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The way we drive now and a look

at the plans and problems that lie

ahead. By Tom DiChristopher.
It's just an average morning on Ton Duc motorbikes and 60,000 cars commute into
Thang Street. A line of lorries is backed up the city every day. And in the immediate
from the intersection at Le Thanh Ton to years to come, all signs say the streets are
Nguyen Hue, and taxis are parked along just getting more crowded.
the river, leaving cars, motorbikes and yet The city has reacted to the increasing
more taxis to jockey for space in the re- congestion, at times dispensing police
maining lanes. Up the road, there’s a group to problem areas and cracking down on
of school kids on bicycles wobbling away, illegal parking, but in the long term, big
three abreast; further, a three-wheeled picture solutions are necessary, both to
cart is feeding the bottleneck. prevent traffic jams from worsening and to
According to the Committee for alleviate the city’s smog-choked skies. Such
Traffic and Safety, more than 3.8 million initiatives are under way, but in order to
motorbikes and 383,000 private cars share work, they need to take stock of the pres-
the streets with trucks and buses in HCM ent and learn from the past.
City. On top of that, about one million

Motorbike Mania
It’s easy to blame the increasing number
of cars on the roads for HCM City’s traffic
woes, but while their size is problematic on
the city’s small streets, currently it’s mo-
torbikes that are flooding the city at wildly

Cars: Slow and Steady

unsustainable levels.
Every day, the city registers about 1,000
new motorbikes. Demand is such that sales
for popular models like the Honda Air Blade
are remaining steady even though they’re
now selling for about five million VND above
the manufacturers suggested retail price. If a When it comes to car policy, Vietnam is development, which is private demand for
buyer can’t afford that, imitation motorbikes basically stuck between a rock and a hard vehicles. We’re entering the third stage.”
can be had for about six to nine million VND. place. On the one hand, the country faces a It’s clear then why the Toyota Innova,
So far, measures to limit motorbike potential deepening of its trade deficits if it Ford Everest and other 7- and 9-seat multi-
growth have fallen flat. When the govern- cannot develop its automobile manufactur- purpose vehicles have been so popular in
ment began denying registration in certain ing industry before 2018, when new ASEAN recent years. Not only did the tax system
parts of the city last year, people just regis- commitments will disallow the high auto favour vehicles with greater seat capacity,
tered them elsewhere under family names. import tariffs that have so far protected but MPVs were—and still are—used for
At times, it seems like the only option is to local manufacturers. On the other hand, business purposes, specifically to bring prod-
make it too expensive or onerous to drive a infrastructure is incapable of supporting ucts to Vietnam’s thousands of markets and
motorbike; policy proposals have included more rapid growth, one reason why the mom ‘n’ pop stores.
banning imports, raising gas prices and limit- government has limited consumption by This April the government adjusted the
ing motorbike parking. imposing some of the highest auto taxes in tax structure as Vietnam enters the third
Motorbikes are also at the root of the the world. Consequently, the automotive stage. Luxury tax is no longer based on seat-
city’s air quality crisis. While most cars meet manufacturing industry is the inverse of the capacity but engine capacity, with the low-
Euro II standards throughout Vietnam, motorbike industry: relatively low domestic est tax rate (45 percent) applied to vehicles
motorbike emissions policy is just emerging. consumption has handicapped the develop- with 2.0-litre engines or smaller—typically
In a pre-proposal study for a new scheme ment of high-quality parts and components small cars. In September, year-to-date sales
to apply Euro II standards to motorbikes, manufacture, which limits Vietnam's auto of locally manufactured personal cars were
60 percent of the 4,000 randomly tested export capability up 15 percent over the same period in 2008,
motorbikes in Hanoi and HCM City failed to The result has been significantly more and MPV/SUV sales were down 11 percent.
measure up even to standards lower than in controlled growth than the motorbike mar- While the MPV/SUV class has faired bet-
Taiwan and Thailand. The HCM City Depart- ket has seen, with about 47,000 new cars ter than Pease expected following the tax
ment of Natural Resources and Environment joining HCM City’s roads each year. And hike from 50 to 60 percent on vehicles with
reports that 80 percent of air pollution while tax structure changes are notorious 3.0-litre engines or larger, he says the future
citywide is caused by motorbike emissions. in Vietnam, Michael Pease, general director lies elsewhere: “The interesting part of the
However, Vietnam’s motorcycle manufac- of Ford Vietnam and a TK-year veteran of market is subcompacts, or what we call
ture industry has been a magnet for foreign Southeast Asia’s automotive industry, says B-cars. That’s really where I see the growth
investment and is now highly localised, Vietnam has followed the same path many coming in.”
meaning parts are made in the country, rath- other developing nations have. This class includes the locally assembled
er than imported and assembled. Local de- “The industry tends to start off with a Chevrolet Spark and Toyota Vios and im-
mand has helped to fuel the growth of the focus on trucks for commercial business ap- ported models like the Kia Morning, Toyota
industry, which bolsters export capability. plications as the country industrialises,” ex- Yaris, Hyundai Getz and BMW.
In the first nine months of 2009, the export plains Pease. “Then as the market develops, Still, large or small, more cars mean
value of motorbikes and parts and compo- and as society and the economy matures, denser traffic, and HCM City needs to find
nents reached almost US $470 million. you see the growth of business demand for a solution.
Clearly, with the bad comes the good. vehicles. And then you see the third stage of
Although more car-owners are driving
themselves, many private vehicles, especially

The Road Forward

luxury models, are still chauffer-driven. As
a result, thousands of cars on the road may
simply be killing time.
“With no parking lots, it means that the
cars just drive around,” says Merryweather.
“People mobile phone their driver, and their
Since it is physically and financially impos- to the complications of financing large-scale driver comes and picks them up. So they
sible to widen many of the city’s streets, projects in the developing world. just casually park on the roads or just drive
much of the infrastructure development has “What is very common in many other around. That’s not helping the situation.”
focused on creating alternative routes that countries also is that you have the plan, you The city’s strategy is to create under-
allow commuters to avoid the dense city have so many projects in the master plan, ground parking, but few structures except
centre. but there’s no money to implement it,” says hotels have the footprint to accommodate
The recently opened Phu My Bridge that JICA’s HCM City liaison, Anzo Hiroshi. “The it. Plans began in 2004 to create munici-
connects Districts 2 and 7, for example, is problem we have at the moment is the price pal parking structures, but they’ve been
actually an important part of the city’s sec- escalation of those existing projects. The plagued with delays. Six of the eight District
ond ring road, one of four beltways that will original construction cost is not enough.” 1 projects have been scrapped, largely
eventually encircle the city. While the bridge Still, some worry that if enough attention due to their anticipated effect on nearby
is currently only open to cars and motor- isn’t paid to the city centre, HCM City could structures or poor planning that failed to
bikes, it’s purpose is to divert truck traffic fall prey to a prevailing urban trend: sprawl. take into account plans for the future metro
away from the inner districts and provide a “It seems like a lot of the planning atten- system.
direct connection to the Hanoi Highway. tion is going on outside of the city, looking Just last month, the city approved plans
The East-West Highway, also completed at satellite towns,” says architect and Green- for the first large-scale underground car
in September, allows commuters to travel Consult Asia founder Melissa Merryweather. park beneath Le Van Tam Park in District
along the outskirts of Districts 1, 4, 6 and 8 “And probably the rich people who have 1. In addition to three floors of retail, five
and Binh Tan. When the Thu Thiem Tunnel access to private transportation are going floors encompassing 72,321 square metres
is completed (scheduled for the end of next to be moving out because it’s going to be are projected to accommodate more than
year), the highway will connect National healthier, less polluted—their kids might 2,000 motorbikes, about 1,200 cars and 28
Road 1A in western Binh Chanh District with actually be able to play in green spaces. buses and trucks. Builders estimate it will
the Hanoi Highway in District 2. “If that happens, we’re seeing a classic take about two years to complete, but the
The highway was financed by the Japan suburban situation like what happened in project is already six years in the making.
International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a lot of American cities. But that happened The only other parking structure under
which is also funding part of the first urban in the 50s and 60s and early 70s and now construction is one at Chi Lang Park on
metro line, the North-South Expressway to people are coming back to the city to re- Dong Khoi between Le Thanh Ton and Ly
Dong Nay and a number of other Official inhabit the city centres. And really, the city Tu Trong, which will mostly serve surround-
Development Assistance (ODA) projects in centre is the green solution. You want to ing trade centres and hotels. That leaves
Vietnam. While banks like JICA bring consid- densify your cities. You want to layer your Ben Thanh Market and the lot in Lam Son
erable resources to bear, they’re not immune cities up so that they’re attractive options.” Square.

Public Transportation
In 2004, public buses seemed to be the online in 2014 and carry more than 500,000
city’s best hope. Public transport develop- commuters daily, it faces considerable logis-
ment plans projected that buses and taxis tic challenges.
would satisfy 35 percent of transport needs “The concern is really the utility location:
by 2010, and tens of millions of dollars in water pipes, electricity, telephone,” say
subsidies were pumped into the system in Anzo Hiroshi. “If you have the drawings in
the following years. By 2008, the goal was Tokyo or in New York, you can see what is
lowered to 10 to 12 percent, with buses ex- underground—what kind of cables, what
pected to meet 8 to 10 percent of the total. kind of pipes. But in Vietnam—impossible.
Now, the proposed metro system, sched- You have certain drawings, but when you
uled for completion in 2020, has become dig it, it’s totally different.”
the next great hope. Originally devised as Another challenge will be integrating the
a four-line system, another three lines have system. Designs call for parking areas at ter-
since been suggested. minals, but planners need to interlink each
At present, only Line 1 has entered the station in the system with bus routes and
pre-construction phase. The future train will improve the conditions on sidewalks, which
run underground for 2.2 km, starting at Ben are currently packed with motorbike park-
Thanh Market, stopping at the Opera House ing. The city’s taxi fleet—currently about
and connecting to a station near Le Thanh 7,000 vehicles strong, not counting about
Ton. Afterwards, it will travel above ground 1,000 illegal taxis—will also be integral.
for 17.1 km from Binh Thanh along Dien “In order for HCM City to absorb all the
Bien Phu, make stops in District 2, Thu Duc many travellers, they have to have all of
and District 9 and terminate at Suoi Tien those matrixes really working well,” says
Theme Park. Merryweather. “Otherwise people are going
Other lines are in varying states of prog- to continue to flood into the city in bikes
ress. Last month, the government approved and cars.”
the plans for Line 2, which will run from Ben In a perfect world, all of these projects
Thanh Market under Cach Mang Tang Tam would coalesce. Parking structures would be
to western Tan Binh District. Studies have ready to accommodate the inevitable spike
been completed on Line 3a, which will run in car ownership post-2018. The bus system
from Ben Thanh through District 5 to Mien would come up to speed just before the
Tay Bus Station in District 11. In April, the entire metro system goes online two years
Spanish Government committed to funding later, right on time. Motorbike ownership
feasibility studies for lines 5 and 6. Line would peak soon after, and the whole city
5 is set to run from the Saigon Bridge to would breathe a collective sigh of relief. In
Districts 8 and 10 via Binh Thanh and Phu reality, things are unlikely to go so smoothly,
Nhuan Districts, while Line 6 would run in but still, like a xe om driver napping in the
District 11 and connect Lines 2 and 3a. afternoon, we can dream.
While the first line is scheduled to go


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