This is a complex issue.
The first thing that overwhelms you when you arrive in Hanoi for the first time is the motorcycles. The noise. The chaos. They are everywhere. And remember to look both ways before crossing the street.
Sitting in a car in stuck in morning rush hour traffic I looked around. The motorcycles densely surrounded my car. It was like looking at sand filling the gaps between the stones. This was ultra-high traffic density.
From a Western point-of-view motorcycle as the main (and sometimes only) mode of transportation for Hanoi seems like a bad idea. It still freaks me out to see kids squeezed between parent or even babies carried in the mother’s arms being transported on motorcycles. The sound and air pollution they create is also at alarming levels.
But suspend those automobile-centric, environmental-conscious biases aside for a second. Pound-for-pound, no matter how you justify it cars are a more inefficient means of transportation, since 95 percent of the mass being accelerated is the car, not the driver, less than 1 percent of the fuel energy ultimately moves the driver. Motorcycles are indeed much more efficient people movers. And what’s more, more motorcycles will fit into a square meter of road.
I don’t have any data to back this up, but it is my hypothesis that motorcycles have played a major part as work horses in the amazing economic development of Vietnam and Hanoi. And they continue to do so, busily transporting millions each day, like blood cells transporting oxygen, in a city that has infrastructure lagging way behind the speed of development. It’s what makes Hanoi function.
The western or developed world gut-reaction is to get rid of it. But ask any Hanoian and they’ll say it is an indispensable part of their life. Khoi, my friend has a car (Kia Morning) and a motorcycle. He uses the car once a week to visit his in-laws with his family. But day-to-day, he uses his motorcycle to go to work and to meetings.
So there is no chance that Hanoians will give up their love with motorcycles.
Why try? Look back 5 years and there were less motorcycles and even less cars. Look forward 5 years and you see a city that will fall into cardiac arrest, as the population of Hanoi increases, maintaining 80% or more motorcycle ridership and the increase of cars will cause the road network to become paralyzed. The pollution is becoming a major issue and compound that to the inefficiencies in the economy will stunt whatever progress that Hanoi has made since 1986 Doi Moi, which opened Vietnam up to a market-driven economy.
This does not bode well for the Government, according to Ordinance on Hanoi Capital (No. 29/2000/PL-UBTVQH10 of December 28, 2000), wants to make Hanoi:
the heart of the whole country, making it more and more beautiful, civilized and modern; to inherit and promote the age-old historical and cultural traditions of Thang Long – Hanoi, contributing to building the country more beautiful and prosperous;
So what to do? The solution cannot come from thinking about the current conditions. Nor is it a stick and carrot issue. It requires thinking outside the box, literally.
It needs an integrated, multifaceted approach: As the population of Hanoi grows, there needs to be a plan to locate a large part of that population outside the inner core to satellite towns.
- Locate new population centers with density. It is important to alleviate the population density in the inner city. Make new town outside the existing Hanoi far enough for the inhabitant to consider public transportation as an attractive option. Make those new towns dense enough to make public transportation viable.
- Create an efficient rapid transit system from outskirts to inner city. Bringing in commuters from the new towns in an efficient manner is important in establishing a strong relationship between the new and old town centers.
- Promote bus transfer in inner city. Once inside the old city, allowing for easy bus transfer to finish the commute.
- Promote walkability. New Yorkers will walk 10 minutes to a subway station. So will Seoulites. How far can you get in 10 minutes? I walked from Hanoi Towers to St. Joseph’s Cathedral in that time. This is including the time crossing the streets, which can sometimes be hairy.
The critical factor here is financing and timing. All these strategies need to be executed concurrently since they are dependent on each other.
Let Hanoians keep their motorcycles, but provide them with a good or better option. That’s the only way out of this jam it seems.