Motorbikes or no motorbikes?

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The government has asked the Transport Ministry to draft a plan restricting the circulation of motorcycles in major cities to curb the country's worsening traffic problem.

The ministry has been ordered to submit the plan to the government by the end of 2012. 

In another resolution issued late last month, the government also asked Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to ban motorcycles and cars on certain streets during certain hours.

This is not the first time the government has considered banning motorcycles to clear clogged streets in motorbike-dominated Vietnam.

In 2003, the Ministry of Public Security issued a circular limiting each person to one motorcycle registration only. The circular was issued after the number of motorcycles was found to have increased up to 21 percent that year.

However, the decision was soon abolished, as it was found to have violated an article in the constitution on the right of ownership.

Also in 2003, Hanoi issued a decision to halt the granting of motorbike licenses in four districts Hoan Kiem, Ba Dinh, Dong Da and Hai Ba Trung. Those were later followed by Cau Giay, Thanh Xuan and Tay Ho districts.

However, in 2005, this decision, too, was abolished.

Currently, there are around 3.8 million motorcycles and 368,000 cars in the capital city, with a population of more than six million people.

Between January and July this year, Hanoi licensed an additional 4,000 cars and 20,000 motorbikes each month.

HCMC, with a population of more than seven million, has around 4.7 million motorcycles. Each year, an estimated 300,000-350,000 new motorcycles are licensed in the city.

The Transport Ministry forecast that there will be 36 million motorcycles in the country by 2020.

Motorbikes have long been blamed for traffic in big cities. A recent study by the HCMC University of Technology said motorbikes and their consequences such as fuel, pollution, traffic jams and accidents and injuries -- cost an estimated annual US$1.07 billion in losses for the southern metro, or 11.2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).

Motorbikes are pulling the city's growth rate down, and reducing motorbikes means improving the quality of life in the city, the study concluded.

Substitutes

Nguyen Hoang Linh, deputy chief of the Hanoi transport department, told Thanh Nien there should be no immediate ban on people's property ownership, including vehicles.

Authorities should only issue regulations on the operation of vehicles, he said.

"In my opinion, we should develop and facilitate the use of public transportation for people first.

"Gradually, we can take measures to ban private vehicles like motorcycles and cars on certain streets during certain hours."

According to the Hanoi Transport Corporation, there are more than 70 bus routes in Hanoi with over 1,000 buses and 1,300 stations, catering to more than 400 million trips a year.

However, others argue that the number of bus passengers has not increased over the last few years due to low service quality.

Subway projects are expected to be substitutes for buses, but most of them are delayed.

Cautious steps

Vietnamese authorities are still handling personal vehicle issues with caution. The public has protested against any possible ban on motorbikes and cars in the near future.

Vo Kim Cuong, chief of the HCMC Urban Management Study Program, said the best way to handle the traffic problem is to make public transport effective enough so that people will give up their personal vehicles.

"We should not force people to get rid of motorbikes in order to make room for buses.

"Motorbike and bus: it is a healthy competition; whichever is more convenient, will win."

Nguyen Huu Nguyen of the Southern Economic Research Center warned that any immediate ban on motorbikes may cause disorder in the daily lives of HCMC residents.

"Sad but true, motorbikes have proven to be the most convenient and effective means of transport for people in the city.

"In many residential areas, where people live in small alleys, they have no option but to drive motorbikes because there are no buses that go to their homes."

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