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Vietnam metro systems get set, but will the public go?

Old habits have to be broken and prejudices against public transportation overcome for Vietnam's first subway lines to succeed

pedestrian wearing a leaf hat walks on a footbridge as traffic moves along a road in Hanoi. Authorities in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are facing a tough task in convincing millions of Vietnamese motorbike and car owners to switch to the trains as the first metro systems in the two economic hubs are all set to be commissioned by 2018. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

After years of delay, authorities in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are determined that they will have their first metro systems commissioned by 2018 in a bid to clear streets increasingly clogged with cars and motorbikes.

However, they face a much tougher task in convincing millions of motorbike and car owners to switch to the trains because old habits die hard, and, some experts say, entrenched attitudes die even harder.

"Successful public transit projects need to combine a policy framework with good facilities that encourages people not to use cars and encourages them to use public transport," Jonathan Pincus, a HCMC-based economist with the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, told Vietweek.

But Vietnam has not been able to do this so far, and such failure could cast a dark shadow over the metro systems, experts say.

They say that the country looks set to experience a strong car culture as a large number of nouveau riches choose to flaunt their wealth with luxury cars like Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Audi and even Bentley and Rolls Royce.

Vietnam's auto sales during the first five months of this year rose 17 percent from a year earlier to 34,892 vehicles, Reuters reported, citing data released by the Vietnam Automobile Manufacturers' Associations (VAMA). VAMA projected that car sales in this year would rise to at least 108,000 vehicles, if the authorities cut the registration tax to 10 percent from 15 percent now.

The total number of cars nationwide has gone beyond 2 million for a population of around 90 million people. According to a national traffic development plan, there would be 3.2-3.5 million cars in the country by 2020.

Despite many government restrictions to make it more expensive to buy or register a car, the high-end car market will not be affected in Vietnam, experts say. They say that the ongoing economic slump has been crushing only for the very poor and the low-income groups.

The income gap between Vietnam's rich and poor widened to 9.2 times in 2011 from 8.9 in 2008, according to latest data compiled by the General Statistics Office.

"Luxury cars are increasingly irresistible for many Vietnamese nouveau riches," said Trinh Hoa Binh, a sociologist who heads the Hanoi-based Center for Public Opinion Studies.

"There are still a lot of people out there who have money. For them, buying an expensive car is a matter of prestige and a good way to flaunt their wealth," Binh told Vietweek.

"Once they get into the cars, it will be virtually impossible to get them to use public transportation."

Bike multitudes

The number of motorbikes officially registered in Vietnam has risen to more than 37 million, already beating government projections of 36 million for 2020. Latest statistics from the Ministry of Transport show that newly-registered motorbikes have continued to surge in the country.

The most common means of public transportation in Vietnam is the bus. The authorities have for many years announced plans to improve the efficiency of the bus system and encourage more people to use it, but there is no sign that they have had any impact.

In fact, the perception of public transportation as an epitome of inefficiency has only strengthened over the last several years, with any number of stories appearing in the local media about reckless bus drivers, ill-mannered bus assistants, pickpocketing on bus, and rundown facilities.

Given that, the authorities are wrestling with an uphill task to change the highly negative public perception.

"It is just more of the same," said Nguyen Cuong Phat, a bus commuter in District 1.

"The traffic jams are only getting worse here in the city, and more and more people, especially the elderly and students, should want to ride the bus," Cuong said during a short ride from Cong Quynh Street to Ben Thanh Market. "But if there is no overhauling of the current system, they will give it a pass."

Yet another aspect of the problem is that public transportation has come to be seen as a sign of poverty and low status, experts say.

Badly needed

After years of delay due to red tape and sluggish site clearance, construction work on Vietnam's first urban metro system began in HCMC last August with Japanese aid.

Japan's Sumitomo Corporation won the contract to build the first 19-kilometer elevated section of the metro. Other Japanese companies will construct underground facilities and install operation systems.

The southern economic hub plans to develop a rapid transit network that will comprise seven metro lines and three monorail routes by 2020.

The lines will have a combined 100 kilometers (60 miles) of track with the first one running through District 1, Binh Thanh District, District 2, District 9, and Thu Duc District in HCMC before ending in neighboring Binh Duong Province.

Eight subway lines are planned for Hanoi. Transport authorities in both cities have set out the same concrete timeframe to run their first lines.

"HCMC will definitely be able to run its first metro line by 2018," said Hoang Nhu Cuong, deputy chief of the HCMC Management Authority For Urban Railways.

Japan is working to expand its export of railway technologies, and sees significant business opportunities in Vietnam, according to Japanese media reports. At a recent conference, the French Consulate General in HCMC also indicated French companies' interest in joining the competition.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is lending the Vietnamese government $293 million for the construction of one metro line in Hanoi another $500 million for HCMC's second.

Elsewhere in the region, Singapore and Hong Kong are considered exemplary models of successful public transit systems. They achieved this by investing in good rail and bus networks but also increasing the cost of owning and operating a car. 

Experts say because these projects are so expensive and disruptive, it is very difficult, administratively and politically, to carry them out. Also, given that public transport projects are not very profitable and the cost of developing the infrastructure is very high, private companies will not take on the risk of building a metro line without a government guarantee, which shifts the risk back to the government.

Most Southeast Asian countries, except for Singapore, have experienced huge delays in building urban transport systems (or experienced complete failure, as in Jakarta). Bangkok is an example of a city that went to the brink of collapse before finally building its metro system. It does not work as well as Singapore and Hong Kong but it has improved in recent years, experts say.

Despite the regional context, experts say Hanoi and HCMC do need the subways. The problem is not just building the systems but putting in place the other policies "so that the public views the entire transport system as fair, efficient, convenient and affordable," said Pincus, the HCMC-based economist.

Other experts have allayed fears of a new car culture supplanting the country's motorbike culture any time soon.

"While there is strong growth of cars in Vietnam, it varies per city, and the evolution to a real car culture will take 15-20 years, if not longer," said Robert Valkovic, the ADB's transport specialist for Vietnam.

"Provided there is strong government commitment to public transport, which is clear in the approved urban transport master plans for major cities, these trends in car usage can easily be restrained and even reversed in 2018 and beyond," Valkovic told Vietweek.

The awareness campaigns carried out so far about public transportation in general have failed, and this should not be repeated with the metro lines, experts say.

"The best way to impress the public is by bigwigs setting examples," said Binh, the Hanoi-based sociologist. "Sadly, such examples are extremely rare in Vietnam."

In October 2011, transport minister Dinh La Thang made a splash by saying he would ride the bus to work and asked his staff to follow suit. The announcement was greeted with skepticism that Thang would be able to walk the talk.

Less than two months and several attempts later, Thang said he would never force his staff to ride the bus to work anymore as he himself could not bear it.

Since then, little has been heard from concerned authorities about setting such examples.

But meanwhile, Cuong, the bus rider, said he was excited about the metro line.

"It would be much more convenient for regular users of public transportation like us," said the soft-spoken social worker, who cannot ride a motorbike.

He said he had never seen any public officials on the buses and would not buy into the idea that an increasing number of them would get on the subway when it is commissioned.

"It's just like the social divide. Our place is here on the bus and theirs are in the cars."

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