On the Move

The State of Transportation in Southeast Asia

What role do cars and/or mass transit play in both the present and future of countries throughout Southeast Asia? Well, from dusty country roads in Cambodia to the highly efficient MRT network of Singapore, answers to this question will vary greatly of course.

The almighty automobile has long held sway as an iconic central component in many-a-nation’s transformation into industrialized (and traffic-filled) modernity. Yet is this some sort of accepted inevitability, or is change actually possible?

The subject comes up time and again as the issue is a most pressing concern in countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, where vehicle ownership is on the rise and mass transit infrastructure is in great need.

For those looking to make a move and settle down somewhere in Southeast Asia, this should provide a brief snapshot of the current overall situations. Always a good thing to anticipate what the logistics/reality of your new “day to day” in a foreign land will include.

So with this in mind, let’s have a closer look.

Motorbikes have long overtaken the bicycle as the main means of transportation in Vietnam. Focusing on the capital city of Hanoi, The Guardian reports, “In 1990, 80% of trips were made by bicycle, whereas in 2005, 97% were by motorcycle. According to the same study by the Institute for Transport Studies, motorcycle usage will have decreased to 63% by 2050 due to the steady rise in car ownership.”

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) has anywhere from 3.5 million to 5 million motorbikes, with more being added to the streets each passing day. The number of cars sharing these very same streets is only going up as well.

Some reductions in Vietnam’s extremely pricey registration fees for both new and used car purchases seem to show that they are already on the road to transforming from a nation of two-wheelers to four. Further clogging up the streets in the process. One can only imagine the nightmare this will create, especially along the narrow streets within or around Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

Currently, buses are the only form of mass transit in use. Hanoi Metro is constructing two lines of an elevated rail network, with 2016 set as the start of operations. HCMC is also in the early stages of constructing a metro network with portions both above and below ground. It is largely unknown, however, how locals will take to this new form of mass transport once it opens, given the deeply rooted culture of car ownership as a status of wealth.

Motorbikes, buses, cycle-rickshaws, and cars (to a lesser degree) are the main means of transport in the country. You can even see oxcarts and norries (Cambodia’s “bamboo railways”) used as a regular means of conveyance in certain regions, although this is becoming increasingly rare.

Considering the impending emergence of car culture, some of the same concerns in Vietnam can be applied in Cambodia. As the country develops, particularly the capital city of Phnom Penh, will measures be taken early enough to prevent the nightmare and inefficiency of gridlock-level traffic during rush hour? Although per capita car ownership is low, it may not be for long. The lack of adequate road infrastructure already creates a lot of preventable vehicular congestion in Phnom Penh.

On top of this, the lack of enforcement for moving violations along with little awareness of road safety makes Cambodia a dangerous place to get around. An estimated 4.7 people die every day in accidents. This may not be very high when compared with other countries, but that number seems to be heading only higher as more people migrate from rural areas to the cities.

Regarding cars, it would be remiss not to mention that Cambodia actually developed an electric car in 2013, much to the chagrin of Vietnam and to the surprise of many. Since its unveiling, however, the project seems to have stalled due to insufficient funding.

As for any implementation of a mass transit rail system, that will be many years away. For now, if you want to experience a one-of-a-kind means of transport, such as Cambodia’s bamboo railway, better go there soon. Norries are all but guaranteed to disappear once enough people get cars and the rail network is overhauled.

Myanmar (Burma)
Public buses and pickup truck bus lines are the main means of transport, at least in towns or cities of notable size. Many people also use boats (of various shapes and sizes) on the many waterways throughout the nation. Motorbikes are widely used but they are banned (along with bicycles and cycle-rickshaws) in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. Not surprisingly, this leaves a lot of room for taxis, although many locals cannot afford to take them. So the only remaining options for millions of Yangon’s residents are the numerous dilapidated public buses.

There are reportedly more than 300,000 registered cars plus an unknown number of unregistered ones in Yangon. Numbers are on the rise no doubt since the government introduced a car substitution scheme which allows motorists to upgrade their car to a newer model. As in the case of Phnom Penh, Yangon already has serious traffic issues due to its lack of developed infrastructure.

Mainly with Bangkok in mind, there is no one visibly dominant form of transportation. Buses, vans, cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and trains are all used. Though for years now, horrendous traffic has plagued the nation’s capital. Despite this, car ownership rates are growing every year and the number of vehicles per capita is fairly high, especially when compared to neighboring countries. Based on 2011 statistics, Thailand has approximately 175 vehicles (not counting two- or three-wheeled transport) for every 1,000 people. For reference, this compares to roughly 20 per 1,000 in both Cambodia and Vietnam.

One fairly recent “positive” that has come about as a result of the traffic epidemic is Bangkok’s Parking Duck, as it is an excellent solution for many struggling to find parking in the city.

In many other areas of Thailand, like with Vietnam, motorbikes dominate as the main means of personal transport. And for those who can afford it, pickup trucks are extremely popular.

Regarding mass transit, there is one underground metro line and three elevated lines (the Skytrain and the airport link) in Bangkok. These are already insufficient for a city of this size and have approached “Tokyo levels” of crowding during peak commute times at any of the stations in the city center.

Extensions of existing lines are under construction, as is an entirely new metro line, but these projects are notorious in Thailand for long delays, sometimes taking them several years beyond the projected completion dates. There are proposed monorail lines in other popular coastal regions outside of Bangkok as well.

Motorbikes dominate as the primary means of transport, but there is also a good mix of cars (including taxis and buses) in urban areas. In peninsular Malaysia, the road network is extensive, which has and will continue to accommodate increasing numbers of private vehicles. However, too many of these roads and expressways are unnecessarily confusing- with huge loops, lack of exits, and roundabouts from hell. The highway logistics in this country would make most qualified engineers cry and laugh at the same time.
In Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s largest city, the light rail mass transit network is quite extensive, much more so than Bangkok. There are a variety of lines for inner city and longer commuter routes, plus links to the airport. Transferring between certain lines is reportedly inefficient and troublesome, due to the fact that many lines were developed separately, without proper integration with the newer ones. Always a wise decision.

Like most other Southeast Asian countries, the cost of imported cars here is prohibitively expensive. And yet, surprisingly, Malaysia has high per capita car ownership, at close to 400 per 1,000 people. The reason for this is that there are two domestic automakers, Proton and Perodua. The Malaysian government has propped up these automakers to ensure the country a piece of Southeast Asia’s car manufacturing market (dominated by Thailand), but may be unable to continue doing so in the very near future as a member of ASEAN.

Like Thailand, the country is a mix of buses, vans, cars, and motorbikes, along with motorized and cycle-rickshaws plus bajaj (the Indonesian equivalent of a tuk-tuk). People rely on all of these, to varying degrees, to get where they need to be. But when faced with gridlock in Jakarta, many simply use their own two feet, rather than sit in traffic for an hour barely moving.

Within an incredibly dense population with increasing spending power, car ownership is also on the rise. Jakarta is now known as a city with one of the worst ongoing traffic problems in Asia. Mass transit bus and commuter train lines exist, but are very limited in service relative to population demands.

Like many other cities, the epidemic of traffic has been allowed to spiral out of control well before any metro systems have been constructed. Jakarta is, unfortunately, many years away from seeing a proper mass transit rail system.

Cars, buses, motor-tricycles (trikes), and “jeepneys” are all well-used means of transport. For the vast majority of Filipinos, however, it’s all about the Jeepneys as a way to get around, the origins of which were the old Willy’s jeeps left behind by the U.S. military at the end of World War II. Today’s jeepneys are custom-built, heavily modified versions of what “once was,” and are ubiquitous throughout the country. People everywhere began using these as a form of public transport, a system which was basically non-existent after the war.


Jeepneys have an added roof and extended rear portion which typically has two long bench seats running along each side. They are very colorful and almost always decorated with chrome and numerous other ornaments or lights on the exterior. This vehicle is a long-established part of Filipino culture but, as they are heavy polluters and contribute a lot to traffic congestion, will no doubt be slowly phased out in the coming years.

Trikes are a uniquely Philippine version of an auto-rickshaw, which uses a motorcycle with side-car enclosure and can vary in size/style. Like jeepneys, these are seen everywhere and are crucial for getting around especially in smaller cities and rural areas of the country.

For those in Manila, they have access to all of these modes of transport, which makes for some incredibly bad traffic on the city streets and expressways. For some, there is the added option of an urban rail network which consists of two lines of light rail (LRT) and a heavily used third line (the MRT-3). Extensions are under way to accommodate the already overcrowded trains.

The vast majority of Singaporeans get around using their efficient and extensive Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and buses. The mass transit rail system includes the MRT and elevated light rail lines such as the Sentosa Express and the Changi Skytrain. Further lines are being added to encourage people to continue to use mass transit as the main means of getting around the tiny city-state.

For those who need/want to drive, car ownership costs are through the roof in Singapore. Anyone who wants to buy a car must bid for one of the limited number of Certificates of Entitlement (COE) that are offered every month and don’t come cheap. Additionally, vehicles are levied with a hefty import/customs tax, plus there are high registration fees.

An interesting result of costly regulations is that car ownership becomes even more of a status symbol and, since there is relatively light traffic, driving becomes even more attractive for some. So for those with the money to throw around, they might feel pretty good about paying premiums to have a car in Singapore.

Bottom Line
Looking at all of these countries, we see two types of challenges in general:

  • Cities such as Bangkok or Jakarta which are already stuck in a quagmire of traffic which is only getting worse as a large, relatively young population with more spending power has emerged.
  • Developing nations with poor infrastructure and lack of prioritized funding for major transport projects. In theory, some of these countries have more time/options for planning mass transit systems before the “carpocalypse” hits, as it already has in some places.

For countries like Cambodia and Vietnam, it will take herculean efforts to change the mindset of a populace that, until relatively recently, have been ravaged by war and poverty but now have more purchasing power for autos.

Southeast Asia as a whole is going through the honeymoon phase of car ownership, as did the United States back in the heyday of its car culture. These countries should take a longer look at their neighbor to the north to see where they are headed- China takes the cake for having the world’s worst traffic jam to date. It seems there is nothing extreme enough to convince a large enough segment of a population in already overpopulated cities that the cons outweigh the pros with car ownership. Sometimes, instead of taking a lesson from those around them, people just need to do it the hard way and experience it themselves for a few generations.