In the third week of March, I looked out my office window and saw a caravan of heavy equipment being pulled up alongside Pyay Road. This “road” is a six-lane highway bisecting Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar and the former capital. Pyay Road starts near the heart of downtown and runs all the way to Pyay, a city several hours’ drive outside of Yangon. It functions as one of two main veins through which Yangon’s traffic flows.
Workers mix concrete in preparation for the new Hledan Junction overpass in Yangon, Myanmar.
Although talk of a road project had been circulating for over a month, I assumed that was the way such a project would stay – talk. But the week before I’d noticed a telltale sign of progress: plastic ribbons were wrapped around some of the trees I pass walking from my bus stop to work. Now, heavy equipment was flattening the once-lush roadside.
Pyay Road before (left) and after (right) pre-construction roadside clearing.
My colleagues told me that this was the first phase of construction for one of four (possibly five) new overpasses in Yangon. This particular overpass, meant to alleviate the strain that a recent influx of cars imported from abroad has placed upon Yangon’s under-maintained and overcrowded streets, would bridge the most notorious traffic junction in the city: the five-way intersection called Hledan (pronounced HLAY-dan). Hledan means “cart row” in Burmese. This intersection was once where merchants who came from afar would park their oxcarts.
I wanted to know local opinions on the new construction, so I asked the people who know Pyay Road best. Taxi drivers, construction supervisors, bus crews and their like earn their livings on this road.
Bus crew: Although pleased with the idea that traffic flow might be smoother, the three members of the bus crew I spoke with expressed skepticism about the process and costs (both fiscal and environmental) of the overpass. They were upset that all of the trees and greenery had to be wiped out along the roadside. Such tree removal, combined with the covering of everything in asphalt, will make it much hotter and less shady at bus stops. They also surmised that those in charge of construction were skimming money off of the top, though they had no concrete evidence of this. Finally, they were concerned that the bus stop for Hledan would be moved to a farther away and less accessible area, which would decrease bus ridership and in turn their own incomes. Since buses aren’t public in Yangon, they earn money by the rider.
Taxi driver: He questioned the motivations of the Yangon City Development Committee, saying they just want to emulate Singapore’s ideas instead of developing an original solution designed specifically for Yangon. He predicted that traffic flow would remain a problem because the overpasses were not a solution developed by Yangoners. Just as Singaporeans differ from Yangoners because they are “more civilized and rule-obeying”, so too will the “Singaporean solution” of an overpass be problematic. “Yangon drivers are not respectful enough to handle the sudden introduction of an overpass,” he claimed.
Besides the fact that the project’s advisors are Singaporean, he said, the overpass structures themselves are being built in Singapore and will be shipped over to Myanmar. The taxi driver believes this is taking work away from poor people in Myanmar and giving it to wealthy Singaporeans.
Labor Supervisor: We spoke while he was resting under the shade of a tree, eating lunch with his crew. He supervises a small group of the 300 laborers working at this site. He said that the time left until completion is dependent upon a reliable supply of materials and the speed of earth-moving trucks, which rely upon functional roads. He seemed to know all the details of how the finished overpass would look and function, with a car lane flanked by a pedestrian lane/sidewalk on either side. Overall, he most valued the project because work is scarce in the soon-to-begin rainy season, so this job will help smooth his otherwise “lumpy” income stream. As of yet, he has no plans for what his next job will be after the overpass.
Traffic-flow Supervisor: He stopped me from trying to cross the street near where everyone used to cross, and urged me in English to cross on the “zebra stripes” (crosswalk). I asked whether he was in charge, and he replied just for traffic direction. He didn’t know much about the overpass layout, and couldn’t answer whether people would be allowed to walk on the completed overpass or not. He claimed that it would take four months to complete, but wouldn’t comment on whether the project was “good” or “bad”, only that it was “necessary”.
Second taxi driver: When asked his opinion of the project, he claimed that he was hesitant to pass judgment on it since he knew so little about it. When I pressed for his opinion, he responded that he was disappointed that the authorities in charge of constructing the overpass did not make any efforts to inform the public in any way. He asserted that the people of Yangon are entitled to know the basics of the project, and wanted details such as when it would be completed, how much it would cost, what the layout would be, and so forth. All of the information he’s gotten to date has been word-of-mouth, which is how he (and many other Yangoners) gets a lot of information about current events. He had higher expectations for transparency for a project of this scale. “Nothing in the (news) journals, nothing on TV, nothing posted on signboards… not a word!”
Pyay Road before construction.
Post and photos by Zach Hyman.