Downtown toll or uncontrolled traffic will exact its toll

November 10, 2021 | 05:00 pm PT
Huynh The Du Economist
Collecting downtown toll from automobiles in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is feasible, necessary even, but it should happen alongside developing an effective public transportation system in inner-city areas.

Having studied traffic economics for more than 20 years, I think charging private cars entering the inner city during rush hours is necessary for several reasons.

First, the popularity of motorbikes easily creates the impression that they are the main culprit for all problems of urban traffic in Vietnam, but that's not the case.

Each of the nation's two biggest cities has less than 10 percent of their area dedicated to traffic, with thousands of kilometers of alleys; meaning a four-seat car would occupy the space of about five motorbikes. Clearly, cars are the main culprit in the constantly worsening urban traffic problem.

What will happen to Hanoi and HCMC if, within the next decade, about one million motorbike users switch to cars?

Second, collecting tolls from cars entering the downtown area is a feasible step that can contribute to generating efficiency and fairness in our society.

At present, public transportation is much more inconvenient than private transportation. Therefore, authorities must regulate people's behavior by raising the cost of using private vehicles and at the same time, making public transportation cheaper.

People using public transportation create positive impacts on society, including reducing traffic gridlock and pollution, and therefore, this needs to be encouraged with incentives like subsidies. Meanwhile, people using private transportation create negative impacts and should pay for it.

All over the country, people have the right to travel freely on roads that the government has built using tax money. But unlike those who walk or use motorbikes and bicycles, private automobiles take up more space, worsening traffic congestion at peak hours. People who create a bigger burden for society should pay more for the damage caused.

Lastly, the fees collected from cars entering the downtown area could be used to build and maintain public traffic infrastructure and subsidize public transportation. This is to offset the negative impacts of personal cars.

Increasing the cost of using private vehicles will make people more willing to switch to public transport, and as more people using public transport, it will guarantee sustainable development.

Singapore has applied pull and push measures to developed a highly efficient urban area.

In Vietnam, as I noted earlier, we have to do two things in tandem: implementing a policy to discourage use of personal cars in line with developing an efficient public transport system.

Transport economics theories and real-life practice all show that stability is the decisive factor in people's choice of their means of transport. People need to be confident and sure about how long it will take them to get from one place to another, and that lack of certainty is a huge problem with public transportation in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Regrettably inconvenient

During the summer of 2011, when I was researching the HCMC public transport system, I took many trips on many different routes for months. Almost all of them were problematic and I could not predict the time I would have to spend on each route.

Since that summer, I have used public buses randomly in both HCMC and Hanoi, and I have not seen any marked improvement. Public bus is the most inconvenient transport means in Vietnam. In contrast, motorbikes are the most convenient as it is flexible and people can easily access small alleys or change their itineraries.

Hanoi and HCMC cannot develop with the current traffic structure. The solution is to build a large-capacity public transport system like metro lines or rapid buses with separate lanes.

A separate public transport system will not be obstructed by other vehicles. If HCMC’s first metro line is completed, many people can easily go back and forth between their workplace in District 1 and their houses in Thu Duc City without having to rely on personal vehicles. A full trip would take 40 minutes every day as the train would not be interrupted halfway.

Both Hanoi and HCMC need at least 300 km (186 miles) of large-capacity public transportation plus a bus system with wide coverage to meet residents' needs.

Despite starting two decades ago, HCMC has not finished its first metro line. In Hanoi, the first ever metro line in Vietnam started operating this week after 10 years.

The first line in Hanoi runs 13 km while the one in HCMC runs less than 19.7 km.

Given such developments, I wonder how many metro lines both Hanoi and HCMC would have in another 10 years. The two biggest cities in Vietnam seem to have followed Manila, which has built just 100 km of metro after 40 years, and of Jakarta, which has just 15 km of metro line.

Over a similar period spanning several decades, Seoul, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing have built hundreds of metro lines to form an efficient, effective public transportation network.

For us, the biggest problem is to improve the capacity of public transport systems in both cities at the earliest. Resource allocation must be decided without being constrained by processes, procedures, responsibilities and mechanisms.

If we do not make the changes needed right now, we're turning HCMC and Hanoi into giant parking lots.

*Huynh The Du is a lecturer in public policy at Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management. The opinions expressed are his own.

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