Fighting traffic gridlocks: Hanoi needs more than one hero
In July, the Center for Environment and Development of the University of Oslo, Norway organized a webinar entitled “Sustainable urban transport in Vietnam: Transition, challenges and future prospects”.
The online workshop studied lessons learned from the urban transport transition in Vietnam and invited international experts to attend to help find solutions to traffic problems in big cities in Vietnam. Here are the recommendations of two experts Arve Hansen and Nguyen Ngoc Binh. This article reflects the personal views of the authors.
A street in Hanoi during rush hour. Photo: Doan Bong.
It was 6:30 p.m. at Nguyen Trai – Khuat Duy Tien intersection – coined as the most ‘modern’ 4-level intersection in Hanoi, thousands of vehicles of all kinds were fighting for their rights of way. The noise of vehicles’ engines, the relentless honking sounds, the overwhelming smell of exhaust fume, and the intolerable heat and humidity of the early summer day in July could easily discourage the bravest souls from driving through this area during rush hours. Yet, this traffic nightmare is the daily experience of millions of urban residents who often commute via major thoroughfares connecting the city’s central and the rapidly expanding urban fringes of Hanoi.
The mantra ‘Hà Nội không vội được đâu’ (One cannot make haste in Hanoi) could help some daily commuters to maintain their calm and sanity while plying through the crowded streets. Nevertheless, with the rapid growth of the capital city, numerous megaprojects aiming to expand road networks and upgrade the public transit system have failed to deliver any transformative changes. Finding solutions for Hanoi’s urban mobility challenges is self-evidently complex. However, we believe that the starting point to think about the recipe for the city’s transport and mobility system should incorporate a multidimensional perspective. Such an approach should focus on not only improving the efficiency and accessibility to transport services, but also maintaining the social coherence and long-term livability of the city. With this premise in mind, we provide some suggestions to solve one of the most pressing challenges in Hanoi today.
Public transport as the backbone
For a city of 9 million inhabitants, Hanoi’s public transit network is gravely inadequate. Public transit in the capital city relies on a fleet of only 1,546 public buses and one BRT lane, and only accounted for 8-9% of the total trip demand in Hanoi.
The lack of reliability, safety, accessibility, comfort, and convenience are among the reasons deterring people from relying on public transit for their journeys. Continuing investments in buses and metros should be a top priority to keep public transit growing on par with increasingly higher and more diversified mobility demands. Making public transport more accessible and convenient for population groups that often have lower levels of mobility and higher reliance on public transport, such as the elder, the poor, the disabled, children, women, and students, should also be a priority. This requires changes in the planning and design of public transit facilities and changes in policies and incentives targeting these groups.
Furthermore, the lack of first-mile and last-mile mobility options is among the main factors that discourage higher public transit patronage. This is most evident in new urban areas, where public transit coverage is often lower than the urban core. Using private motorbikes and cars is more convenient and often the only choice for people living in these new urban areas to move around. A range of solutions can be introduced to address these problems, from improving walking facilities to investing in new bike or e-bike stations around terminals for public transit users. Additionally, taking advantage of the existing network of motorbike taxis is also a feasible option. Traditional motorbike taxis and the new ride-hailing motorbike taxis can help people reach their destinations in areas located far away from the main streets and inaccessible by bus or metros. Other Southeast Asian cities can serve as good examples for Hanoi here. In Bangkok or Jakarta, motorbike taxi fleets are often run and organised by both the drivers’ organisations and local transport authorities and play an essential role in the intermodal transport systems. In Vietnam, however, transport authorities have been reluctant to work with the motorbike taxi due to its long-standing informal status. We urge a change of mindset and recommend transport authorities and agencies to work with motorbike taxi drivers to improve their valuable services for public transit users.
Car is not the future for urban transport
In recent years, with rapid growth in personal income and declines in automobile import tariffs, cars have become more affordable and available for the upper and middle classes in Vietnam. While research and studies often highlight the adverse social and environmental problems associated with heavy car usage, the uncritical reception and adoption of cars in Vietnam are problematic.
Besides providing a safer and more convenient means of transport, cars are considered as a status and wealth symbol. However, on a more practical level, the car today represents the most significant threat for traffic in Hanoi. Cars occupy significantly more space than motorbikes and even encroach upon sidewalks due to the lack of parking facilities. On many narrow streets, a single SUV can cause hour-long traffic jams. In the long run, transport planning centered around automobiles often causes more problems than benefits, ranging from increasing noise and air pollution through traffic-related injuries to declining general well-being and social connection within urban communities. Expanding road networks and building new urban expressways to accommodate automobility also incur hefty costs and dry up public investments into public transport, walking, or bicycling facilities.
Thus, stricter restrictions on car use must be thoroughly considered. As Vietnam enters more free trade agreements, tariffs for cars are expected to drop dramatically, and more people can afford cars for private use in the future. The city’s government needs to stay ahead of this trend and introduce measures and organise infrastructure in ways that limit car use, such as creating car-free zones, especially in areas where narrow roads and streets cannot accommodate cars’ movements.
Embracing the motorbike and bicycle
Nguyen Ngoc Binh.
Another recommendation we propose is to stop blaming the motorbike and instead embrace this two-wheeled vehicle. As a city that grows organically for most of its history, many districts in Hanoi are connected by a labyrinth of narrow and winding streets, accessible only by motorbikes, bicycles, or on foot. With its flexibility and high maneuverability, the motorbike is a champion in this condition and becomes the primary vehicle that enables the daily movements of people and goods. This system of ‘moto-mobility’ is also an essential catalyst for socially and economically conducive interactions, from going shopping at local markets, picking up kids from schools to meeting with friends and families. Furthermore, the motorbike is crucial for many other urbanites, such as street vendors, market merchants, motorbike taxi drivers or delivery persons, who rely on motorbikes to earn a living and provide essential services for the functioning of the city. Therefore, an abruption to motorbike’s mobility will hit the poor and the less privileged the hardest and risk upsetting Hanoi's existing social fabric and vibrant street life.
We try to avoid romanticising the motorbikes here as the motorbikes are still among the top CO2 emitters on the streets. However, erasing the motorbikes and two-wheeled mobility options from the future is not what we will recommend. Other solutions, such as introducing incentives to replace old and polluting motorbikes or to drive up e-scooter usages, are more suitable for Hanoi. E-scooters that can compete with the traditional petrol-driven motorbike are suitable low-carbon transport solutions for Hanoi. Furthermore, the e-scooter industry can also be a potential industry for Vietnam to pursue, instead of the automobile industry, which has failed to take off despite numerous government efforts.
Furthermore, making Hanoi bicycle-friendly again is our final recommendation. The bicycle is a clear winner in terms of CO2 emission, even compared to public transports. Hanoi has a long and proud history of bicycling. Bicycling today remains a favourite way of exercising, especially during the pandemic when other forms of entertainment and exercise were inaccessible. However, making a bicycle renaissance come true requires a significant shift in mentality and serious consideration of the role of bicycles in the planning and design of the city. Reallocation and redirection of funding from automobile-friendly infrastructure to bicycle-friendly infrastructure should also be implemented to build roads and facilities that invite people to bike more regularly.
While carrying out all of these solutions is not a simple job, we believe that they are feasible considering the successes in other cities across the world and Asia with similar initiatives. Furthermore, as these solutions are sensitive to Hanoi's context, we believe that if implemented correctly, they will solve the city’s mobility challenges and help preserve the aesthetic, history, social fabric, and environmental landscapes of the capital city. What is also clear is that these initiatives require close collaborations between governments, businesses, and people. It is only through this multi-stakeholder process that Hanoi can hope to build a future mobility system that works for every citizen. Still, the question remains whether or not the government and people of Hanoi are ready to make these changes.
Arve Hansen and Nguyen Ngoc Binh
Arve Hansen is a researcher at Centre for Development and Environment (SUM), University of Oslo (Norway).
Nguyen Ngoc Binh is a PhD candidate at Department of Geography, McGill University (Canada).