Reality may drive spoke into Saigon bike sharing ideal

By Long Nguyen   January 2, 2020 | 05:11 pm PT
Reality may drive spoke into Saigon bike sharing ideal
A person cycles in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Shutterstock/Distinctive Shots.
Three tech firms propose a bicycle-sharing scheme in downtown Saigon despite skepticism from local citizens and experts alike.

Waking up at daybreak then travelling in nearly one hour by bus to work each day, Nguyen Thanh Phong, a white-collar employee in Ho Chi Minh City, lasted only 2 months trying to commute by bicycle.

"I tried cycling because it is good for my health, but I gave up after getting hit by a motorbike. Biking in HCMC is challenging."

Hearing about the firms' plan, Phong showed little interest, sure he would make no two-wheeled return anytime soon.

"HCMC is no utopia for cyclists who have no specified lanes. Plus, who would feel comfortable bicycling in this polluted air," he said.

Phong is not alone in doubting the feasibility of cycling in the country's largest metropolis. 

In August 2019, three tech firms Tri Nam Technology Development Investment, Mobike and IOT Vietnam proposed a bicycle-sharing plan in downtown Saigon, which according to a transport official, could help short-distance commuters. If approved, trials would begin in District 1, which hosts many government buildings, schools, hospitals, and 31 bus routes transporting commuters in and out of the city.

About 800-1,000 bicycles will be available in the initial period with 70-80 docking stations, which can hold 10-20 bikes, located next to bus stops, schools and tourism spots.

Fully aware of the health benefits, many expressed doubts given the city’s pollution, weather conditions and infrastructure.

Le Van Hung, a 46-year old man from District 11, cycles one-hour each morning but would never consider using his bike to commute to work. According to Hung, "it takes too much time - motorbikes, buses or ride-hailing services are much faster."

"I don't want to spend 40 minutes cycling after a tiring work day, or spend 10-15 minutes finding a parking space for my bike whenever I hit the streets," the lecturer maintained. He has a group of 6 friends biking to exercise daily, but "none of them goes to work by bike."

Knowing biking can improve health, many urbanites are still not willing to pedal their way around considering the worsening air quality in HCMC.

HCMC, Vietnam's largest city, has been choked by haze regularly in 2019. The air quality index in the city has reached very unhealthy levels on many days since September.

"Cycling is said to provide health benefits, but with air pollution levels remaining high, who is brave enough to venture out and breathe the lethal air?" asked Phong.

Biking in Saigon's summer heat is also a hard job for most cyclists, and a severe deterrent to traveling by bicycle in daytime. 

Another problem is safety concerns, city streets lacking a dedicated lane for bicycles, while there are a large number of cars and motorbikes to contend with, said economist Chung Thanh Tien.

HCMC has around 7.3 million motorbikes for its more than 8.4 million citizens, according to its Department of Transportation. The only streets that have lanes for bikes in HCMC are Pasteur and Tran Hung Dao in District 1.

Nguyen Hoang, an avid cyclist in Phu Nhuan District, said he had faced numerous challenges while sharing lanes with motorbikes and cars on the bustling streets of Saigon.

Trial and failure

HCMC has tried to put its residents back on two wheels in efforts to reduce gas emissions, one of the main factors causing air pollution.

Saigons streets lack a dedicated lane for bicycles. Photo by Shutterstock/StreetVJ.

Saigon's streets lack a dedicated lane for bicycles. Photo by Shutterstock/StreetVJ.

In 2018, HCMC's People Committee required the Department of Transport to consider limiting trucks, allowing cyclists to travel on sidewalks and managing parking places for bikes to encourage people to cycle more. 

In the same year, the National University of HCMC piloted Easy Move, which aimed to help students travel across campus via a system of 100 bicycles. After 1 month, there were 4,000 registered users. However, after 3 months, several bikes were vandalized and parked improperly, causing the project to be revoked. 

Previously, in 2017, the Department of Transport had planned to pilot public bike services in downtown Saigon. The department per se bought a number of two-wheelers to convince its staff to switch from motorbikes to bicycles, but an official admitted those had become "zombie bikes" after a short period of time due to infrastructure, weather and the state of traffic.

Tran Nam from HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities maintains it is essential to learn from the failure of other countries such as the Philippines and China if local authorities want to implement public bikes in District 1.

In Manila (Philippines), the lack of separate lanes for bikes and hot weather made people abandon public bicycles. Meanwhile, in Beijing (China), millions of unused and damaged bikes were left on streets and sidewalks following bike-sharing fever, causing a huge waste for the country.

Nam added it is not easy for Vietnamese urbanites to give up on their motorbikes and switch to bicycles. He suggested the city boost its public transport system with metro lines because "perhaps using bicycles in HCMC is only suitable for international tourists, who want to pedal slowly to explore the city."

The percentage of cyclists in HCMC dropped from 9.4 percent in 2002 to 2.8 percent in 2013; meanwhile, those commuting by motorcycle and car undoubtedly increased, according to a Japan International Cooperation Agency report.

"I once had a flat tire and found no place to fix it. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of regular cyclists in town," Phong said. "I think we are living in a bike-unfriendly society."

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