A few years ago it wouldn’t have been uncommon to see people commuting on horseback through downtown Ulaan Bataar (UB), the capital of Mongolia. Most of the city’s residents are no more than a generation or two removed from nomadic life.
But UB has been urbanizing rapidly, with 20,000 migrants arriving from the countryside each year. Today the city is home to 1.12 million, over 40% of the residents of the entire country.
Incomes in both UB and nationwide are rising, spurred in large part by the expanding mining industry: Mongolia is rich in natural resources. As a result, car ownership is on the rise as well. By 2030, based on current forecasts, the share of private vehicle trips will increase to 52% from 2007 levels of 27%.
The city is playing catch up to create regulatory mechanisms to properly enforce these vehicles. Cars (mostly Korean and Japanese models) often have steering wheels on the left and right side, creating confusion for pedestrians looking to make eye contact with drivers when crossing the street.
With increasing density and car ownership, traffic congestion and pedestrian safety are becoming greater concerns.
In fact, 63% of pedestrians think the traffic in the city is too dangerous (according to a 2010 report sponsored by the Millennium Challenge, a U.S. development agency that seeks to alleviate global poverty). While there have been investments in countdown signals at select pedestrian crossings, such as on Peace Avenue, the city’s main street, walking conditions in most other parts of the city are of mixed quality. Uneven sidewalks, dirt roads, open manhole covers with 20 meter drops, parked cars in foot paths disrupting circulation and poor illumination at night as cars speed down streets put pedestrians at risk.
74% of both pedestrians and drivers support building bicycle infrastructure. The city’s 250 days of sun each year, would make cycling a viable option, if better infrastructure was provided. Today’s cyclists mostly stick to circles around Sukhabataar Square, the main public plaza, as a recreation on the weekends.
Planning was first introduced in UB in the 1950s, when planners replaced traditional yurt districts with Soviet style housing blocks largely financed by the Soviet Union and China. Construction cranes dot the skyline lately, reflecting a real estate boom fueled by new wealth. Yurts districts continue to be replaced by more neighborhoods that resemble low-density U.S. suburbs as well as highrises built with ample parking in off-street garages and setbacks visible in many other Asian city centers.
The city has simply copied the AASHTO guidelines from the U.S. of 1 parking space for every residential unit to address the growing parking demand.
Locals are also buying cars as a way to avert the deteriorating public transit system. But this thinking has put the city into a cycle of gridlock. Buses are mostly operated by private companies that receive subsidies from the government and are held accountable based on their on-time performance, which is currently not very good. More intense congestion has led to poorer quality bus service. Poor bus service feeds car usage, which in turn leads to congestion that then impacts more poor bus service.
A new bus rapid transit (BRT) system in the works, the city is on the brink of pricing parking and improvements to intersection design should ease some of the current bottlenecks. Ultimately though, more people will need to get on the bus and leave their cars at home.