Composing the intricate choreographies of Hanoi traffic, millions of motorcycles — the people’s transport — sometimes carrying entire families, weave in and out of cars, taxis, trucks, minibuses, and pedestrians, in a dazzling kaleidoscope of motion. In this city-on-the-move, pavements are repurposed as parking lots, or as places for stalls and outdoor restaurants serving steaming bowls of street food to diners crouched on tiny plastic stools. In the vibrant heave that is popular life in Hanoi, every inch of space provides a living and a service for someone, against a backdrop of buildings layered by time and memories of colonial occupation and war.
Transport infrastructure in Hanoi lags behind the sheer speed at which this city is expanding. Inevitably, it is spreading fastest at its outer edges where land is available, outpacing attempts by city authorities to provide public transport which systematically fails to meet the needs of its citizens. This has, in turn, led inhabitants to rely on private transport options. Car ownership, an aspiration for those with rising incomes, is rapidly expanding, and it is estimated that there will be 11 million motorcycles on the city’s streets by 2025. This situation is clearly unsustainable in terms of traffic congestion and air quality.
New, creative solutions are needed, but in a city of more than 5 million and rising this is no simple matter. A ban on motorcycles is being considered by city transport authorities. But what might be the consequences of a ban in terms of recalibrating transport routes through the city? How might a ban impact alternative modes of transport? And will the travelling public support it? Motorcycles are popular among women and low-income populations because of their flexibility and cheapness. A research project, led by Nicolas Malleson and Lex Comber at the University of Leeds, UK, in conjunction with colleagues at the Vietnamese National University, the Vietnam National University of Science, and the University of Auckland, and funded by the British Academy under its Global Challenges Research Fund Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme,[i] is generating data that can be used to answer some of these questions.
In collaboration with the Vietnamese Census Bureau, the research team conducted a survey of 30,000 households. This can be analysed alongside the 2019 census, enabling researchers to link factors like gender, age, type of housing and home ownership, with details of road use, such as start and end point of journeys as well as their purposes, and types of vehicles. Extrapolations from this data are providing a good picture of people’s road use in Hanoi, as well as making it possible to predict people’s attitude to transport and some of the proposed changes. Researchers also plan to analyse CCTV images at key junctions in the city to generate traffic flow counts. This data has now been made available to Hanoi transport authorities. It will help them design effective evidence-based transport policies. Using the data, the authorities can experiment with different transport models and scenarios that can potentially reduce atmospheric pollution and traffic congestion in future. Whether or not this includes a motorcycle ban remains to be seen.
[ii] Urban Transport Modelling for Sustainable Well-Being in Hanoi is led by Nicholas Malleson with Alexis Comber, and Minh Le Kiew (University of Leeds), Phe Hoang Huu (Hanoi consultant), Thanh Bui Quang (Vietnam National University of Science), and Truc Nguyen Ngoc and Hang Nguyen Thi Thuy (Vietnamese National University, Hanoi). It addresses the emergence of informal transport with rapid city sprawl by generating new data. This can be used to devise transport models and so experiment with different transportation scenarios and policies that can improve traffic circulation in the city of Hanoi.
Caroline Knowles is the Director of the British Academy’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme and a Global Professorial Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. An urban Sociologist with research experience in a number of cities, she is the author of many books and papers, most recently, Flip-Flop: A Journey through Globalisation’s Backroads, published by Pluto Press (2014 & 2015) www.flipfloptrail.com and Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London, published by Penguin (2022) https://seriousmoneybook.com