Cable car not panacea for traffic jams

July 11, 2018 - 08:00

A French transportation firm has recently proposed a solution to curb urban traffic congestion in the capital city of Hà Nội, boasting a population of more than 7.5 million.

Viet Nam News

Khánh Dương

A French transportation firm has recently proposed a solution to curb urban traffic congestion in the capital city of Hà Nội, boasting a population of more than 7.5 million.

Proposing a cable car across the Hồng (Red) River, one of the biggest in the country, the new mode of public transport would allow commuters to travel from one side of the crowded city to another. Investment in the project is estimated at up to VNĐ1.3 trillion (US$56.5 million).

This is not the first time a cable car has been put forward as a solution to traffic jams in big Vietnamese cities. Early last year, a company in HCM City proposed a cable car line stretching over 1km to Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport. The proposal, costing up to $24 million, was evaluated as being unrealistic and the investor halted the study.

The proposed 5-km Hồng River cable car would include a 1.2km section crossing the river and a 3.8km running above the ground. The system would link Long Biên transportation station on Hoàn Kiếm District’s Trần Nhật Duật Street, located close to Hà Nội’s Old Quarter with Gia Lâm bus station in the outlying district of Long Biên.

With a capacity of 25 to 30 people in each cabin, the cable car line is expected to carry about 7,000 passengers every hour.

A representative from the group of investors is confident in saying that the cable car line will operate on time without interruption thanks to its own separate lane.

Nguyễn Văn Thanh, president of Vietnam Automobile Transportation Association, said that the river-crossing cable car is a noteworthy proposal.

“The project will be realistic if it serves both commuters and tourists. We can build a station leading to the middle islet of the river and make it a tourism spot,” he said.

Nguyễn Hoài An, director of Commercial Real Estate Services also found the proposal interesting.

“If the cable car serves tourism activities, it will be a highlight of the capital city,” she said.

“We have not fully tapped the potentials of the Red River, especially regarding tourism. Development along river banks will bring benefits to the tourism industry, as well as the real estate sector,” she said.

On the other side, construction and transport experts raised concerns over the project’s feasibility, especially with regard to reducing traffic congestion.

Phạm Sỹ Liêm, Vice Chairman of the Việt Nam Construction Association, said that the cable car’s economic, social and environmental impacts must be taken into consideration.

Equipment and stations will occupy specific areas at the two starting points of the line. We must understand whether that area is big enough for equipment or it might cause chaos for the landscape and environment.

Nguyễn Hữu Đức, senior consultant at the Japan International Co-operation Agency, said “In my opinion, a cable car line across the Red River with the aim of reducing traffic congestion shows little effectiveness. It may increase traffic congestion at the two stops. It is only acceptable for tourism purposes.”

While the city’s transport department has not given any official feedback on the proposal, a department representative, Nguyễn Hoàng Hải, director of the urban transport management centre, told media that the direction of the proposed cable car line is the same as that of the planned Yên Viên-Ngọc Hồi urban metro line.

“This metro line is projected to run at higher speeds than the cable car,” he said.

Technical requirements also pose potential dangers to the ecosystem of the iconic river. According to the French firm, to support the line, girders of 50 to 100m in length will be drilled into the riverbed.

According to the Việt Nam Directorate of Water Resources, the average water level across many parts of the Red River has reduced in recent years, affecting agricultural production and the living conditions of residents in the northern lowland and midland areas due to depression of the river bottom and excessive sand exploitation.

There are concerns that the supporting girders for the cable car line will affect the riverbed and water currents if there is not proper planning.

Costly and irrelevant

Cable cars are being used as a means of public transport in several countries.

A nearly 5 km-long cable car line called Mexicable in Ecapetec, a poor suburb of Mexico City, helps 18,000 passengers a day reach the top of a hill. It is considered a great idea for a steep city where cars and motorcycles struggle.

In Medelín, Colombia’s second city, cable cars carry refugees to the hillside districts where widening streets to create new bus lanes or extending metro lines would have been too costly.

In Western countries where transport infrastructure is more developed, cable cars are popular, but only to bring tourists to landmarks.

Vũ Anh Tuấn, lecturer at the University of Transport and Communication said that it is rare to see cable cars operating in the inner city because of the impacts on urban landscapes and structures. Cable cars are mostly installed in island or mountainous areas where investment is lower than that of building roads.

Transport expert Nguyễn Xuân Thủy is equally unconvinced.

“I find it a difficult to believe the cable car would address traffic problems. It might take away land funds for the city,” he said.  

“We should take into account land clearance in this story. How to plan land to ensure safety for residents living along the line?

“Land clearance and resident resettlement add up to investment expenses. What means of transport do commuters take to get to cable car stations? It is a big question that we have to think about when building supporting transport systems. The total investment cost of the project turns out to be far more than VNĐ1.3 trillion."

With such an enormous investment, the cable car has no advantages in terms of price compared to cheaper means of public transport.

In Việt Nam, cable cars have been used to help tourists get access to islands, pagodas and even mountain tops. Tourists are ready and willing to pay a high price for cable car tickets.

But spending so much on daily public transport, which might also damage the natural environment and local living areas, is something I’d think twice about.

For me, the idea of building a cable car line just for tourism over the Red River seems persuasive, at least to tap the potential of the iconic river. But before building the line, let’s brainstorm which tourism activities fit the area. How to develop waterway tourism without spoiling the natural environment and living space of locals needs a thorough and careful study.

While local authorities are studying the proposal, Hà Nội’s story reminds me of a recent praise-worthy decision by authorities in Hội An on rejecting a proposed cable car project which would have passed through the ancient streets.

The local authorities refused to give 100ha of land to the firm in return for construction of a cable car.

The rejection saved the UNESCO World Heritage Site from possible impacts as warned by experts.

Hội An and Hà Nội, two developing cities by the river bank, have something in common. But Hội An’s move could be a lesson for the capital city.

There are now seven bridges spanning the Red River. It is smarter and more urgent to allocate funds to preserve, renovate and expand downgraded bridges to improve their capacity and quality.

Again, careful consideration is never an outdated message to authorities of any province or city so that the next generation does not have to suffer the consequences of their ancestor’s mistakes. — VNS