Hanoi ought to ban cars not motorbikes

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A number of reputable news organisations are reporting that Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, is proposing banning motorbikes from its city centre. I’m hesitant to venture an opinion because a) these reports are not especially detailed and b) while I did live in Hanoi for a while it’s a complicated and rapidly changing city that I only partially understand. Nonetheless, I’m wary of the idea.

The BBC reports that:

The local government wants streets to be motorbike-free by 2025 as part of efforts to tackle congestion, the Thanh Nien News website says. The Vietnamese capital has notoriously chaotic roads, with around five million motorbikes vying for space alongside half a million cars.

That situation is forecast to get worse in years to come: the authorities estimate that by 2020 there will be seven million motorbikes, and the number of cars will double. “This means the traffic situation in Hanoi will become extremely complicated in the next four to five years, so we really need a timely solution to this,” says mayor Nguyen Duc Chung.

The city’s transport authority wants to reduce the number of individual vehicles and boost public transport instead, and its chairman wants the number of buses to double. Construction of a new urban rail system is already under way.

I can’t quite imagine that. Motorbikes so suffuse my memories of Hanoi that I can’t really imagine it without them. It’s basically impossible to go anywhere in the city without seeing them: they are on every road and every pavement. From a distance most shops and restaurants appear to be motorbike showrooms because virtually all their customers arrive on bikes that then get parked outside. There are of course also masses of actual motorbike shops.

I actually rather liked this aspect of the city. While I had a pedal bike rather than a scooter, I appreciated the impact their near universal ownership had on the transport ecosystem of the city. It meant you were allowed to take bikes more or less everywhere and everywhere provided parking for them. There’s also a less tangible aspect to my affection for Hanoi’s bike culture. For reasons that will become apparent there are many reasons that many people disagree but for me bikes are a key part of what gives Hanoi the bustle I so enjoyed.

Of course, if banning bikes really would contribute to improving quality of life then my sentimental attachment to them would count for naught. And the case that it would hinges on a legitimate issue: air quality. The pollution in Hanoi is not at the level of industrial towns in China or India. It forms a thin haze not a thick smog. Nonetheless, it still kills thousands of people a year. Surprisingly, even though they burn less fuel than cars, motorbikes actually emit more of the micro-particulates that cause lung damage. This is apparently a legacy of the fact that governments have tended to regulate them less carefully than cars. Getting people off bikes and scooters and onto public transport (and potentially back onto pedal bikes) might therefore improve air quality.

My fear, however, is that the slack will be taken up instead by cars. Vietnam’s very rapid economic growth is rapidly expanding the number of families who can afford them. Unless that growth falters in a pretty remarkable way, it seems likely that the number of cars on Hanoi’s street will rise inexorably. By contrast, the ability of public transport systems to expand fast enough to match the growth of the city’s population is a much more open question. The opening of the city’s metro is already significantly behind schedule.

Replacing scooters with cars might improve air quality but it is likely to worsen everything else. I’d be especially worried about congestion. Bikes are well suited to Hanoi’s narrow, crowded and often chaotic streets. Even on roads that are packed solid with scooters, their drivers will generally still be able to manoeuvre around each other. Cars can’t. So if you get caught in a traffic jam in Hanoi, after a lot of stopping, starting and waiting, you usually catch up to a car or lorry that was constricting the flow of traffic. Once you get ahead of it you’ll generally find the road a lot clearer. So more cars would be bound to lead to more congestion. That would not only be a hassle for the city’s residents and a drag on business activity but it would also create air pollution problems of its own.

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Not only do cars take up space when they are being used but also when they are not. If the number of cars grows, so will the space that needs to be given over to parking. That means turning over land that could be used for housing, businesses or amenities to the storage of metal boxes. Scooters by contrast are small enough to be stowed in hallways or on patios. Indeed, because they are such a part of Hanoian life such spaces are usually already provided.

Banning scooters but not cars would also have the unfortunate impact of essentially rationing the ability to drive in central Hanoi by income. While many more Vietnamese can afford cars than before, it will be a long while still until everyone can. For some of those who can’t, using a push bike may be an option. But the temperature can hit 40°C in summer and many people use their motorbikes to carry passengers or luggage. So for many Hanoians that won’t be a substitute.

My inclination is therefore that motorbikes still have a constructive role to play in Hanoi’s transport system. Adding railway lines and buses is clearly a good idea. But getting them to the scale where they can replace scooters will take a long time. Longer, I suspect than the cities authorities are allowing themselves. By contrast, cars seem likely to add nothing but congestion. Many cities around the world are trying to wean themselves off reliance on cars. Hanoi is in a position where it can avoid getting addicted in the first place.

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