Trọng Kiên & Thu Vân
HÀ NỘI — Khuất Việt Hùng, Vice Chairman of the National Committee of Traffic Safety, has been cycling to work for the past seven years. As someone who deals with the country’s traffic problems, he feels the need to set an example through his modest efforts to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution in Hà Nội.
However, Hùng’s choice is an anomaly, as evidenced by the choked roads of the rapidly changing capital city, with motorised scooters zigzagging their ways through dense swarms of traffic.
The city’s vehicle inventory includes around 5.5 million motorbikes and 600,000 cars. With the bus system only meeting 10 per cent of demand by the metro area’s 10 million residents, these six million individual vehicles serve more than 80 percent of the need.
Vũ Văn Viện, Director of Hà Nội’s Transport Department, says that if 60 per cent of all available cars and motorcycles in the city travel simultaneously at 20km/h, the space needed to accommodate them would reach 1.34 times what the city’s traffic infrastructure can handle. In the four inner city districts, that figure would climb to a staggering 3.72 times.
Gas emissions from traffic are also at an all-time high, and likely continue rising. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has named the city among the most air-polluted in the world, with traffic activities reportedly contributing 70 per cent to the pollution.
“We are not exempt from the inevitables of a developing country, where transportation demands often exceed cities’ capacity to provide transport infrastructure,” Hùng said.
Search for solutions
With congestion at breaking point and the need for drastic actions evident, the city has crafted a plan that would banish the ubiquitous two-wheeled vehicles by 2030, better serve travel demands and improve environmental quality.
One of its core components is to develop a synchronised public transport system that can meet at least 30-35 per cent of the travel demands in the inner districts by 2020, and 50-55 per cent by 2030.
By which time, the capital city citizens can be expected to enjoy six new metro lines and three bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, partly bankrolled by World Bank.
The city has sought various other remedies for its traffic ailments over the years. Ideas included alternate-day travel schemes for vehicles with odd- and even-numbered licence plates, restricting new licence plate registration, auctioning the rights to travel, or imposing an exorbitant charge on vehicles entering the inner districts. The proposals were put forth, shelved and resurrected, only to be scrapped again due either to public ire or infeasibility.
However, according to Khuất Việt Hùng, Hà Nội’s newest plan is “the most comprehensive and sensible yet,” as it contains numerous technical measures dealing with all aspects of the transport situation. Previous proposals were disconnected attempts that stemmed from what he termed the "controlling and limiting" mindset of policy-makers, while the new plan focuses more on optimising the use of individual vehicles on existing infrastructure.
"We’re not talking about banning or restricting individual motorised vehicles as a measure alone, we’re talking about giving people a better alternative to cars and motorbikes, providing people with an acceptable public transport system so that giving up individual motorised vehicles would not pose a threat," he said.
Hà Nội City’s plan to limit individual vehicles and develop public transportation. — VNA/VNS Infographic
The roadmap comprises three phases. In 2017-2018, the city will focus its resources on “implementing measures to manage vehicles and enhance State management in traffic.” In 2017-2020, it will deploy measures to “manage the number and quality of vehicles” as well as to beef up the city’s public transport. And in the third phase, from 2017-2030, Hà Nội will step by step “limit the number of vehicles in certain areas during certain timeframes,” and prepare “necessary conditions” to enforce a full ban in the core area of the city.
In other words, over the next 13 years, Hà Nội will try to improve its management of individual vehicles while working to build a better public transport network at the same time.
“This is a very ambitious and daring plan, but justifiably and legitimately so. The traffic situation has become unbearable,” Hùng said.
Jen Jungeun Oh, Senior Transport Economist and Transport Cluster Leader of the World Bank in Việt Nam, endorsed the city’s efforts.
“In principle, the plan is right to aim to better manage individual vehicles, as the city cannot just build its way out of congestion," she says. However, the specific methods to achieve this goal must be carefully considered, she warned, explaining why strict bans or limitations would not work.
“Bans or restrictions in other countries, such as odd-even licence plate schemes, are ineffective. People found a way to get around it. People need to go to work, to schools, hospitals, shopping – so even if you restrict them, they will find a way. To change this we need to provide alternative mobility measures," she added.
Hùng said Hà Nội and HCM City authorities have already planted the first seeds for their ambitious plan, notably by the much-talked-about "reclaiming the sidewalks" campaigns that have spread to other large cities in Việt Nam.
The aggressive crackdowns, welcomed by the public for the most part, are aimed at clearing the sidewalks off of the ever-crowded makeshift eateries and parking vehicles, and returning this public space to its rightful users – pedestrians. If people can once again use the sidewalks without any hassle, they will find it more enjoyable to walk, either to their destinations or to a bus stop, instead of resorting to motorcycle even just for a short-distance journey.
“If walking is seen as an inconvenience, then how can we expect people to use public transport?” Hùng asked.
According to traffic safety surveys, 40 per cent of motorcycle journeys cover less than 2km.
Eliminating even half these journeys by walking, instead, would have a significant impact.
Another ‘litmus test’ Hà Nội has adopted as early start to its ambitious scheme is a ban imposed this year on weekend traffic around the city’s central Hoàn Kiếm Lake has proven highly popular with both local citizens and tourists. This serves to “demonstrate the fact that if restrictions and bans are reasonable, in line with public expectations, objections would be a non-issue,” Hùng said.
A train parking at the elevated La Khê station, part of the Hà Nội Metro. — Photo vietnammoi.vn
Not everyone is so enthusiastic.
Yano Takeshi, General Director of Yamaha Motor Việt Nam Co Ltd and Chairman of the Việt Nam Association of Motorcycle Manufacturers (VAMM), said Việt Nam is "unique" in its condition.
The Yamaha director found it hard to imagine "separation of people from motorcycles" as for now the two-wheeled vehicles remain the most economic and convenient option given the poor infrastructure and public transport development.
"Therefore, we think that the authorities should continue to study further, focusing on the actual needs of the people in order to propose feasible and detailed action plan, minimise disturbances to people's daily life and work, as well as avoid negative economic consequences," he said.
As a representative of a business sector that will be adversely impacted by the city's plan, he also pointed out that VAMM five member manufacturers – Honda, Yamaha, SYM, Piaggio, and Suzuki – contribute a great deal to the economy, provide employment for 100,000 Vietnamese workers including thousands of jobs in the parts supply sector.
However, the VAMM representative said the association is also looking at the motorcycle issue in both positive and negative directions, and said they are "willing to support the Government in carrying out research, referring to the successful lessons from other motorised countries" as seen in the case of Taiwan, where public transport and traffic infrastructure are already quite advanced, but use of motorcycles is not limited. "They found ways to harmonise motorcyles and public transportation, while reducing congestion," he said, suggesting Việt Nam that could adopt these successful traffic management practices.
People whose livelihoods depend on motorcycles – whether a motorcycle taxi (xe ôm) or good transporters – understandably, are not too thrilled about this imminent threat. Car users are also voicing aloud their concerns regarding how expensive it’s going to be just to get in the city centres.
Hùng from the National Traffic Safety Committee, however, said that once an acceptable public transport network is available, there might be no need to impose bans or restrictions. "I believe people will voluntarily give up individual vehicles if they have a better choice," he said.
Transportation experts are suggesting other options for Hà Nội to consider.
Jungeun Oh from the World Bank suggested the application of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), an urban planning principle that promotes integration of urban development and transit system.
"TOD is a way to locate people near transit services and to decrease their dependence on individual transport vehicles," she said.
The authorities develop the public transport system and this will induce or enable high-density development along the transit lines. The model has been applied successfully in many cities, including Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington DC.
‘Land value capture’ mechanism is a recommended method to implement TOD suggested by the World Bank senior specialist.
In Hà Nội, for example, this would mean asking business owners to partially fund some of the transportation improvements given that the value of land in commercial areas would appreciate due to better public transport.
She cited the case of Washington DC, where a special tax was levied on businesses to fund the extension of the metro train system. “Businesses are willing to pay additional fees because people can now easily get to their businesses by using the metro,” she said.
Another lesson is in Japan, where rent as well as parts of revenues from private businesses utilising additional floors on top of train station will be used to further expand railroad. The former deputy minister of transport, Lã Ngọc Khuê, has put forth this model in many proposals as a way of attracting private sector involvement into Việt Nam’s flagging rail development but has yet to materialise.
The chaotic traffic in Hà Nội is not just a result of overloaded roads, but also a consequence of low awareness and undeveloped "traffic culture" leading to low compliance with the law.
Running red lights, failing to wear safety helmets, transporting overloaded containers, parallel driving, drifting and weaving back and forth across lanes, and general disregard for traffic regulations when there’s no police around are ubiquitous phenomena.
As Hùng says, traffic culture in Hà Nội (and Việt Nam in general) is “filling in the blanks” - driving on every empty space, whether they have a right to do so or not.
The National Traffic Safety Committee has launched various campaigns and programmes to raise awareness of vehicle users to simple traffic regulations. The latest endeavour targets high-school students.
The World Bank expert said society and media need to keep reaching out and spreading awareness on trafic rights and wrongs. “Education on traffic rules and safety should continue only starting from pupils but also for general road users through various mediums. But, education needs to be supported by enforcement. Even when people are aware of traffic rules, if there are no consequences, many may still violate them.”
Changes will not happen overnight. It remains to be seen whether by 2030, the optimistic scenario that the city authorities have painted will become a reality. For now, the city streets will have to accommodate the travelling needs of ever-swelling population. — VNS