On the Bus with Linda McDowell

By San Yamin Aung & Feliz Solomon 24 February 2015

RANGOON— She’s one of the very few foreigners to brave Rangoon’s notorious buses. Crowded, often poorly maintained and difficult to navigate without strong Burmese language skills, the city’s buses draw only the most intrepid of expats.

But Linda McDowell, the wife of the first Canadian ambassador to Burma, has nearly mastered the routes during the one-and-a-half years since she and her husband, Mark, moved to Rangoon. She said that while riding the bus in the country’s hectic former capital is sometimes challenging, it’s a great way to both brush up on her language skills and promote mass transit in the rapidly evolving urban center.

“It saves energy, it’s more sustainable, and it’s good for the city,” she said during a recent interview with The Irrawaddy. She praised the city’s efforts to improve roads and bus lines, but remarked that Rangoon’s transit options are still far from perfect. Born in Taiwan, Linda moved to Canada when she was in high school and has lived in many metropolises: her adopted hometown of Toronto, New York, Taipei, Bangkok, Beijing; the list goes on. As Rangoon modernizes, she said, municipal leaders could learn a lot from cities that prioritize mass transit over private vehicles.

“You can start with something easy,” she said. “Some people are talking about huge investments in transportation, but in my personal view, we don’t need to wait for big investments to come.” Linda said the city already has what it needs to accommodate its some 2.2 million daily commuters. She and her husband speak regularly with public officials about managing the city’s resources, and how to envision an urban center that is safe and convenient for the people who drive its economy.

Moving in the Right Direction

Many will by now have noticed the less-than-elegant chunks of yellow cement that have sprung up along the cluttered avenues of downtown Rangoon, corralling buses in a single right lane. Taxis still swerve flippantly in and out of bounds and buses, which are privately owned by a number of competing companies, still rush to get ahead and scoop up crowds of kyat-waving commuters. Bus companies typically encourage high passenger counts by pinning them to driver salaries.

But in time, Linda predicted, and with some effort by the city’s management to incentivize mass transit and enforce traffic rules, drivers and commuters will get with the program. For now there still seems to be what she called a “disconnect” between officials, drivers and commuters, that could be easily solved by public consultation and education about the benefits of mass transit and the importance of road rules.

Other improvements that could be cheaply implemented include systematizing bus stop locations, marking pedestrian walkways, fixing salaries for drivers and regulating the maximum number of passengers, she said. Linda also suggested that while competition among drivers is good for encouraging mass transit, rates could be stabilized to ensure affordability for all and avoid dangerously overcrowded, unruly and unsafe rides.

Why Ride the Bus?

Unlike many foreign diplomats in Burma, Linda and Mark do not own a private vehicle because, she said, “we decided not to contribute to the traffic in the city; there are too many cars already on the road.”

About 70 percent of the country’s cars are registered in Rangoon, according to the Road Transport Administration Department. Congestion has increased significantly since the Burmese government eased car import restrictions in late 2011. The rise in foreign vehicles is evident; downtown roads are often seen at a complete standstill and transit times can sometimes take twice as long as they did a few years ago.

It doesn’t have to get worse, Linda said. If the city’s residents and officials can commit to creating a functional city with strong public transportation and less cars—and by virtue, less pollution—they can achieve it. There are currently hundreds of bus lines in the city, with a fleet of about 4,000 buses. Many are old and in dire need of upgrade, but they are still the best, most affordable way to get around for millions who work and study in Rangoon.

As for herself, Linda makes a point of riding the bus when she travels downtown, goes to the market and visits her friends.

“I always tell people that I take the bus, and I try to convince them to do it too,” she said, adding that the habit is rubbing off on a few of her Canadian friends, but until the city makes observable efforts to make transit safer and more efficient, it’s unlikely to take off. Even for a seasoned urban commuter like Linda, learning the ropes was a trying experience.

“It was a test of my willpower,” she recalled of her early trials on the bus, during which she frequently took the wrong route, finding herself in all manner of odd corners around town. She soon picked up on some local lingo and began to recognize the numbers in Burmese script marking the lines. Perhaps most encouraging was the realization that there was almost always a friendly commuter happy to help her find the way.

“Maybe they want to help because they see me trying very hard to speak in broken Burmese,” Linda said with a charmingly self-effacing laugh. “I feel like it will be fine, there are kind and generous people all around me.”