Hanoi versus the motorbike: A city fights a lifestyle

By Lukas Schwitzer   July 7, 2017 | 12:01 pm GMT+7
Hanoi versus the motorbike: A city fights a lifestyle
In Vietnam, and especially in the capital, a motorbike is not just a means of transport. It is an extension of the body, an integral part of everyday life. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang

The decision to ban motorcycles seems destined to fail before taking effect in 2030. 

A young woman steers her blue motorbike through the small, permanently clogged Vu Thanh Street in Hanoi. In the midst of impatiently honking bikers fighting for supremacy over the road with the few cars present, she makes her way to the side of the street and stops.

She begins a discussion, which will take several minutes, with a woman selling fruit and vegetables on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, traffic flows around her scooter like an angry river. The young woman gets her wares, pays and drives about ten meters further down the street.

There, a man is selling meat. Again, a sale is finalized within minutes and she leaves the side of the road, her food in bags hanging from a hook on her scooter. She has bought the day’s groceries without even getting off her bike.

Similar scenes occur in Hanoi countless times every single day. In Vietnam, and especially in the capital, a motorbike is not just a means of transport. It is an extension of the body, an integral part of everyday life. They are used to transport goods, paying passengers, and entire families. Hanoi’s streets are not made for pedestrians. No wonder, considering the city’s seven million inhabitants boast about five million motorcycles.

Cars, with the exorbitant import taxes charged for them, are too expensive for the majority of Vietnamese people, but their numbers are steadily growing.

Currently, around half a million cruise the streets of Hanoi. And while a growing middle class looks at cars as a new status symbol, they are far from replacing motorbikes in the capital’s traffic. So naturally, the city's July 4th decision was greeted with incomprehension. By 2030, the decision stated, all motorbikes are to be banned from Hanoi’s downtown streets. Instead, people must be encouraged to use public transport.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc contemplated a similar idea as early as 2013. The then deputy prime minister spoke of the need for a plan “to gradually ban motorbikes from big cities”. At least for one city, that plan is being put into action.

Apart from the chaotic traffic that makes many of Hanoi’s streets impassable during rush hour, the worsening air quality is also being blamed on motorcycles. The levels of tiny PM2.5 particles in the air regularly reach hazardous levels, even topping those measured in Beijing’s notorious smog clouds.

People in breathing masks now contribute to Hanoi’s look as much as their bikes. “The air irritates the people’s eyes and noses,” explains 35-year-old bank employee Hanh Kieu Pham. “The skin is also affected by it. It’s vital to protect yourself.”

The Ministry of Transport also cited a questionable survey as one of the reasons behind the decision. According to the ministry, more than 90 percent of the 15,000 people surveyed supported a future motorbike ban. In local media, the number was criticized as being unbelievable.

Le Do Muoi, a ministry department head, was forced to defend the findings. “We did not make this up,” he said, addressing the criticism. According to Muoi, 84 percent of survey participants also stated that they would switch to public transport if suitable alternatives were available. VnExpress countered the numbers with a survey of its own, which produced contrary results.

One of the main reasons for the doubts is the state of the city’s public transport system. Even though Hanoi is inhabited by more than seven million people, public transport rests entirely on the shoulders of a system of bus routes stuck in its infancy.

Not only are many of the vehicles old, but frequency and route placement also leave much to be desired, as Binh Van Duong laments. “If you want to take the bus, you can’t be in a hurry,” says the 28-year-old who has lived in the U.S. and Europe. “The bus comes when it comes. And it arrives at its destination when it arrives. Because in the end, the bus has to contend with the same traffic as everybody else.”

A first step to face this problem was taken with the establishment of Hanoi’s first rapid transport bus route, which reserves a separate lane for its buses. However, according to Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, the system that was inaugurated at the start of the year only transports 42.4 passengers per trip on average, less than half of the brand-new buses’ capacity.

Hanoi’s hopes now rest entirely on a new metro system that is currently under development. The network is planned to cover more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) with eight lines. Two lines are currently under construction, with one of them – Line 2A, Cat Linh to Ha Dong – slated for completion by the end of this year. The second line – Line 3, Nhon to Hanoi Station – was meant to be finished in 2018, but has endured several delays.

Construction is now expected to be completed in 2021, meaning a total construction time of eleven years. It is as yet unclear when construction on the six remaining lines is to begin. Work on Line 5 was supposed to start in 2017, but the groundbreaking was delayed.

Considering current and past failures in developing a public transport system able to handle Hanoi’s population, 2030 seems an unlikely time frame to get rid of all the motorbikes in the capital.

47-year-old mechanic Minh Ngoc Nguyen, for instance, doesn’t see his profession as being in peril just yet. “People in Hanoi will not give up their bikes this quickly. It’s not just a means of transport, it’s a lifestyle for us,” he said.

“I’m going to work for maybe 20 more years. And I’m sure this is not going to affect me any more. But the young workers who are now starting in the profession? Maybe at some point, it will no longer be possible for them to be motorbike mechanics.”

The number of people in Hanoi who depend on motorbikes, their maintenance or their accessories for a living is unknown.

In the end, banker Hanh appreciates the city’s intentions. “Something has to happen, this much is clear to most people here,” she says. “If we keep going the way we are now, soon we will not be able to leave our houses without breathing masks at all.”

*The article does not necessarily reflect the views of VnExpress International or VnExpress. VnExpress International welcomes more discussion on this topic.