Ho Chi Minh City and the limits of growth

November 16, 2022 | 04:16 pm PT
Michael Tatarski Journalist
The Kenh Te Bridge may just be one representative example of the dangers of growth outpacing development, but without dramatic changes, its congestion will be a preview of the entire city.

A friend of mine who lives in District 7 recently told me about how difficult it can be to get from his house to other parts of Ho Chi Minh City.

After the Kenh Te Bridge was expanded following a long construction process, traffic was just as congested within a week or two as more cars poured into the bigger space. What had been promised as a solution just led to more of the same. As a result, he said, his daily commute did not improve at all, with time lost sitting in traffic exposed to rain, heat, and exhaust fumes from the surrounding vehicles. He even has to think twice about going into District 1 for social occasions since the drive can take such a long time.

This experience is familiar to many city residents, and a prime example of an urban planning problem called induced demand in which road expansion carried out in the name of reducing traffic simply creates further congestion. This is best exemplified by the massive highways of cities like Houston, which can stretch to 16 lanes wide and still face traffic jams.

The best way to reduce traffic demand is to give residents an alternative to their private vehicle, namely mass transit systems like a metro. But Ho Chi Minh City is struggling mightily to provide any alternative to the personal car or motorbike.

The Ben Thanh-Suoi Tien metro line, the city's first, has missed numerous deadlines over the years and currently has a vague opening timeline of late 2023. Work has not even begun on the Ben Thanh-Tham Luong line even though it was approved a decade ago, and all other lines are only in the planning stage.

More funding needs to be made available for these vital projects, while the capabilities of city officials and organizations to effectively execute such complex work also need to be dramatically enhanced.

Sadly, these two metro lines are just part of a long list of delayed infrastructure projects crucial to Ho Chi Minh City’s future liveability.

Construction of Tan Son Nhat's much-needed third terminal has not begun despite years of discussion, while Long Thanh International Airport is still years away. Ring roads and expressways face major delays, while existing expressways are run-down and overloaded.

Heavy traffic on roads near Tan Son Nhat airport in HCMC, January 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Heavy traffic on roads near Tan Son Nhat airport in HCMC, January 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

A huge flood defense system has been delayed since 2018 and has no set completion date, even as tidal flooding continues to inconvenience multiple districts.

In recent weeks the annual king tide season has inundated parts of District 7 and Nha Be - areas that would be protected by the above-mentioned flood defense project.

These are not low-level concerns, either. Both General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh visited Ho Chi Minh City in recent months and urged officials to speed up infrastructure development.

But progress remains slow, with lack of funding generally cited as the biggest issue. Despite its economic dynamism, the city simply does not have the money needed to pay for all of these huge projects. And, as evidenced by Prime Minister Chinh's recent call for improved public budget disbursement, money is not even always spent when it is allocated.

Dozens of public projects in the city have received little to no funding this year, despite having a budget set aside. At this point it is clear that policy changes need to be made in order to both set aside more funding for Ho Chi Minh City, and ensure that officials effectively spend the funding they have access to.

Some adjustments to policy have been made, but they have not been as successful as intended. For example, in November 2017, the city was granted a special mechanism allowing leadership to introduce additional fees and charges to increase budget revenue, make changes to tax collection policy, and make other decisions without needing approval from central ministries.

However, officials have admitted that this has not spurred development because permission from higher-level agencies is still needed for key processes such as equitizing state-owned companies. That special mechanism may be extended for another year, but it is clear that further action is needed.

Bangkok, one of Ho Chi Minh City's closest regional peers, is not without its own significant issues, but it has a fairly extensive - and growing - mass transit network. The Skytrain, underground metro, and airport rail lines do not cover the entire city, but they are incredibly convenient for reaching many neighborhoods and help huge numbers of people get around every day.

At its current rate of metro construction, Ho Chi Minh City will be lucky to match Bangkok in the coming decades without dramatic change. This raises some very concerning questions for the future.

What will driving in the city look like in 2030 - or 2040 - if metro lines continue to be delayed? What will flying into or out of Tan Son Nhat be like if the airport is forced to continue operating above capacity? Traffic in the air above the airport and on the ground outside is already chaotic. How will flood-prone neighborhoods fare as sea levels rise and protection systems stall? Residents of District 7 and other low-lying areas already face chronic tidal and rain-induced flooding.

The overarching policies needed to address these critical challenges are already in place, in the form of planned mass transit, airport expansion, and floodgates, though of course more needs to be done beyond these projects. The bureaucratic processes standing in the way of progress need to be streamlined, however, while far more funding needs to be freed up as well. Ho Chi Minh City could, for example, be allowed to keep more of its revenue for spending within the city. It is clear now that without faster planning and development procedures, and without more money, the future may be dim.

Finding out the answers to the above questions will be crucial if Ho Chi Minh City is to maintain its dynamism and remain a liveable place for its millions of residents in the future. The Kenh Te Bridge may just be one representative example of the dangers of growth outpacing development, but without dramatic changes, its congestion will be a preview of the entire city.

*Michael Tatarski is an American journalist and editor living in HCMC.

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