I've spent a lot of time in Hanoi over the last 14 years, and have strong emotions about it, not of course all positive. Back in 1994, it was possible to walk around at 10 p.m. in the winter down the streets, which were basically empty of traffic, with a group of friends. There was almost no crime"”it is still minimal"”and people went home early in the cold. Those were the days of frequently riding two or more to a bicycle, of going for hours-long bike rides out of the city, of breathing the air without wanting a mask to protect from the fumes.
Back then, about half of trips were made by bicycle, and cycling seemed the most sensible way to move about. Why use fuel unnecessarily? Why not combine exercise, recreation, and travel, saving time and money while having a good time? On almost every street corner there was someone to pump your tires or fix your bike; all over the city were convenient and safe places to park your bike. With a basket on the front and a carrier on the back, the bicycle could transport significant goods, or two adults, or just that faithful and nearly cost-free companion that shrunk the city to a conveniently accessible size. Even going out of town for 30 or 40 kilometers or more, why take a bus when the bike ride was such a pleasure?
Even back then, walking, in contrast, was not much fun. Many of the sidewalks were in disrepair. Dodging vendors was at least entertaining, and often they had something for sale I might want; dodging the parked motorbikes was annoying and dangerous, as a careless scrape could mean a bad burn on your leg.
Over the years, the government eased the barriers on importing motorcycles, the price fell, and most of the city's bicycles were replaced by motorbikes. Since motorbikes move faster than bicycles, this should have relieved the urban congestion. But motorbikes also take up more space, both when moving and parked, and as they idle in traffic, they release a lot of fumes. Also, people who at most would ring their bell occasionally on their bicycle were now beeping away with their motorbike horns at all the other traffic. The formerly fairly quiet and unpolluted streets"”congested though they sometimes were with many bicycles"”became noisy and smelly. Traffic jams appeared, like we'd never seen before.
Then in the summer of 2008, Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization, and the heavy import fees on cars were dropped. As cars began to flood the market, car parking reached crisis proportions. Already many of the sidewalks were taken over by parked motorbikes; now just one parked car could do the job of several motorbikes. Cars occupy far more space than a motorbike, so congestion could only worsen. Speed is hardly a consideration in any case, with so many people traveling through a relatively small city.
One of the problems in Hanoi, I realize, is that the conditions for walking are generally so bad, people will take motorbikes even for very short trips. Since the cyclos (rickshaws) were banned years ago, and most people have traded in their bicycles for motorbikes, even a trip of a kilometer or less is frequently made using fuel. That is wasteful, and contributes to the congestion, pollution, and general unpleasantness of the city.
The government has made taken some positive initiatives. They improved the bus service years ago, but unfortunately, since the buses occupy the same street space as cars, they are stuck in congestion like everyone else"”and, in veering between the bus stops and the street, they make the situation dangerous for others. Far more sensible would be a bus rapid transit system, or the revival of the former tram system, operating on its own tracks, free of congestion, and virtually free of danger for the others on the streets.
The government also provided very wide sidewalks on many of the streets, and many of those are well-shaded with big trees. But the wide sidewalks are on the busiest streets, where the noise and fumes of the traffic are worst; on the narrower streets, where it is less unpleasant to walk alongside the traffic, the sidewalks are narrower and often fully occupied by motorbike parking. Banning the cyclos meant removing a pollution-free mode of transport. The painted cycle lanes are meaningless, as they are usually occupied by motorbikes and cars, moving or parked; if all the streets had separate bike lanes raised from the street or otherwise physically distinct from it, then people might again be induced to cycle again. As it is, the fumes and danger are too strong of disincentives. Meanwhile, the more space given over for cars, the less that is left for everyone else.
It is ironic that as Asian cities become more crowded, they choose traffic patterns that are the least space-efficient. In aiming for speed, they end up with traffic congestion. In aiming to meet people's needs, they spend enormous amounts of money on infrastructure to benefit the few. They dismantle the tram systems that would have served the city well, and ban the vehicles that are space-efficient and require little fuel. They ignore those on foot, significant as they are to meeting travel needs, and despite the fact that they should be encouraged, as it is pedestrians who demand the least and require absolutely no fuel (other than food and water) for their movements. Bicycles, formerly the main transport mode, are neglected or ignored.
Meanwhile, New York City is planning to build 4,000 kilometers of cycle lanes; Copenhagen hopes to have half of its work trips by bicycle by 2015; and London is investing millions of dollars in infrastructure to become the cycling capital of the world. European cities, vastly more wealthy than those of developing Asian economies, encourage walking and often emphasize trams for public transport. If cities with the most money and the least densities feel the need to promote space-efficient, economic modes, how can cities of Asia feel that they can afford"”economically or environmentally"”to follow the most inefficient, wasteful, and polluting patterns?
The previous decade or two have brought many negative changes to Asian cities in terms of increasing traffic congestion, pollution, and travel costs. But smart policies could contribute to ensuring that the next decade illustrates the viability of cities full of pedestrians and cyclists complemented by modern surface-level public transit. Such cities would have air people can breathe, streets people can safely cross, and a citizenry proud to live in a city that emphasizes livability and sociability while addressing their other basic needs.
By Debra Efroymson
Debra Efroymson is a Regional Director of HealthBridge. She has worked for HealthBridge since 1995, first in Hanoi, Vietnam, then since 1998 in Dhaka, Bangladesh