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Why Carpooling Can Help Ease Myanmar’s Traffic Congestion

On-demand carpooling is fast taking root in Southeast Asia, a region that faces both tremendous growth and traffic gridlock. Could carpooling be used in Yangon to ease the traffic congestion? For players in the shared mobility space, there now exists […]

On-demand carpooling is fast taking root in Southeast Asia, a region that faces both tremendous growth and traffic gridlock. Could carpooling be used in Yangon to ease the traffic congestion? For players in the shared mobility space, there now exists a unique opportunity to influence the mind-sets and commuting patterns of an entire generation of Myanmar people. This could have a lasting impact on the city’s roads. By Alvin Loh [to confirm].

Congestion remains an uncomfortable part of life in Yangon as it moves towards rapid urbanisation. Of some 3.5 million daily commuters in Yangon, 30 percent of daily commuters spend more than three hours a day or 45 days only for travelling. Adding travel time to an eight-hour working day, this leaves breadwinners spending 11 hours or more away from their families.

The Yangon Regional Government has worked hard to improve the public transport infrastructure in the city, with the launch of Yangon Bus Serive (YBS), Yangon Water Bus and improved train services. According to the YCDC’s 2014 survey, 85 percent of daily commuters in the city use buses.

With the introduction of YBS in early-2017, the number of buses and pickups in Yangon has increased from 1,288 in December 2016 to 3,620 in May 2018. However, the spike in number of buses has still led to an increase in passenger miles in Yangon. This implies that passengers have to take lengthier trips back home, probably caused by changes in routes, requiring commuters to take two or three transits to reach their offices.

Despite the strain on Yangon’s road infrastructure, vehicle ownership is projected to go up, not down. According to the Myanmar Road Transportation Administration Department, the number of registered vehicles in Yangon has grown year-on-year. As of 2018, there are more than the 800,000 registered vehicles in the city, which is more than double the figure for 2014.

While crowded roads are estimated to cost Asian economies 2 to 5% of GDP in lost productivity every year, Myanmar’s automotive industry will continue to grow as car manufacturers set up factories in Myanmar and sell new cars at cheaper prices. At the same time, the growing middle class continues to see cars as a status symbol and a respite from overcrowded public transport systems.

All of this sounds like we can expect even more congestion on the roads of Yangon but there is a unique opportunity for players in the shared mobility space. Tech and service providers could transform the mind-sets and behaviours of an entire generation of would-be and first-time car owners: Shifting them away from owning and/or using a personal vehicle, to sharing one with others.

The case for sharing

There are multiple benefits to pooling a ride: It optimises each vehicle – whether it is a car or motorbike – to carry more passengers, reduces the personal cost of maintaining the vehicle, alleviates congestion and carbon emissions. A study by Roland Berger in 2017 discovered that through carpooling, there could be a potential reduction in the average number of cars on the roads of Yangon in the short-term by 45,000, equivalent to 16%

While scalable tech-enabled pooling is still in the early stages of growth in the region and has yet to be launched in Yangon, its impact can be tremendous once fully realised. With Yangon’s relatively youthful population, commuting patterns are still malleable and there is enormous scope to influence mind-sets and behaviours in favour of vehicle sharing. If successful, this could transform the region’s roads for the future.

Tech-enabled ride sharing is one of the more viable solutions in the short to medium term. With the rise of ride-hailing technology in Yangon, commuters are now getting used to booking taxis with a smartphone. On-demand carpooling is the next step.

Yangon is ready to share

The basic ingredients for a shared mobility ecosystem in Yangon is consistent with other countries in Southeast Asia, strongly suggesting that vehicle sharing can take off.

First, the region boasts demographic factors that weigh in favour of a sharing economy: Large, densely populated urban centres – Southeast Asia boasts 12 mega-cities with populations in excess of 2 million; and, sizeable working age populations. Existing commuters in Yangon who travel in taxis daily fall within the age group most likely to engage in the sharing economy. They are also price-sensitive and accustomed to on-demand services, including carpool rides that can be summoned at the tap of a finger.  

Second, there is evidence that Southeast Asia may be culturally more receptive to shared transport. In the US, personal space is highly valued and the car is seen as one’s private domain.

This mindset is not as entrenched in Southeast Asia. In fact, in parts of the region, there have been traditions of either formally or informally sharing vehicles. Taking Yangon as an example, informal carpooling has been a social custom amongst locals who share rides to schools, to work and to travel from remote areas. Some commuters in Yangon have also experienced instances when taxi drivers take on additional passengers travelling towards a similar area or what could be described as “lann kyone”.

Carpooling can be seen as a natural upgrade from such local forms of vehicle sharing. Using tech-enabled ride sharing, this offers an on-demand service which gives greater comfort, yet priced below a personal car or the full fare of a taxi ride.

Riding the carpool wave

With these ingredients in place – geography, demographics and culture – tech providers have a tremendous opportunity to instil a ‘pooling mindset’ among commuters and vehicle owners. Success can come in multiple ways.

At the most basic level, they can provide a scalable platform that enables individuals to match drivers with fellow riders. But more importantly, they need to be flexible enough to adapt vehicle sharing solutions to local conditions. At Grab, we piloted the GrabHitch service with cars in Malaysia and Singapore, as both cities have higher car penetration rates. Implementation has to be done in consideration of local conditions and usage patterns; there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Finally, tech providers can play a role in building trust so that vehicle sharing is seen as a safe and commercially-viable option – especially in areas where carpooling is less common and social trust is lacking. If tech providers can verify drivers and collect data on passengers and trips – upon registration and in real time – that would go far in building confidence among commuters and drivers.

The road ahead on a shared journey

Much like the situation on its roads, Yangon’s traffic issues are complex and require multifaceted solutions. Pooling rides can be a powerful addition to the city’s transport mix to help alleviate congestion. To reference the spirit of “myar wei kan zar” (sharing togetherness) prevalent in Myanmar culture, it can be said that the future of the country lies in sharing its roads, its cars and its commutes.

Alvin Loh is Acting Country Manager of Grab Myanmar. He leads a team of local talents to operate Yangon’s leading ridehailing service. During his time in Myanmar, he has seen the transformation of Myanmar’s transportation sector and is excited to continue supporting its development with Grab. He is passionate about creating a better Yangon, using technology to achieve social impact, and to continue building a high-performing team to support the people of Myanmar.

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