Ulan Bator: Will Buses Save World's Second Most Polluted City?

In Mongolia's capital, every driver has to take one day a week off from driving into the city.

A traffic jam along a road in Ulan Bator, where a people renowned for their horse-riding skills have to contend every day with ever more Hummers, Land Cruisers and Range Rovers. (Photo: Byambarsuren Byamba/Getty) 

Mongolia has yurts, horses, and miles upon miles of empty, windy steppe. But the country also has copper. And gold. And coal. It is these resources that, in recent years, have spurred investment in the landlocked Central Asian country (which now has one of the fastest growing economies in the world) and made its capital, Ulan Bator, something of a boom town. The city has a Louis Vuitton store, a new international airport in the works, and air pollution worse than almost any other city in the world—according to the World Health Organization, second only to Ahwaz, in Iran.

Much of this pollution comes from households that burn coal for heat and fuel. But a significant portion comes from the horde of cars that have taken to the streets as the country’s economic fortunes have improved. The traffic is terrible, churning up road dust and spitting out exhaust, and the city’s mayor, Erdeni Bat-Uul, is trying to do something about it. His city has the chance right now to define how people are going to get around—whether they’ll continue to drive cars and build sprawling lots in which to park them or if they’ll be able to give cars up for less polluting, less carbon-intensive public transportation.

Over the summer, Bat-Uul introduced, on a trial basis, congestion measures for the city. Every driver has to take one day a week off from driving into the city, which is determined by the last number of a car’s license plate. Officials were required to take public transportation to work. And lanes were set aside exclusively for buses to travel on.

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On a very basic level, setting aside bus-only lanes is a form of bus-rapid-transit or BRT, a bus system designed to ensure that buses speed by, instead of poke along from stop to stop, getting caught in transit. These systems make buses work more like subways: as a rule, they have fewer stops than traditional bus routes and fare systems that allow passengers to board through multiple doors. But the most important feature is the designated lanes that exempt buses from the normal rules of traffic.

The current system of buses, Agence France-Presse says, is “a motley collection of battered Soviet-era buses and some newer South Korean models.” But the Asian Development Bank is funding more than $217 million worth of system upgrades—better roads, new infrastructure for the city’s electric trolleybus system, and improved bus depots. One of the goals of this investment is to have a city-wide BRT system by 2020.

Establishing one of these systems is a lot cheaper than building a subway, though: cities around the world, from Brazil to China, have set them up with great success, and Ulaanbaatur has consulted with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which has worked with cities like Guangzhao, in China, on creating BRT routes.

At the same time, though, there’s pressure for the city to create more parking and better roads for the cars that economic prosperity is buying. There’s no rule that dictates cities have to have good public transportation—plenty don’t. Ulan Bator is at a crossroads, but instead of deciding where it will go, it has the chance to decide how it’s going to get there. 

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