July 6, 2017 11:56 am JST

Hanoi motorcycle ban portends bumpy road for denizens

Move may not be workable given lack of public transportation

ATSUSHI TOMIYAMA, Nikkei staff writer

Motorcyclists ride through rush hour in Hanoi. (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

HANOI -- Vietnam's motorcycle-thronged capital will ban the vehicles from its central streets by 2030 -- a move authorities say enjoys broad support but may prove unfeasible owing to sheer force of habit as well as a dearth of alternatives.

The ban will roll out gradually beginning in 2020. The first step will involve forbidding motorcycles to enter Hanoi's old quarter on weekends and holidays. That will be followed by expanding the target area and blocking the inflow of bikes from outside the city, until all of the vehicles are prohibited from the capital's center.

The Hanoi People's Committee, the capital's municipal assembly, adopted the resolution Tuesday with a nearly unanimous 95 of 96 representatives voting in favor. Individual committee members' votes are not made public.

Motorcycles are enormously popular in Vietnam. It is home to about 45 million motorbikes, roughly one for every two citizens, and another 3 million are sold anew each year.

Feeling thrown under the bike

The director of Hanoi's transport department, Vu Van Vien, said the measure was "critical to eliminating congestion and protecting the environment from exhaust fumes." City police found in a poll of 15,000 households that 90% supported the regulations.

Yet some denizens object.

"It may be just the old city for now, but there's no way this will work in central Hanoi," said a security guard named Nguyen Dinh Manh. "Buses are irregular and inconvenient," he complained, "and there's no public transport besides them. How am I supposed to get to work?"

Duong Thi Hanh, a pharmacist at a city hospital, agreed. "I drop my two children off at school on my motorcycle, then use it to commute to the hospital," she said. "If these regulations go through, we won't be able to maintain our lifestyle."

Vietnam's public transportation is undeveloped apart from buses, and its roads are narrow, leaving few good options besides motorbikes. The federal government is building metropolitan rail lines in Hanoi as well as Ho Chi Minh City. But Hanoi's next scheduled rail line -- the 13km "2A line," set for 2018, connecting the suburbs to the western part of the capital -- will force riders to change to a bus or taxi to get to the city center. Building a central metropolitan rail system the likes of Tokyo's or Singapore's will likely take decades.

Two wheels or bust

Vietnamese residents, like those of Thailand and other neighboring Southeast Asian countries, abhor walking. The majority of the country's schools have cramped campuses, and physical education programs are fairly underdeveloped, so exercise is not a habit for most.

But the country's income levels remain low relative to its economic growth, which has been robust even for the region. As a result, citizens rely on motorcycles rather than bigger, pricier vehicles. They become familiar with motorbikes from an early age, using them for commuting, shopping and leisure. Those of high school age and above can ride their own motorcycles. If they do not have one available, they may take a taxi even for distances of less than a kilometer.

Many remain particularly attached to the two-wheelers. One 59-year-old driver, Nguyen The Hung, has been riding his beloved Honda Motor Super Cub for 30 years, making repairs and replacing parts as necessary. He vividly recalls the thrill of being allowed to ride his father's motorcycle for the first time in 1976. He has a new bike now, but will "keep riding the old one until it won't run anymore," he said.

Tough to get rid of

The number of motorcycles in Vietnam has swelled since the 2000s, when its economic growth kicked into gear. The April count of 45 million motorbikes represented a 2.8-fold increase from a decade earlier. More people are keeping two or three of the vehicles, and in 2016, new motorcycle sales climbed 8% on the year to 3.14 million. Many people keep riding old bikes for 10 or 20 years, so the count tends to keep rising. Since the mid-2000s, motorcycle restrictions have been floated a number of times, but failed amid public opposition and other factors.

Passenger cars in Vietnam are hit with a heavy luxury tax. Automobile sales surpassed 300,000 for the first time in 2016 -- a record high -- but owning a car is out of reach for most ordinary city dwellers. Adding to that the problems of narrow roads and a lack of garage space, Vietnam has lagged behind other Southeast Asian countries in switching gears from motorbikes to cars.

Hanoi appears to have awoken to the need for regulations, but the ban looks akin to trying to wipe up water while the faucet is still running. Such a move should be preceded by efforts to make central Hanoi's public transportation more convenient. Metropolises in advanced economies offer any number of models for doing so, including dedicated bus lanes, rent-a-cycle stations and road-pricing systems.

The rise in motorcycles isn't all that's fueling traffic congestion, either. Development is heavily concentrated in certain areas, and work styles are fairly uniform under Communism. Small changes -- such as subsidies for moving offices and factories to city outskirts or staggering working times by one to two hours -- could also help unclog the streets. Putting all the responsibility on motorcycles is, at the very least, shortsighted.

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