Private vehicles cannot be part of Vietnam's long-term traffic strategy

October 5, 2022 | 04:34 pm PT
Hoang Van Phuong Economist
Private vehicles cannot be part of Vietnam's long-term traffic strategy
A traffic jam on Cong Hoa Street of HCMC's Tan Binh District, which is near Tan Son Nhat airport. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran
I live in Sydney, the city with the highest population and vehicle density in Australia. I can drive my car, or take a bus or the metro to commute to work.

There are cost and time to think about when it comes to commuting. Driving a car, for example, can take you twice the usual time to reach your destination, and parking fees could be 10 times higher than bus fares. And if I want to drive to downtown areas, I would need to go through toll gates, where traffic density is usually high.

All in all, commuting to work in Sydney by car will cost you AUD100 (US$64.80) a day, or around 30% of an average Australian worker's basic wage. That is why I, and most other people in Sydney, opt for public transport instead.

But the situation is different in Vietnam, where most people still use personal vehicles to go around. People do so because public transport is not convenient or reliable, or because of the low cost of using private vehicles, or perhaps both reasons.

A report on the traffic situation in Asia by the Asian Development Bank in 2019 said Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City were among the 10 cities with the worst traffic jams of 278 surveyed.

The population density in downtown Hanoi is either the same or higher than in other similar cities around the world. For instance, it is 40,331 people per square kilometer in Dong Da District, 31,308 in Hai Ba Trung; 29,471 in Hoan Kiem, and 29,295 in Thanh Xuan.

In Japan's Tokyo, it is 6,168 and in South Korea's Seoul, it is 16,000.

People in large cities often use high-capacity public transport systems such as the metro for their daily commute.

But in Vietnam, as the population grows, so does the number of private vehicles. There were around 239,000 newly registered vehicles last year in Hanoi, taking the total number of private vehicles to around 7.5 million. It means nearly every citizen in the capital should own a vehicle.

The rates of population growth and urbanization are still high, and Hanoi’s population could reach 21-25 million in the next few decades and HCMC’s, 13-20 million people, not to mention migrants coming in to work every day.

It means traffic jams in Hanoi and HCMC are likely to worsen in the coming years if we cannot come up with breakthrough solutions backed by support from the public.

If we treat commuters like customer groups, there will be those willing to pay more to travel faster as well as those preferring private vehicles due to their convenience. There will be no universal solution that will make everyone happy.

The best solution is one that will minimize the losses to society and economy due to traffic congestion while making sure that there are alternative ways to move around for everyone.

I want to suggest some solutions to this problem.

First, we need to assess our current traffic systems for resilience. The reason for traffic congestion is the overloaded infrastructure due to the sheer number of vehicles on the road.

Authorities should figure out a way to determine the maximum number of vehicles our traffic system can handle. That number can change every year, depending on how our traffic systems develop over time.

When the need for vehicles exceeds the number the system can handle, the government can either "auction" off the rights to use private vehicles in downtown areas or impose fees for road use to manage the number of vehicles on the road.

For instance, if the public transport system can handle the traveling demands of everyone, the fee for using personal vehicles could be up to VND150,000 ($6.31) a day.

Private vehicles coming in from outside the city would have to pay fees, either by the day or by the hour or even by distance traveled.

Such a solution would also take into account the needs of vulnerable groups, like disabled people, and vehicles used for essential purposes.

Secondly, we should increase the capacity of our public transport system. Imposing fees might be an economically viable solution, but it would impact those with low incomes. Therefore, fees could be used to improve the quality and coverage of public transport, prioritizing bus systems on vital routes. In the long run the situation will only significantly improve once our metro systems are completed.

Thirdly, we should rethink our urban planning and population distribution. An ongoing debate is whether we should build more apartments in downtown areas or move them to the suburbs. While the general trend is for offices to be concentrated in downtown areas, moving too many people to the suburbs may eventually increase the number of people and vehicles on main traffic roads.

In cities like Tokyo, Seoul, Sydney, and Melbourne, there is a certain percentage of downtown buildings with apartments to provide accommodation. However, downtown apartments must also come with schools, hospitals and public spaces.

Fourthly, we should build a database to keep track of urban issues. Such databases could help authorities understand the problems in cities and track how they change over the long run. The issues could be air pollution, traffic congestion, population growth, number of private vehicles, etc...

Vietnam has been a bit late in developing public transport infrastructure in Hanoi and HCMC to keep up with its economic growth and urbanization. But it is never too late to change.

*Hoang Van Phuong is the director of Housing Market Australia.

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