Day or night, Ulaanbaatar’s roads are chaotic, noisy and clogged to breaking point.
At 6:00 pm on a Thursday evening on Peace Avenue, traffic has come to a standstill for 30 minutes and the never-ending buzz of beeping horns echo through the city’s streets.
Ulaanbaatar’s traffic nightmare is one of the most pressing issues for residents, second only to air pollution.
Driving to the city from the outer districts can now take a painfully long two to three-hour journey.
Elongated and unbearable traffic jams are causing headaches for drivers, pedestrians, public transport users and the government – and are even costing businesses money.
Ulaanbaatar was originally built to handle 500,000 residents. Due to an increasing number of people moving from the countryside to the city, the population has swelled to 1.3 million, putting unprecedented pressure on the city’s transport infrastructure.
A 2015 report stated that the annual increase in motor vehicle numbers in Ulaanbaatar far exceeded the pace at which new, improved roads were being built, giving Ulaanbaatar “some of the worst traffic jams in the world”.
The population influx, poorly planned road network and traffic management issues are evidence of the wider problem: there are simply too many cars on the roads.
One reason for this is that second-hand, hybrid vehicles from Japan are being imported at an unparalleled rate. In 2015, Mongolians imported 19,494 Toyota Prii (the official plural for Prius), which made up a staggering 52.5 percent of total vehicle imports.
Because Mongolia charges no excise or air pollution tax on hybrids, the cars are very cheap – and old. Drivers can purchase a used hybrid 2000 model for as cheap as 2,000 USD, according to last year’s statistics.
Increased standards of living has allowed low to middle-income Mongolians to be able to afford a car of their own for the first time, resulting in a huge uptake of vehicle ownership, according to the American Chamber of Commerce in Mongolia (AmCham), an independent NGO working on traffic issues among other things.
International examples show that a ban on cheap right-hand drive vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius, has helped manage the number of motor vehicles imported into a country and significantly reduced traffic congestion.
While putting these vehicles out of reach for Mongolia’s middle class is a controversial idea, limiting the number of vehicles on our already overwhelmed roads makes policy sense, and would hopefully encourage more people into alternative options such as using public transport or car-pooling.
With Ulaanbaatar’s population expected to reach two million by 2030, the strain on road infrastructure is only expected to worsen.
To combat Ulaanbaatar’s increasing traffic congestion, the government needs to consider implementing a range of changes. Some of these should include:
- Enforce the traffic laws with tougher fines
On September 1, 2016, the government introduced a range of new laws aimed to crack down on congestion and increase safety. The new fines included: 19,200 MNT for driving too slowly and causing traffic congestion; 9,600 MNT for not making way for pedestrians at crossings; 19,200 MNT for using the opposing lane to overtake and 19,200 MNT for going through a red light.
Since September, it was observed that many of these offences still occur on a frequent basis in the direct line of a traffic officer. AmCham Mongolia director of policy and advocacy O.Adiya said failing law enforcement is one of the reasons for bad driver habits and worsening congestion.
“There’s a weak enforcement in these laws. Traffic police sometimes act in a very discriminatory way and have double standards in fining people so there needs to be more strict enforcement,” he said.
The fines also need be increased to act as a real deterrent to drivers who blatantly break the rules. “Fines should be increased in such a way that the person feels this is really going to hit their pocket heavily. A 20,000 MNT fine is low, they think “I’ll pay it”, so fines should be increased,” O.Adiya said.
Better driver education on merging, overtaking, pulling off the road, parking and not using mobile phones while driving need to be at the heart of a public awareness campaign.
Traffic officials have also introduced the points system for violations. Every driver starts with 10 points and loses points if they violate traffic regulations on top of fines.
- Introduce parking changes
One of the reasons why roads are so clogged is that drivers have nowhere to park. Drivers park wherever they can: in driveways, on footpaths, in front of and behind other cars blocking them in, and on curbs. More paid parking and parking restrictions need to be introduced in the city. Parking in the city should not be free and parking inspectors need to routinely monitor parking sites and issue fines to illegally parked cars.
“If you’re driving and you’re participating in the traffic problem, you should be paying for parking,” O.Adiya said. “Many tend to park next to the building they’re going to. Mongolians need to learn to park further away and walk – in big cities you have to comply with these rules, so for Mongolians, it’s an attitude and behavior issue that needs to change.”
Multi-story car parks have not been nearly explored enough in Ulaanbaatar. Lined marking for parking would also improve traffic congestion as more cars can fit in the area provided. The government needs to prioritise parking solutions as a short-term solution to reduce congestion.
- Improve public transport
The issue of public transport is multi-faceted. Due to the freezing weather and icy roads, alternative options that would work in other cities – such as riding a bike or walking – is not possible in the winter months. The proposed Ulaanbaatar metro railway, which was to be originally completed by 2020, was postponed in 2015. While a rapid rail service is desperately needed in the city, residents can only wait until the government solves its economic issues and finds enough capital to fund the project.
To encourage public transport, the government should consider a “park-and-ride” system where large car parks, either permanent or temporary, are constructed on the urban fringe outside the city, which are connected by frequent and reliable bus services, with charges lower than parking in the city. More frequent bus services with express services in bus-only lanes need to be provided as a priority. Until better public transport options are provided, people will continue to drive and take up space on the roads.
- Implement a city congestion charge
Cities such as Singapore and London have implemented a congestion charge for drivers wanting to enter the central part of the city in peak hours. The charge has collected large amounts of taxes for the local governments and drastically cut congestion. Ulaanbaatar could consider a similar proposal which could be used to fund better roads or public transport options.
“One of the things that would help the government is to share international experiences and a traffic congestion tax is certainly an idea worth exploring,” O.Adiya said.
- Introduce stricter number plate restrictions
When the government introduced number plate restrictions on certain days, the plan was meant to reduce the number of cars on the road. However, the outcome resulted in more people buying a second car so they could continue to drive on off-days.
The government must consider a better number plate restriction system on more cars to curtail the use of vehicles.
- Invest in better infrastructure
Ulaanbaatar has a poorly planned road network. Adding more lanes will generate additional capacity along with building more interchange roads that have off-ramps, overpasses and under-passes which avoid bottlenecks in the worst congested areas.
- More transparency in collecting road taxes
Figures from the Ulaanbaatar Traffic Control Center show there are more than 480,000 vehicles registered in Ulaanbaatar. But around 21,000 vehicles have never paid vehicle registration tax before. The Ulaanbaatar Traffic Police Department (UTPD) says it is monitoring vehicle tax collections closely and is planning to target drivers who evade their taxes.
“All the cars in Mongolia have to pay vehicle registrations with funds meant to go to the Road Development Fund,” O.Adiya said. “There is a total lack of transparency on this fund – they collect this huge amount of money but they don’t say how it was used or what the money from the fund was used to achieve.”
Transparency in funds collected from issuing fines is also needed. While traffic police can issue on-the-spot fines, they are no longer able to accept payments on the spot from drivers. The move to only issue fine notices was introduced to stop bribery. Now, people have to go to the bank and pay their fine. For transparency, we need to see if it really is reducing bribery – and not just diverting it from the traffic police on the street to the coffers of government officials at the top.
- Gradual ban of right-hand drive vehicles
A 2015 report showed Mongolia may be the only country in the world that has a high proportion of right-hand drive (RHD) motor vehicles navigating uniformly right-lane-drive roadways, which leads to a very high incidence of head-on collisions on high- speed, two-lane roadways outside congested Ulaanbaatar.
Even though Mongolia’s roads were designed for left-hand drive vehicles, 65 percent of all registered vehicles are RHD, with 85 percent of all accidents involving one or more RHD vehicles.
Due to RHD vehicles, many drivers have trouble overtaking and this is causing delays and confusion for drivers, and more widespread congestion issues. AmCham Mongolia is calling for a gradual ban on all RHD vehicles being imported into Mongolia.
In the interim, AmCham believes the government should make ownership costs high for RHD cars by imposing a higher import tariff on every single RHD car being imported into Mongolia.