New mayor's scheme clears up Mongolia's traffic gridlock

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 September, 2012, 3:55am

Since he started his job at Ulan Bator's City Hall six months ago, Bat-Ochir Ganbagana has walked three kilometres each day to work.

From his flat in the southern outskirts of the Mongolian capital, he shuffles past long lines of traffic. The bus, he says, would take twice as long.

But public transport is starting to look more tempting as traffic is lighter this week, thanks to progressive new laws passed by the city government. Main boulevards once clogged with an assortment of Land Cruisers, Hummers and other vehicles are becoming easier to navigate.

At the heart of the improvement is a restriction on vehicle use in the city centre, based on licence plate numbers. The city is also requiring government workers to report to their offices using public transport. Traffic police are out in force to keep bus-only lanes free of vehicles.

"Every day more cars are added to the streets of Ulan Bator so something had to be done," said Ganbagana, a 22-year-old road engineer. "It's a good plan - we have a new mayor and he has brought new ideas."

That new mayor is Erdeni Bat-Uul, recently elected on a promise to clean up Ulan Bator's crippling infrastructure problems, starting with its traffic woes.

His traffic scheme forces 20 per cent of vehicles off the road on weekdays. On Mondays, cars with plate numbers ending in 1 or 6 are banned in the urban core. On Tuesday, it affects plates ending in 2 and 7, and so on. The fine for breaking the rule once is 8,000 tugriks (HK$45) A three-month licence suspension is the penalty for breaking the rule twice. If successful, the two-month trial could be extended.

While the city imposes artificial means of reducing gridlock, it is also rapidly trying to upgrade Ulan Bator's road network. Downtown streets have been paved, intersections reconfigured and railway crossings increased. A new highway to the airport is under construction and plans have been laid to build a Bus Rapid Transit system with separate lanes.

Mongolia's 13 per cent GDP growth has helped fill government coffers to start the projects. This year the budget for the city's road division is 114.7 billion tugriks, a significant bump over last year's budget of 70.3 billion tugriks.

But it's this economic growth that fuelled the problem in the first place as moneyed Mongols have imported luxury vehicles in their thousands from the US and Europe. Streets virtually empty just a decade ago are now home to more than 210,000 vehicles, navigating a limited road network of just 650km.

The result has been some monumental traffic jams in this city of 1.3 million people. Four-kilometre commutes can take up to an hour and the traffic can last well past midnight.