Hanoi wants to bring back tuk-tuks after eliminating them

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A proposal by the Hanoi Automobile Transport Association to develop a rickshaw public transport system has attracted harsh criticism
 
  Tuk-tuks in a tourist area in Bangkok. A proposal by Hanoi Automobile Transport Association to develop a rickshaw-based public transport system has attracted criticism from experts. Photo: Bloomberg

Almost a decade after banning makeshift auto rickshaws and restricting the use of legitimate ones, Vietnam is considering bringing back the three-wheeler as a way to unclog city streets jammed with motorbikes, but most observers say it is a bad idea.

A proposal by the Hanoi Automobile Transport Association "repackages" the auto rickshaw as the "tuk-tuk," the name for the rickshaw that is widely used in many countries like Thailand, India and Singapore.

Last week, the association said it had asked the Ministry of Transport to allow the import of tuk tuks from China.

The proposal was part of the agency's contributions to the ministry's draft regulation on limiting personal vehicles in five cities, including Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hai Phong, Da Nang and Can Tho.

Although it is just a proposal by a transport association and the transport ministry has yet to offer any official comments, the idea of bringing back the three-wheelers has quickly grabbed headlines and attracted strong criticism from experts and officials.

Vietnam has around 34 million motorbikes and more than 88 million people. The fast pace of urbanization and a rapid increase in personal vehicles have outpaced infrastructure development, making traffic congestion and gridlock major problems in big cities.

The golden age of motor rickshaws in Vietnam came after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, when it was considered the most effective and economical way to transport passengers and goods.

The most common version is called the xe lam a three wheeler with a small cabin in the front of the vehicle for the driver and a space behind for passengers or goods. The xe lam usually uses an Italian Lambretta 175 or Lambro 550 engine. Other types developed later included the xe loi a motorbike pulling a cart and the xe ba gac, a modified three-wheeler with the driver at the rear.

Use of the rickshaw has declined alongside an increase in personal vehicles and government policies limiting the use of rickshaws. In 2001, the government issued a decree stipulating a 20-year-validity for passenger vehicles and in 2008 the government decided to ban modified three-wheelers, encouraging drivers to shift to trucks.

Rickshaw returns

However, the Hanoi Automobile Transport Association says that public rickshaw services could be a safe and easy way to reduce the number of motorbikes in big cities while allowing bus systems and urban railway projects to develop unimpeded.

"Currently, many commuters are driving in and out of the city by motorbike. Many people told me that they could not take a bus to work because their homes are far from bus stops," said the association chairman Bui Danh Lien.

"The tuk-tuk is a solution because it will carry them from home to the bus stop."

Lien said his agency had proposed that only transport cooperatives would be allowed to own the vehicles and tuk-tuks would not be allowed to drive on highways and or city centers.

"When making the proposal, I'm not afraid of criticism from any expert or scientist. If the Ministry of Transport approves [the proposal], it has to manage strictly the quality and ownership of the vehicles without letting it go like [what it did] with the modified three-wheelers," he said.

Lien said several members of the association will visit a trade fair in Guangzhou, China and visit the industrial city of Liuzhou in Guangxi Province next week to study the quality and pricing of Chinese tuk-tuks.

Opposition

The proposal to invest in rickshaw transportation in big cities has been criticized by several transport experts as ineffective and some said it would even worsen the problem.

Nguyen Van Thu, a transportation management expert at the Hanoi University of Transportation, said relevant authorities should focus on other ways to reduce personal vehicles, like developing the metro system and changing bad driving habits.

"There is no link between investment in a tuk-tuk system and limiting personal vehicles," he said.

Nguyen Manh Hung, chairman of the Vietnam Automobile Transportation Association, advised further studies before investing in such a transport system, saying the proposal was "hasty."

"There should be smaller buses with less than 12 seats to connect passengers' homes with metro stations and major bus stops," he said.

Meanwhile, Khuat Viet Hung, deputy director of Institute of Transport Planning and Management in Hanoi, argued that tuk-tuks were already at least partially illegal in Vietnam, and he too said the proposal would prove ineffective if implemented.

"Thailand has many tuk-tuks due to a long history of using the vehicle but it is reducing the number of tuck-tucks now. Meanwhile, the streets in Bangkok and Hanoi are totally different."

He said authorities in Hanoi and HCMC a year ago had instructed transport agencies to study a plan to develop small buses to reach more customers, but it was deemed ineffective.

Besides, the Traffic Law is devoid of regulations on tuk tuks and thus must be modified before investing in a new public transportation system powered by the three-wheeled vehicles.

Hung also questioned the Hanoi Automobile Transport Association's proposal to buy tuk-tuks from China. He asked why Vietnam would have to import the vehicles if the plan is indeed implemented in the future.

"I wonder why it proposed to import the vehicles from China while Vietnam is quite able to manufacture them," he said, adding that Chinese tuk-tuks that use diesel will cause pollution.

He warned that tuk-tuks had already vanished somewhat naturally thanks to socio-economic development and to revive them would be a step in the wrong direction.

"In Ho Chi Minh City, the xe lam has a long history. Hanoi used to have many before 2000. But they have disappeared because the drivers have changed to small trucks to carry goods and buses to carry passengers."

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