Motorbike culture eclipses delayed public transport in Vietnam's capital

By Ngan Anh   November 12, 2017 | 08:09 pm PT
Motorbike culture eclipses delayed public transport in Vietnam's capital
Motorcyclists cross an intersection in downtown Hanoi. Photo by AFP
Commuters in Hanoi appear to still prize the flexibility of getting around on two wheels above all else.

From her high-rise office building in Hanoi, Hoang Long Bien looked outside as a thick layer of smog rolled into the capital, turning skyscrapers into shadows.

The toxic smog trigged by the fumes from motorbikes exhausts, construction and industry has made breathing a concern for Bien’s family. Riding to work by motorbike every day, Bien says her throat is constantly hurting, especially during winter.

When Hanoi launched its Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) late last year, it should have been good news for Bien. The city hoped that the new system would take some motorbikes off the roads, reducing congestion and pollution in a city with more than five million motorized two-wheelers.

However, the 34-year-old teacher from Hanoi National University has never intended to change her commuting habits.

Having never even considered trying the BRT, Bien said: “The roads are crowded, so traveling by motorbike is faster than the BRT.”

The BRT has failed to achieve the promise of cutting travel times in half due to the challenges of keeping the lane free.

The system hinges on exclusive bus lanes marked out by white lines, but many of the city's commuters simply ignore them.

Vu Ha, director of the Hanoi Urban Transport Development Project Management Unit, said without a physical divider, “the buses aren't as rapid as expected.”

“Congestion is even more serious as exclusive lanes for the BRT take up nearly half of some roads, leaving little room for cars and motorbikes,” Bien added.

Like Bien, many other people have avoided the BRT because it doesn't offer what they call the same flexibility and control as motorbikes. Office staff can go out to buy food they need for dinner from a streetside market or pick up their children from school on the way home from work on their motorbikes.

“I wouldn't be able to pick up my children from school if I took the BRT,” said Nguyen Thu Ha, an office worker from Hanoi. "I also don't like the idea of having to walk to and from the bus stop," Ha said, wearing a flimsy face mask to protect herself from the pollution as she was preparing to hop on her scooter.

The BRT transports 13,000 passengers a day, according to Hanoi’s transport department. It serves, on average, 70 passengers per trip during peak hours, and 20 passengers during off-peak hours. Thus, the BRT is still operating under its capacity of 90 passengers per trip.

In addition to the BRT, buses are generally avoided by local people, although the newer vehicles are air conditioned and equipped with wifi. “Buses are frequently late," Nguyen Thuy Linh, a student from the Hanoi University of Commerce, said. "It’s difficult to predict their arrival time.”

The number bus trips taken is expected to reduce to 450 million in 2017, compared to nearly 500 million in 2014 and 2015, according to Hanoi’s Public Transport Management and Operation Center.

Hanoi has 92 bus routes, of which 72 are subsidized, serving some 15 percent of total travel demand, said the center.

Delayed metro

The first metro line was supposed to be operational in 2017, but the expected completion date may stretch to 2021. Photo by VnExpress

The first metro line was supposed to open in 2017, but the expected completion date may stretch to 2021. Photo by VnExpress

In Hanoi, a 12.5km (7.8 miles) metro line connecting the Nhon area to the downtown railway station, designed to carry 8,600 people per hour in each direction, was supposed to go into operation this year, but the expected completion date may stretch to 2021.

The first metro line is one of several planned for the capital’s metropolitan area. Together they will form a rail network that is aimed at easing traffic congestion and reducing emissions.

Funding delays have pushed the cost from $1.2 billion to nearly $1.6 billion.

Hanoi's chairman Nguyen Duc Chung has promised to speed up the construction of the line, blaming the sluggish progress so far on delays to funding disbursement.

Statistics showed that the city had disbursed only 13 percent of official development assistance (ODA) funds, or 113.25 million euros ($132 million) out of the total 899 million euros, for the line as of late last year.

Chung said there have been delays to engineering, procurement and construction contracts and technical designs.

“It will take a long time for the metro to go into operation," Mai Xuan Thi, a motorbike taxi driver, said, waiting for customers on Nguyen Trai Street, where T-shaped beams for the line tower over the clogged road.

"Even when it is up and running, it will only cover certain routes,” Thi said. “It means people will still need to travel by motorbike, and I'm not worried about losing customers.” 

Insurmountable challenge

Hanoi plans to limit motorbikes in certain core areas of downtown districts in an effort to combat traffic congestion.

Chung, Hanoi's chairman, recently said the city will increase the number of public buses from 1,000 to 1,500 and expand its metro system in the coming years to encourage people to use public transport. The city plans to have six metro lines and three BRT lines by 2030.

The city had planned to ban motorbikes from all downtown districts from 2030 in an effort to combat traffic congestion, but scrapped the idea over feasibility concerns.

Transport experts said with the current development rate, the public transport system won’t be enough to serve total travel demand by 2030. Some 50 percent of people will still be using motorbikes by that time, they added.

Changing the mindsets of millions people who love their motorcycles is an insurmountable challenge, so motorbikes should co-exist in harmony with Hanoi’s transport future by increasing road safety awareness, the experts say.

“I cannot imagine how I'd get around Hanoi without a motorbike," Linh, the student, said. “You can’t reach houses buried several kilometers down small alleys if you're traveling by metro, bus or even private car.”

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