Mongolia’s Urban Planning Paradox

Weekly Article
Aug. 31, 2020

This excerpt is adapted with permission from Young Mongols: Forging Democracy in the Wild, Wild East, published by Penguin Random House Southeast Asia. (Copyright © 2020 Aubrey Menard)

On May 15, 2019, the Mongolian government implemented a ban on the use of raw coal within the capital, Ulaanbaatar. The government aims to replace raw coal with costlier coal briquettes made from semicoke, a by-product of coal, which burns longer and more cleanly than raw coal. They plan to produce 600,000 tons of the product, which they will sell at 1,000 distribution points throughout the city. Individuals who are caught violating the ban will be fined approximately $113 and large businesses will face a fine of $1,134.

In Ulaanbaatar, raw coal only costs about $1.13 per thirty-three pound bag. Families typically burn about one-to-two bags per night to heat their homes. Coal is so cheap in Mongolia because its territory holds about 10 percent of the world’s coal reserves, an estimated 162 billion tons. Even with its high domestic consumption, Mongolia manages to export about three-quarters of the coal that it produces, mainly to neighboring China. Devastatingly, the Mongolian economy is dependent on the world’s coal addiction: coal is its main export commodity, bringing in $169.2 million in revenue in January 2019 alone.

Munkhshur (Shure) Erdenebat, a lifelong ger district resident, says that the government’s raw coal ban is nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction from government representatives who are eager to show that they are doing something about the pollution problem ahead of the 2020 elections. Shure, an urban planner who received her master’s degree in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship, worries about policies and regulations like the raw coal ban that are put in place without sufficient research. What is likely to happen, Shure explains, is that the cost of briquettes will be too high for ger district residents to afford and the government will not produce a sufficient supply to last through the winter. In order to survive and avoid fines, ger district residents are likely to resort to illegal logging.

The scars of such logging are visible in the urban forests surrounding Ulaanbaatar, where, during Mongolia’s economic depression of the 1990s, people cut down trees to burn in desperate attempts to survive. With only 8.1 percent of Mongolia’s land still forested, a coal ban that could cause further strain to Ulaanbaatar’s urban forests, begins to address one problem while creating another. Studying urban planning has made Shure frustrated with many of Mongolia’s government policies and eager to make big changes. While the ger district accounts for the bulk of Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution (80 percent), motor vehicles are also a major problem, contributing 10 percent of the city’s pollution and causing it to rank as the fourth most traffic-congested city in the world. The surplus of cars on the road has been partly caused by a growing economy and rapid migration from the countryside to the city, but also because of more short-term, ill-researched policies that Shure finds irksome.

One such policy is the number plate ban, which only lets city residents drive on certain days corresponding with their license plate. The ban, however, does not typically encourage people to seek out alternative forms of transportation. Instead, many of those who can afford to buy a second car with a different license plate in order to circumvent their personal transportation issues, leading to an increase in car ownership. Similarly, rather than implementing an unpopular tax on high-emissions vehicles, Mongolia instead elected not to charge excise or pollution tax on imported hybrid vehicles. This has led to an unparalleled number of second-hand Prii (the official plural form of “Prius”) being imported from Japan. The lack of tax means that a used Prius can cost as little as $2,000, which led to 19,494 being imported in 2015 alone (a significant number when considering that there are 480,000 vehicles registered in Ulaanbaatar). The relative affordability of cars, combined with the aforementioned factors, has led to unbearable traffic in the city center.

In Ulaanbaatar, 80 percent of traffic fatalities are pedestrians. In 2017, 122 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents in Ulaanbaatar (a city of 1.5 million people), compared to 107 the same year in New York City (a city of 8.6 million).

“The government wants people to see that they’re building more roads, even though it’s not the solution,” explains Shure. The majority of Ulaanbaatar’s population does not commute by car. Total transportation demand in Ulaanbaatar is satisfied by the bus (33.7 percent), walking (31 percent), car (23.4 percent), taxi (9.4 per cent), and others (2.5 percent). The city’s bus system only accounts for 0.4 percent of traffic and provides over 200 million rides annually. Unfortunately, Shure explains, there are not enough buses or routes and they’re often uncomfortable or unsafe, which makes choosing public transport the option of last resort. Rather than building more roads and overpasses, Shure believes Ulaanbaatar should increase its focus on improving public transportation options, reserving separate bus lanes, and creating rapid-transit and park-and-ride options.

While it may seem like a gender-neutral issue, poor urban planning disproportionately affects women. While there is a lack of consistent sex disaggregated transportation data from Mongolia and most other countries, the data that exists shows that the world over, women are more likely than men to take public transport. In her book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez explains that men are more likely to drive, and when a household owns a car, men dominate access to it.

Moreover, men’s travel patterns are simpler than those of women: men typically commute twice daily in and out of town. Women, because they do 75 percent of the world’s unpaid care work, engage in what Criado Perez calls “trip training” or several small interconnected trips to conduct errands such as dropping children off at school, going to work, providing care for an elder on the way home from work, and grocery shopping. Men tend to travel on their own and in cars. When women travel, they are more likely to be travelling by foot or by public transport, and encumbered with groceries, strollers, children, or elderly relatives. Poor infrastructure makes their journeys much more difficult.

This gender bias also affects injury rates. In Sweden, cities prioritized snow clearing for car users ahead of pedestrians and public-transportation users. Hospitals there found that in slippery or icy conditions, pedestrians are injured three times more often than motorists. And, because pedestrians are more likely to be women, in the Swedish town Criado Perez studied, 69 percent of those injured were women. Walking with children or elderly relatives, pushing a stroller, or carrying groceries in Ulaanbaatar’s icy winter streets can be treacherous. The city’s infrastructure may be even less navigable for those who have disabilities or use wheelchairs.

Walking in Ulaanbaatar is a dangerous enterprise. Mongolians joke that pedestrians always have to be looking in six directions—in front of, behind, and around you to make sure you’re not hit by a car or pickpocketed; up to make sure nothing is dropped on your head from a construction site; and down so that you don’t fall into one of the city’s ubiquitous open manholes (the covers are quickly stolen to be sold as scrap metal). While new roads are built, pedestrian infrastructure is crumbling. In Ulaanbaatar, 80 percent of traffic fatalities are pedestrians. Shure points out that in 2017, 122 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents in Ulaanbaatar (a city of 1.5 million people), compared to 107 the same year in New York City (a city of 8.6 million). Much of this problem is due to the fact that although Mongolia is a country where cars drive on the right-hand side of the road (meaning that its cars’ steering wheels should be on the left side), 55 percent of all cars in Ulaanbaatar have steering wheels on the right-hand side of the car. Unsurprisingly, the majority of road accidents involve cars with steering wheels on the wrong side.

When thinking of Mongolia, most conjure up images of vast, empty spaces, not urban congestion. Mongolia presents an interesting paradox: it is the least densely populated country in the world, and yet more than half of its citizens live crammed into 0.2 percent of its land—and the country’s urban planning, or lack thereof, seems ill-suited to support them.