Having studied traffic economics for over 20 years, I believe that recharging passenger cars entering downtown during rush hour is necessary for several reasons.
First, the popularity of motorcycles easily makes it seem like they are the main culprit in all city traffic problems in Vietnam, but they are not.
Each of the country’s two largest cities has less than 10 percent of its area dedicated to traffic, with thousands of miles of lanes; which means that a four-seater car would occupy the space of about five motorcycles. Obviously, cars are the main culprit in the constantly worsening city traffic problem.
What will happen to Hanoi and HCMC if, over the next decade, around a million motorcycle users switch to cars?
Second, collecting tolls from cars entering the city center is an achievable step that can help generate efficiency and fairness in our society.
At present, public transport is much more of a nuisance than private transport. Therefore, the authorities must regulate the behavior of people by increasing the cost of using private vehicles and at the same time making public transport cheaper.
People using public transport create positive impacts on society, including reducing congestion and pollution, and therefore this should be encouraged through incentives such as subsidies. Meanwhile, people using private transport create negative impacts and should pay for it.
All over the country people have the right to move freely on the roads that the government has built with tax money. But unlike those who walk or use motorcycles and bicycles, passenger cars take up more space, exacerbating traffic jams during rush hours. People who create a greater burden on society should pay more for the damage caused.
Finally, the charges levied on cars entering the city center could be used to build and maintain public traffic infrastructure and subsidize public transport. This is to compensate for the negative impacts of personal cars.
The increased cost of using private vehicles will make people more willing to switch to public transport, and as more people use public transport, this will ensure sustainable development.
Singapore has applied pull and push measures to develop a highly efficient urban area.
In Vietnam, as I noted above, we need to do two things in parallel: implement a policy of discouraging personal car use in conjunction with the development of an efficient public transport system.
Transport economics theories and actual practice all show that stability is the deciding factor in people’s choice of their mode of transport. People need to be confident and sure how long it will take to get from one place to another, and this lack of certainty is a huge problem with public transport in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Unfortunately not very practical
During the summer of 2011, while researching the HCMC transit system, I made numerous trips on many different routes for months. Almost all of them were problematic and I couldn’t predict how much time I would have to spend on each route.
Since that summer, I have used random public buses in HCMC and Hanoi, and have not seen any noticeable improvement. The public bus is the most inconvenient form of transportation in Vietnam. On the other hand, motorcycles are the most practical because they are flexible and people can easily access small alleys or change their routes.
Hanoi and HCMC cannot develop with the current traffic structure. The solution is to build a high capacity public transport system like metro lines or express buses with separate lanes.
A separate public transport system will not be obstructed by other vehicles. If the first metro line in HCMC is completed, many people will be able to easily commute from their workplace in District 1 to their home in Thu Duc town without having to use personal vehicles. A full trip would take 40 minutes each day as the train would not be interrupted halfway.
Hanoi and HCMC require at least 300 km (186 miles) of high-capacity public transport and a bus system with wide coverage to meet the needs of residents.
Despite its debut two decades ago, HCMC has not completed its first metro line. In Hanoi, Vietnam’s very first metro line went into service this week after 10 years.
The first line in Hanoi covers 13 km while that of HCMC covers less than 19.7 km.
Considering these developments, I wonder how many metro lines Hanoi and HCMC would have in 10 years. Vietnam’s two largest cities appear to have followed Manila, which has only built 100 km of metro in 40 years, and Jakarta, which has only 15 km of metro line.
Over a similar period spanning several decades, Seoul, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing built hundreds of subway lines to form an efficient and effective public transport network.
For us, the biggest problem is to improve the capacity of the public transport systems in the two cities at the earliest. The allocation of resources should be decided without being constrained by processes, procedures, responsibilities and mechanisms.
If we don’t make the necessary changes now, we turn HCMC and Hanoi into giant car parks.
* Huynh The Du is Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management. The opinions expressed are his own.