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Reducing traffic congestion in Vietnam’s major cities

Dr. Terry F. Buss, a Fellow at the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration, shares his views on how to ease traffic congestion in Vietnam’s major cities. Buss is currently living in Hanoi and the views expressed herein are his own.

Amid a sea of motorcycles on Truong Trinh Street in Ho Chi Minh City on the afternoon of May 10, 2012, the little girl in this photo appears not to know what is happening around her.
Amid a sea of motorcycles on Truong Trinh Street in Ho Chi Minh City on the afternoon of May 10, 2012, the little girl in this photo appears not to know what is happening around her.

Vietnam’s major cities – especially Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City – suffer traffic congestion resulting from excessive motorbike and automobile usage, major construction projects (e.g., Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport) and limited infrastructure capacity (“Old Quarter Hanoi”).

Over the past few years, governments have been addressing congestion by constructing elevated highways, ring roads, outer belts and bridges to handle more traffic and restricting access by limiting or redirecting traffic (including taxi restrictions), charging parking fees, reducing parking spaces, and creating toll roads. These measures have often been effective in the short-term, but as urban populations exponentially grow and businesses startup or expand, capacity to handle traffic again declines. Transportation system research around the globe discovered this paradox: reducing congestion produces even more congestion.

The costs of congestion are high: high infrastructure costs, lost productivity, air pollution, wasted fuel consumption, and driver frustration. Some new approaches have been underway for a while, but will they be effective?

Rail service

More recently, one new solution is to add rail service. Ho Chi Minh City, for example, is constructing a rail system to bring commuters from outlying districts to the downtown. Rail can help combat congestion, but it also creates it. People must commute to rail stations to catch trains. As a result, a great deal of land around stations will be set aside for parking lots for train commuters. If rail is successful, these parking lots will fill up, forcing commuters back to their cars or motorbikes. Even creating more parking lots will be problematic: land prices around train stations will soar, pressuring the government to approve expensive development, rather than set it aside for parking and public uses. In Washington, DC, for example, rail commuters often wait years to obtain a parking space near a train station, while in the meantime they are forced back on the highway.

Cluster development

Another solution is to agglomerate people, businesses, housing and other amenities into “clusters” where people can live and work without having to commute. To make clusters work economically, developers build high-rise buildings often with lavish shopping centers, business offices and services. While these clusters work for residents, they serve as a magnet that soon draws people from around the city, again creating congestion. Hanoi, for example, has the Indochina Plaza which offers high-end condos, office complexes, a shopping center and restaurants. The complex is at the intersection of two major highways and an elevated highway, next to the sprawling Vietnam National University’s language colleges. It adds to the already existing congestion problem.

Increasing car costs

Yet another solution is to make cars so expensive to acquire and operate that people are expected to abandon them for other means of transport. Automobile taxes in Vietnam can increase a car’s price by two or three times its original value, making Vietnam among the highest prices for automobiles globally. Vietnamese excessive automobile and motorbike usage is borne in part out of necessity: these are the only viable ways to travel for most people.

But a great deal of travel is driven by culture. As is well-known, motorbike usage exploded when Vietnam began to rapidly grow in the 1980s. Urban mass transit was underdeveloped, automobiles were scarce, and bicycles were too limiting: enter the motorbike. As Vietnam grew wealthier, automobile usage began to grow (but also did motorbikes). Wealthy entrepreneurs could now afford cars, state-owned firms offered “company” cars as a benefit as did foreign-owned companies, and the government provided cars for civil servants and policymakers.

Now, a badge of success is having a car, even if it costs a great deal. A recent study by the National University of Singapore found that raising the cost of automobiles did not reduce automobile travel: wealthier people viewed high costs as a sign of conspicuous wealth, and companies treated expensive cars as a cost of doing business. Of course, the cost of government cars falls on the taxpayer.

Because they are a sign of wealth, car owners are very unlikely to ride buses or trains. Ironically driving up the price of cars makes them more attractive to own. Even if high costings worked, it would drive people to use taxis and motorbikes to a greater extent, creating congestion substituting one form of congestion for another.

Is information technology the solution?

Importantly, governments cannot stop building highways, restricting access, offering mass transit, encouraging clustering or pricing automobiles. Citizens, businesses and tourists expect governments to address congestion using these means. Until recently, there were few alternatives. But, according to research in the U.S. and EU, these conventional approaches not only create congestion over the long-term, they also are becoming prohibitively expensive. So, how can a nation create a transportation system that reduces congestion?

Many experts now consider intelligent transportation systems (ITS) as the solution. London was able to reduce traffic to mid-1980 levels using ITS. Some cities in Vietnam have begun thinking about ITS and others like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang are beginning work on it. But how does ITS work?

Using state-of-the-art information technology (IT), intelligent vehicles and intelligent infrastructure transmit and receive data from sensors, detectors, video cameras, aerial surveillance, radar, and satellites to improve vehicle operator performance and transportation system management. Many cities, for example, use video cameras to control traffic, but these are ineffective at night, during bad weather, or intense sunlight; cities are now combining video with heat sensors which are not affected by light conditions. Drivers (cars, trucks, buses, and motorbikes) receive messages on computers, e-notebooks or mobile devices informing them of accidents, emergencies, bottlenecks, travel times, alternative routes, and the like. These initiatives “empower” drivers to make better decisions.

Transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, train stations, rail lines, traffic signals, parking decks, toll roads, traffic helicopters, etc.) managers receive ITS data, then use it to control the system by changing traffic signal timing, posting notices on electronic billboards or signage, broadcasting radio announcements, opening and closing roads and traffic lanes, dispatching emergency vehicles, responding to accidents and the like. Computers, rather than humans, make most of the decisions that control the system.

Vehicles – including motorbikes – and mass transit (buses and trains) can communicate within and across modes of transportation. Law enforcement and emergency services are tied into the system. In Europe, for example, the “eCall” system automatically notifies emergency services of accidents as they happen.

ITS management – which controls vehicles, mass transit and infrastructure – reduces congestion not only by finding the most efficient way to move traffic across the system but also prevents accidents and promotes safety, improves infrastructure maintenance, lowers traffic incidents and emergencies, issues real-time travel information, and offers driver assistance. In Stockholm, taxis are equipped with GPS systems that feedback data to traffic management control centers; the Swedes are adding this technology to all moving vehicles. Buses in Pittsburgh are equipped with cameras that send real time pictures of the condition of roadways so that maintenance crews can be dispatched to repair them. ITS increasingly becomes more predictive, evidence-based, and performance-driven as IT itself advances. Singapore, for example, can predict automobile speeds in the city to 90 percent accuracy. Transportation agencies world-wide report that ITS has greatly improved scheduling of mass transit. The system becomes proactive rather than reactive. Emergency vehicles can be placed in the right locations before hurricanes or snow storms hit.

Some other examples. On freeway systems, traffic managers can close traffic lanes to accommodate rush hour traffic. Toll roads utilize electronic toll collection to speed traffic through toll booths. Toll booths on Thang Long Highway to Noi Bai Airport employ this technology. Vehicles are equipped with crash prevention systems that detect unsafe driving conditions. Google, for example, has successfully produced driverless cars operated entirely by computer. Mass transit – buses and trains – have automated vehicle location systems to improve travel schedules. Trucks can link to regulatory agencies to facilitate vehicle inspections. ITS intends to link these separate systems together in a large integrated system. Technology has barely scratched the surface of what’s possible.

Interestingly, traditional approaches eliminating congestion can be enhanced through ITS. In Stockholm, for example, the city placed sensors in key locations around the city. When congestion looks to be preeminent, ITS systems identify automobiles contributing to congestion and then charges them a congestion fee.

How about the future? Suppose you’re driving to a train station but were unsure whether parking would be available, or whether trains were running on time, or whether the bus system would be more advantageous, or whether to drive into the city. At present, these systems exist separately, but they can be tied together using on-board computers and other machines (This is referred to as the “Internet of Things”).

Many vehicles have global positioning systems (GPS) on-board. Imagine if the GPS instructed drivers to change their travel route because of an accident or road construction. Imagine further that this change in routing could be reported centrally and then passed to the GPS devices in other vehicles. The European Commission has already issued standards to automobile manufacturers for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.

But why stop at intelligent transportation systems? There is comparable work going on in smart grids –managing the production, transmission and distribution – of energy across regions and cities. Water, environment, communications, air travel, and just about anything are being converted into an intelligent system. In the not too distant future, all of these systems, including ITS will be tied together. The technology is already available; Smart Planet developed by IBM and Smart Cities by Cisco Systems, to name just two of the most advanced.

ITS just might make congestion a thing of the past.