The largest city in Vietnam recently approved a VND393 trillion ($16.97 billion) plan to increase use of public transportation. The plan seeks to have public transportation used by 15 percent of the city’s commuters by 2025 and increasing this to 25 percent by 2030. The current usage is a meager 9.2 percent.
The city has mapped out a series of actions to meet this target, including imposing tolls on cars entering the city’s downtown area and charging pollution fees on cars and motorbikes while completing in tandem the city’s metro lines and expanding its bus network.
Huynh The Du, a lecturer in public policy at Fulbright University Vietnam, told local media that hitting commuters’ pockets to limit private vehicles is a policy that can be imposed any time, and this does not have to wait until the public transportation system is complete.
Private vehicle users cause major damage to the society in terms of pollution and should therefore pay for it, he told local media.
The government can then use this money to develop public transportation and its services can be subsidized because it would have positive economic impacts, he added.
“It is a fair system to use money from people causing negative impacts to subsidize those making positive impacts,” Du said.
No automatic switch
Vu Anh Tuan, director of the Vietnamese-German Transportation Research Center in southern Binh Duong Province, said using private vehicles has become a long-standing habit among the Vietnamese. An improvement in the public transportation system does not mean that people will automatically switch to it.
Without a policy to limit the use of private vehicles, the city will face major challenges in achieving its public transportation goals by 2030, he said.
A city of 13 million including migrants, HCMC had more than 8.1 million vehicles as of March, mostly motorbikes. The vehicle tally includes 763,000 cars.
Improving public transport to reduce air pollution and lower traffic congestion has been a stated goal for years, but the city’s latest resolution on imposing tolls on cars entering the downtown area is considered one of the most drastic measures to help realize it.
The city has proposed building 34 toll gates around districts 1, 3, 5 and 10 to collect tolls on cars entering the downtown area, but many residents have objected to it. They say that while a subway system is not in place and the bus network is underdeveloped, limiting the use of private vehicles is not a practical measure.
However, Tuan said that tolling private vehicle users is part of the process to change residents’ habits and raise funds for public transport development.
“Buses are far outnumbered by private vehicles and the latter needs to be limited so the former can have space for expansion.”
The number of bus passengers in the city reached 305 million in 2012 but has been dwindling since then. It is set to drop to 147 million this year, a fall of nearly 52 percent in eight years.
City officials have blamed the decrease on growing competition from ride-hailing services, which increased their numbers from just 20.6 million passengers in 2016 to 191 million last year.
Du said that one solution to improve the bus usage is to develop a bus rapid transit system that gives users a dedicated lane without congestion. Private vehicles having to pay several fees and getting stuck in traffic jams can be a welcome discouraging factor, he added.
“Of course such a system will create major disruptions in the lives of many, but we have to accept a transition period with difficulties so that when things start to fall into place we will really see the benefits of public transportation.”
He warned that without firm determination to overcome challenges and take drastic actions, the city will be stuck with a chronic, worsening traffic congestion problem.