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

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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 motorbikes that are flooding the city at wildly 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 buyer can’t afford that, imitation motorbikes can be had for about six to nine million VND. So far, measures to limit motorbike growth have fallen flat. When the government began denying registration in certain parts of the city last year, people just registered them elsewhere under family names. At times, it seems like the only option is to make it too expensive or onerous to drive a motorbike; policy proposals have included banning imports, raising gas prices and limiting motorbike parking. Motorbikes are also at the root of the city’s air quality crisis. While most cars meet Euro II standards throughout Vietnam, motorbike emissions policy is just emerging. In a pre-proposal study for a new scheme to apply Euro II standards to motorbikes, 60 percent of the 4,000 randomly tested motorbikes in Hanoi and HCM City failed to measure up even to standards lower than in Taiwan and Thailand. The HCM City Department of Natural Resources and Environment reports that 80 percent of air pollution citywide is caused by motorbike emissions. However, Vietnam’s motorcycle manufacture industry has been a magnet for foreign investment and is now highly localised, meaning parts are made in the country, rather than imported and assembled. Local demand has helped to fuel the growth of the industry, which bolsters export capability. In the first nine months of 2009, the export value of motorbikes and parts and components reached almost US $470 million. Clearly, with the bad comes the good.

Cars: Slow and Steady
When it comes to car policy, Vietnam is basically stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the country faces a potential deepening of its trade deficits if it cannot develop its automobile manufacturing industry before 2018, when new ASEAN commitments will disallow the high auto import tariffs that have so far protected local manufacturers. On the other hand, infrastructure is incapable of supporting more rapid growth, one reason why the government has limited consumption by imposing some of the highest auto taxes in the world. Consequently, the automotive manufacturing industry is the inverse of the motorbike industry: relatively low domestic consumption has handicapped the development of high-quality parts and components manufacture, which limits Vietnam's auto export capability The result has been significantly more controlled growth than the motorbike market has seen, with about 47,000 new cars joining HCM City’s roads each year. And while tax structure changes are notorious in Vietnam, Michael Pease, general director of Ford Vietnam and a TK-year veteran of Southeast Asia’s automotive industry, says Vietnam has followed the same path many other developing nations have. “The industry tends to start off with a focus on trucks for commercial business applications as the country industrialises,” explains Pease. “Then as the market develops, and as society and the economy matures, you see the growth of business demand for vehicles. And then you see the third stage of development, which is private demand for vehicles. We’re entering the third stage.” It’s clear then why the Toyota Innova, Ford Everest and other 7- and 9-seat multipurpose vehicles have been so popular in recent years. Not only did the tax system favour vehicles with greater seat capacity, but MPVs were—and still are—used for business purposes, specifically to bring products to Vietnam’s thousands of markets and mom ‘n’ pop stores. This April the government adjusted the tax structure as Vietnam enters the third stage. Luxury tax is no longer based on seatcapacity but engine capacity, with the lowest tax rate (45 percent) applied to vehicles with 2.0-litre engines or smaller—typically small cars. In September, year-to-date sales of locally manufactured personal cars were up 15 percent over the same period in 2008, and MPV/SUV sales were down 11 percent. While the MPV/SUV class has faired better than Pease expected following the tax hike from 50 to 60 percent on vehicles with 3.0-litre engines or larger, he says the future lies elsewhere: “The interesting part of the market is subcompacts, or what we call B-cars. That’s really where I see the growth coming in.” This class includes the locally assembled Chevrolet Spark and Toyota Vios and imported models like the Kia Morning, Toyota Yaris, Hyundai Getz and BMW. Still, large or small, more cars mean denser traffic, and HCM City needs to find a solution.

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

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

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