (other modern cities limit curb heights to roughly 150mm for safety reasons). As I approached Bo Aung Kyaw Street, an elderly woman in front of me had to turn around and go back down the street because she couldn’t get down from the raised path to cross the intersection.

The major public safety implications of this program are clear along Anawrahta Road between Sule Pagoda Road and Shwe Bontha Street. Here the footpaths have been reduced to 1 metre (3.3 feet) in width, and the foot traffic has become so clogged that people are forced to venture onto the dangerous road. Some raised sections of the footpath are even higher than the plinth of roadside houses.

Clear, easily navigated and generous footpaths are the lifeblood of a city like Yangon, whose economy relies on customers being able to access its shops and vendors. If people cannot get around in a relaxed, safe and accessible way, then business will suffer.

Yangon stands to make billions of dollars from tourism based on its unique heritage assets. The walkable nature and heritage character of Yangon’s tree-lined streets are critical for the city’s visitor-friendly reputation.

Most importantly, local residents should be able to walk around their neighbourhood in a stress-free way. They should be able to go to the market or shops without needing to fight through constricted footpaths or being forced to risk their safety by walking along the road.

One of Yangon’s great advantages is that it can examine the mistakes other cities have made before it’s too late. There are better ways to deal with traffic congestion.

London has turned to a congestion tax, while Beijing has an alternating odd-even number plate restriction for its downtown. Other cities have reversible lanes that switch directions depending on the time of day. Improving traffic light signal integration and construction of YCDC-operated car parks in key areas will help enormously.

The real answer to traffic congestion lies not with cars but with alternative modes of transport. Beijing, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have all invested heavily in mass transit systems in the past 10 years. Cities like Melbourne, Copenhagen and Guangzhou have turned to the humble bicycle in promoting healthy, cheap and quick transport. Yangon, being a flat city, is perfect for cycling.

Melbourne, Toronto, Berlin and Hong Kong rely heavily on good tram networks, while Auckland, Sydney and Buenos Aires have partially rebuilt networks they tore up in the mid-20th century. Yangon should look at rebuilding a modern tram system to complement the existing bus network.

During the past 50 years, cities across the world have realised the major health congestion and liveability issues resulting from their embrace of the car. Many are moving back to modes of transport once seen as outdated, such as cycling, walking and riding trams. Yangon should avoid following the mistakes of countless other cities that have sacrificed their unique character, economy and liveability at the altar of the car.

YCDC must reconsider its footpath-reducing program, which is ruining the liveability and heritage character of Yangon while at the same time putting residents’ safety and the city’s vibrant retail sector at risk. With a well-considered and integrated transport plan, Yangon can reduce traffic congestion without destroying what makes it unique and profitable.

Maung Rupa is a heritage conservation specialist.