Six years after it began operation Hanoi’s BRT (bus rapid transit) has still not gained enough traction to become the public transport solution to traffic congestion and pollution.
The Kim Ma-Yen Nghia BRT line, approved in 2007 at a cost of around US$55 million, began on New Year’s Day in 2017. A full trip spanning 14.77 km was to take around 45 minutes.
Funded by loans from the World Bank, it was part of the capital’s long-term public transport development plans.
The World Bank hoped it would be the answer to traffic congestion and pollution and be the foundation for a transport system that entices people to finally switch from private vehicles to public transport.
But six years later both authorities and experts admit it has yet to deliver on its promises.
According to data from the Hanoi Public Transport Management Center, the Yen Nghia-Kim Ma BRT line served around five million passengers a year in 2017-20.
After Covid-19 broke out, in 2021 the number of passengers dropped to 1.8 million. Revenues fell from VND27.5 billion ($1.17 million) in 2018 to VND15.2 billion.
Nguyen Hoang Hai, director of the center, said the BRT still has the largest number of passengers among all existing bus networks.
Pre-Covid surveys suggested a high rate of people switching from private vehicles to the BRT, especially people with offices along the line. But from 2017 to 2020 the total number of passengers was nearly unchanged.
Meanwhile, the number of private vehicles in the city increased by around 320,000 every year since 2019, with motorbikes accounting for 80 percent.
Hai blamed the failure of passenger numbers to increase on the fact its so-called exclusive lane was frequently encroached on by other vehicles.
“The BRT is designed to have a separate lane barricaded from other vehicles. But in reality, there is only a line drawn on the road. It means the buses cannot travel at the speed they are supposed to, and are at a disadvantage compared to private vehicles.”
Lack of connectivity between the BRT and other public transport networks also means people have to walk long distances to reach BRT stations. There is currently only one BRT line, making it difficult to develop a loyal user base.
Phan Le Binh, a traffic expert, said the BRT’s greatest challenge is the fact it has to compete with private vehicles.
“Bus users certainly have nothing against the BRT as it is truly an advanced model of traffic. But as long as private vehicles are still the popular choice, the BRT will find it hard to win the hearts of people.”
End of trial
The Hanoi Department of Transport has proposed allowing certain other vehicles to use the BRT lanes, like buses and vans with at least 24 seats and those meant for official or emergency purposes.
Experts said the proposal is a sign the BRT trial has ended.
In the last 15 years, since the BRT was first approved, Hanoi never planned for a second line.
In a 2018 evaluation report, the World Bank mentioned plans to create new BRT lines like Dong Anh-West Lake and Le Duan-Giai Phong, but they remain on paper simply because they would cost too much.
Nguyen Van Thanh, former deputy head of the Directorate for Roads of Vietnam, said besides funding issues the fact that Hanoi never pushed hard enough to develop its public transport networks means the BRT never had a chance to truly take off.
The BRT can only work as part of an integrated rapid bus network, he said.
“If we put only one line on trial and decide to stop, we cannot ask the BRT to prove itself to be effective. This has caused a negative image of the BRT, while it is actually a modern and advanced form of traffic.”
Binh said the BRT took too long to be completed, and during that time traffic infrastructure, population and the number of vehicles had all changed considerably, making the BRT outdated and putting it in direct conflict with personal vehicles.
It made the BRT a bad precedent, something that other localities, including Hanoi, are not willing to follow, he added.
The roads that the BRT runs through, like Le Van Luong, Lang Ha, Giang Vo, and Le Trong Tan are frequently congested during rush hour.
Cars and motorbikes often encroach into BRT lanes if there are no traffic police officers around. It means a 15-km trip takes around 60 minutes instead of the intended 45 minutes.
Thanh said traffic congestion at areas with the BRT are merely a symptom of the network’s improper planning. Despite the project’s huge investment and supposedly extensive impacts on Hanoi’s traffic infrastructure, it was not planned as carefully as it should have been.
“The Yen Nghia-Kim Ma line, despite having high traffic density, has very little land for traffic… That is disadvantageous for the BRT, which slows it down, causing traffic congestion to be even more severe.”
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