For children and babies, the pollution in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar can prove fatal

Buildings disappearing in the smog in Ulaanbaatar, January 2018. Image: Getty.

There is a famous poem which almost every Mongolian knows by heart. It goes: 

Dung smoke pouring forth
I was born in a herder’s home
On the wilderness steppe
I think of my native land

But the days that Mongolians were born in a herder’s home with the smell of dung smoke have long since passed. Nowadays, most Mongolians are born with the acrid smell of coal smoke in their nostrils.  

Even just hearing the word “winter”, my throat starts to hurt.  During wintertime, Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar becomes one of the most polluted cities in the world, as thick smog from coal power stations and coal-burning stoves blankets the freezing streets.

This year the air seems worse than ever, and as the temperatures plummeted and the streets began to fill with smog, I started to wonder – what must this seasonal torture be like for mothers with babies and young children? What kind of worries must fill their minds, when they see their city start to resemble a smoke-filled warzone?

The physical impacts of breathing such polluted air are well known, and are especially dangerous for pregnant women and young children: lower birth weight, impaired brain function, damaged lungs, premature births and stillbirths. And according to UNICEF, pneumonia is now the second most common cause of death for Mongolian children under 5, killing hundreds of babies and toddlers every year.

I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to be a young mother trying to cope with Ulaanbataar’s air crisis – so I spoke to two mothers who could tell me.

Money worries and placebo purifiers

The first was 25-year-old Gerel, currently living with her 11-month-old baby and her husband in one of Ulaanbataar’s most polluted districts. She feels helpless in the face of months of smog and smoke, and worries she can’t afford to protect her family. “There’s no way to reduce the air pollution outside, so I bought an air purifier for our house,” she said. “But good air purifiers are very expensive. My husband and I can’t rely on our parents financially, so we live off only our own salaries. But now only my husband works because I have to take care of my baby. So we had to buy a cheaper Chinese air purifier.”

She admitted that the purifier was more for peace of mind than any noticeable health impact. “Personally I don’t feel the difference of having the air purifier or not, but it makes me feel happier to have it on,” she said. “I also bought an air pollution mask with filters for my son. He really doesn’t like it. He keeps trying to take it off, and he gets very upset wearing it. But that’s very expensive for us too, because you have to change the filters all the time.”

Sarnai, the second mother I interviewed, is 35. She lives with her husband and three children, and manages her own small business. “The best I can do is to keep the air in our home clean, take my kids out of the city on weekends and stay out of the city during summer holidays,” she said. “But it’s so expensive.”

“I saw on Twitter that mothers go abroad during winter. But it’s impossible for us to go abroad during winter. My oldest child goes to school. What am I going to do about their school? Somehow I have to try to survive in Mongolia.”

To breathe or to leave: that is the question

Gerel chose to leave the city to give birth, hoping to protect her newborn son from early exposure to pollution. She plans to return to her parents’ place in the countryside in the winter, but worries about the impact on her marriage.

“I think a family should stay together, so I don’t stay in the countryside for too long,” she said. “It’s hard to stay apart after being married with promises of living together, facing any challenges and raising our baby together. Being apart is hard for both me and my husband. It’s also hard for the kids who grow up without their dads’ care.”

Being separated from her husband isn’t just emotionally challenging – it imposes financial costs, too. “When I stay in the countryside, my husband visits sometimes – he takes a train on Friday night and arrives the next morning, stays on Saturday and heads back to the city on Sunday. But it’s tiring for my husband and costs us so much.”

For Sarnai, separating her family was too much. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to take my kids out of the city and leave my husband and my oldest child behind. If it’s really hurting their health, I would do it to save my children’s life. But my husband should also acknowledge his responsibility as a father. I want us to raise our kids together.”


Black lungs, broken hearts

Since giving birth, Gerel has found herself increasingly frightened by the severity of Mongolia’s pollution. “We just don’t know what will happen to our kids’ lungs in the future. It’s scary. I didn’t used to care so much about air pollution when I was single - I used to complain about my throat hurting, but that was it. But now I worry about how my son’s lungs are, how the pollution is affecting his body.”

Mothers in Ulaanbaatar have come together online to discuss their fears, but for Gerel it doesn’t always help. “I know that mothers share their stresses or worries on mothers’ groups on Facebook… the group that I am in now is very active. But my biggest fear is the screenshots on the posts that mothers make,” – like pictures of lungs turned black from coal dust.

Sarnai also frequently shared her pollution worries with friends and family on Facebook. But that, she said, is relatively unusual. “Many Mongolians aren’t able to identify their own mental issues, or own up that something is making them stressed,” she said. “We have this attitude that no one should admit that they have problems. We’re just polishing ourselves on the outside.”

Sarnai worries that her children’s future is bleak. “What’s dangerous about this air pollution is that the consequences aren’t even known at the moment,” she says.  “I think our kids will gradually become worse at studying and focusing. It’s really sad to think that the impacts of air pollution will live with our future generations for years. It‘s heartbreaking.”

“I want to run away from Mongolia,” she says. “But I don’t know where to.”

A social movement for change?

Sometimes, it feels like our city is under the spell of a furious dragon, spewing smoke and ash. But if air pollution is the dragon, the question becomes - who will defeat this monster? Should we sit and wait for a “hero” with a muscular body, a sharp wit, and a lightning-fast horse to save us? Or should we try to find a way by ourselves?

In the late 19thand early 20th century, London was notorious for its thick smog. Caused by the mass burning of coal for power and heat, the smog reached disastrous levels in December 1952, killing up to 12,000 people and hospitalizing thousands more. In response to public pressure, the “Clean Air Act” was passed in 1956, forcing homes and businesses to reduce coal use and accelerating the uptake of clean fuels. By 1980, air pollution in London had fallen by 80%.

The city of London was saved by social movement, scientific pressure, effective policies, and the cooperation of civilians and government. But who is going to save Ulaanbaatar? Air pollution is a complex problem which demands everyone’s participation. Governments will not change the law without public pressure, and laws alone will not create the social change required to make coal pollution history. There have been anti-pollution protests in Ulaanbaatar, but as Sarnai pointed out, too many Mongolians still don’t want to admit how scared they are.

*Names have been changed throughout. 

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.