Still in the starting gate

Posted on August 27, 2012


Underdeveloped transport system could seriously impede Vietnam’s development plans.

Vietnam, like other developing nations in Asia, is struggling to map out a development plan for its transport infrastructure, which is seriously overloaded in big cities. Experts believe that if the issue is not handled well, it could hold back socio-economic development for decades.

Streets clogged with motorbikes are familiar images in major cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Limited land and underdeveloped infrastructure cannot keep pace with the rapid rises in population and vehicles, in turn threatening transport connectivity.

According to the Ministry of Construction, urban residents total 28 million people, accounting for 31% of the national population and contributing about 70% to the country’s GDP.

The number of vehicles is rocketing, totalling 37 million units as of July this year, including nearly 2 million cars and more than 35 million motorbikes. The prospect of increasingly affluent consumers trading up from motorcycles to cars in large numbers is downright alarming to some planners.

Traffic congestion is a major dilemma in megacities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where population density is between 25,000 and 36,000 people per square kilometre in many inner districts, significantly higher than the 6,500 people per square kilometre in Singapore or Hong Kong.

“I’m tired of traffic jams in Hanoi, particularly after heavy rains. The roads are too small while there are too many vehicles moving on one road,” said office worker Nguyen Thi Mai, looking tired as she struggled to inch her motorbike through the long traffic jam ahead on her way home.

After heavy rains, many streets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are flooded with not only water but cars and motorbikes, and it often takes hours to alleviate such heavy traffic.

Vehicle traffic has increased 12-15% annually in recent years but only 7-8% of total land area is used for road traffic in Hanoi and HCM City, meeting just 40% of the cities’ transport demand. The international standard for “navigable” roads in a big city is 20-25% of land area.

Experts believe that at the root of the traffic congestion in Vietnam is the weakness in planning of overall socio-economic development, land use and urban construction.

Planning for the transport system development usually lags the rapid economic growth of cities. It can take 9-10 years to complete a comprehensive urban socio-economic development plan, starting from a study of the overall plan to the planning for the transport system. But with an average growth rate of 11-13% per year, Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City develop a new face every three or four years.

Vietnam’s first metro rail line, on which work will start late this month in Ho Chi Minh City, has already been delayed for four years. It is expected to begin operating in 2018 instead of 2014 as initially planned, due to extensively rising building costs and difficulties in clearing land.

The estimated cost for this project funded with overseas development assistance (ODA) has also doubled in five years, from over $1 billion to more than $2 billion.

“The reason is the deficient calculation and forecasts for factors that could contribute to rising costs during the initial planning stage, especially price inflation in building materials,” Le Khac Huynh, deputy director of the Management Authority for Urban Railways, was quoted as saying in local papers.

Huynh said the project was approved in 2007 but was based on research from the 2003-06 period, while materials costs have increased significantly in recent years.

Vietnam expects to spend between 3.5% and 4.5% of total GDP for transport infrastructure development during the 2011-20 period under its Vision 2030 programme. Its goals are to develop a comprehensive communication system with high capacity and ensure the connectivity among major economic regions.

The Ministry of Finance recently estimated Vietnam needed about $80 billion to develop its transport system from 2011-2020 but experts predict the actual total will be much higher.

The country plans to promote public transport (buses, metros, monorails and tramways) in bid to reduce the number of private vehicles. The bus system is projected to increase its capacity from 8% in major cities now to 15% by 2015 and 25% by 2020. Meanwhile, many metro and tramway development projects have been approved.

In Ho Chi Minh City, seven metro lines and three tramways with a total length of 160 kilometres will be built by 2020, of which the first 20-km metro line will begin work later this month and start operation in early 2018.

By 2030, Hanoi intends to develop eight urban tramways, five of which have been approved, with a total length of 284 kilometres, connecting eight satellite towns. To date, two projects have begun work and are slated to operate from 2015-16.

“To become a ‘city of the 21st century’, a city must develop its public backbone. Thus, the metro, monorail and tramway projects must be invested properly,” Erdal Elver, the former chairman and CEO of Siemens, has said.

However, that is a long-term plan and in the short term, Vietnam is trying to develop an intelligent transport system (ITS) which is considered an effective solution to its traffic congestion and accident reduction now.

ITS, which is used in many countries, applies modern information and communication technologies in navigating and managing transport systems. The Ministry of Construction said it would install cameras and other surveillance equipment, as well as communication devices for drivers.

Hanoi this month began to deploy and test the ITS using satellite navigation data from cars to calculate traffic conditions on roads and at intersections. Early this year, Japan provided $6.4 million in financial support to help Vietnam develop a traffic control system for highways.

Bangkok Post