The volume of cars is doubling roughly every five to seven years across Asia.

The automobile. For many, it’s a symbol of freedom or prosperity. Not so for Mumbai resident Firdaus Variava. For him, cars and trucks are a bane that have choked city streets and pumped pollution into once pristine air.

The second most populous city in India has tried to ease congestion with new bridges and roads, but traffic is still strangling the city.

“The volume of cars is always increasing, so whatever gains are made are always negated in a few years,” said Variava, vice chairman of Bharat Floorings Group, a flooring manufacturer based in Mumbai. “We’re playing a constant game of catch-up.”

Asia, which counts eight of the world’s ten largest megacities, is hit particularly hard by this flood of traffic. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates cities across the continent gain some 44m inhabitants every year. Clogged streets mean longer commute times and lower productivity. That means businesses’ bottom lines suffer. Air pollution poisons the environment and citizens, causing lost work days and rising health costs.

There are some success stories, however. Singapore charges drivers who enter its central business district through an electronic toll collection scheme. Since its implementation in 1998, the country’s Land Transport Authority reports there has been a 13% drop in traffic and average road speeds have increased some 20%. Carpooling has also gone up. Other regions are rushing to build better mass transit. But there is a long way to go.

“The volume of cars is doubling roughly every five to seven years across Asia,” said Ko Sakamoto, a transport economist who specialises in sustainable development at the ADB.

The costs of this massive congestion are nothing short of staggering. The ADB estimates anywhere from two to five percentage points in GDP are knocked off Asian economies every year due to lost time and higher transport costs. As much as 80% of air pollution in megacities comes from transport.

Rail fix

To cope with runaway gridlock, Mumbai is building out its rail infrastructure. The existing Mumbai Suburban Railway has an estimated 7.5m riders every day, making its trains the most overloaded in the world. To alleviate this strain, the city is building a metro system, slated to be completed by 2021. It will have a total of nine lines, with the first one alone having a projected capacity of 1.5m people.

The stakes are clearly high for India’s financial capital and commercial hub. Reducing congestion will increase the city’s attractiveness and ultimately lower the costs of doing business. “Congestion has a significant impact on our business,” said Variava. “You can’t expect to go to more than one or two locations per day. A lot of planning goes into where you have to go. You go to one area and that’s it.”

Shanghai and Beijing, two other megacities, face similar challenges. Geoffrey Gaillac, who works as a sales manager in the city for Deco System, a Hong Kong-based company that exports household products to Europe, has experienced first-hand the dizzy spiral of both congestion and pollution.

“It seems the traffic jams you get today in Shanghai just didn’t happen five years ago when I first moved here,” he said. The Frenchman uses an electric scooter to get around the city.

“Beijing is a whole other ball game.” he continued. “Every time I go there for business, I use the metro if I can. I’ve taken taxis before, but the traffic jams make it pure hell. It really limits how much you can get done in one day.” The monthly economic cost of congestion in 2009 was just over 336 yuan ($54) per resident in Beijing and 266 yuan ($42) in Shanghai, according to China’s Horizon Research Consultancy Group.

To combat racing population growth and urbanisation, Shanghai and Beijing are expanding their rail infrastructure. They are also considering charging commuters fees in certain congested areas. “Officials throughout Asia are dealing with the problem, but it’s become a race against time,” said Sakamoto.

The root of the problem

The global traffic crisis can be traced back to Europe and North America. European nations developed their cities and towns around rail hubs. Cities which have followed the European model in building their transportation infrastructure have tended to fare better as their populations have grown. Stockholm is a good example.

However, those modelled on North American cities, built around the mighty automobile, are facing traffic catastrophe. New York is arguably where the zeal of redesigning urban neighbourhoods to accommodate cars began. Starting in the depression-hit 1930s, the city’s so-called master builder, Robert Moses, razed and rebuilt entire neighbourhoods to accommodate motor vehicles.

Asia and the rest of the developing world adopted this model as their own. Decades down the road, they are paying the consequences. Now elected officials and policymakers are desperately trying to turn back the tide of cars.

Aside from rail networks, countries are also turning to bus-based mass transport. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems require less investment than rail infrastructure and can be deployed relatively quickly. Cities such as Guangzhou just north of Hong Kong in mainland China have successfully implemented BRT systems.

The ADB advocates nothing short of a paradigm shift to reverse dangerous levels of congestion and pollution. “Avoid the need for unnecessary travel, shift towards sustainable modes and improve the efficiency of engines and fuels,” said Sakamoto.

Whatever the solution, one thing becomes clear through the smog: Asian cities need to tackle traffic congestion head on if they are to avoid a serious drag on their economies.

But while solutions are slowly rolled out, frustrated dwellers of congested megacities might take some Mumbaikar advice from Firdaus Variava: “People here have come to accept the situation. Everybody is perpetually late. We call it Mumbai standard time.”