Bike to the Future?

With so many new transport options becoming available and a metro system in the making, Edward Dalton takes to the streets of Hanoi and asks a question we all want to know the answer to: Can anything dethrone the motorbike?


Getting from A to B should be a simple task. In Hanoi, however, nothing is simple where transport is concerned. A city of nearly five million motorbikes and around half a million cars, chaos on the roads is well documented, and a tourist might be forgiven for thinking any given time of day was rush hour.


For more than a decade, the motorbike has been the dominant form of transport throughout Vietnam, and no more so than in its biggest cities. There are buses, but people are using them less every year. There is a metro system in the pipeline, but who knows when that might finally emerge. Unless for exercise, bicycles are now the preserve of students or the poor, and there is no intercity train network worth speaking of.


Our survey was designed to discover the opinions of local people on current transport preferences, and what their hopes and expectations are for the future of transport in the capital, especially with regards to the upcoming metro lines.


No Big Surprises


Young and old, rich or poor, male or female, there’s one conclusion no one will be surprised by; the motorbike is at the top of the transport food chain. Ferrying students to classes, shifting families around town, hauling goods to customers and transferring young couples away from the prying eyes of their families, the motorbike was the main mode of transport for 98% of young male respondents, and 99% of young females.


The data becomes more interesting when we look at the older age groups, the 46 to 60s and 61 plus. Although the majority still use motorbikes, averaging at 74% between male and female, the figure is significantly lower than their younger compatriots.


In the group I would cautiously term middle-aged, more people reported owning and using a car. Once they got over the peak of retirement, however, the figure for motorbike usage creeps back up again, suggesting convenience trumps style and status in old age.


The Wheels on the Bus


There are lots of buses in Hanoi, as anyone who has routinely been nearly murdered by one whilst cycling will tell you. The answers revealed that in all age groups, more than double the amount of women than men use public transport frequently.


Overall use is rather low, with a gender-average figure of 13% of men and 29% of women using the bus regularly (once a week or more). The most commonly cited reason for avoiding public transport was duration; respondents said it was too inconvenient to wait for a bus to arrive, and then endure a slow journey with multiple stops or transfers on the way.


More young women spoke of their concerns about safety and hygiene on public transport, whereas a higher proportion of men said the crowded nature of buses at peak hours were deeply off-putting.


A few women mentioned that it was easier to avoid the sun if travelling by bus, while another I spoke to told me she uses public transport exclusively, because a serious motorbike accident had left her too afraid to go on a motorbike again.


Uber or Metro?


One of the newest additions to Hanoi’s transport options is the use of apps such as Uber or Grab, essentially a glorified way of calling a taxi.


However, somewhere over the horizon is the impending metro, looming large over the livelihoods of anyone driving a bus, taxi or xe om for a living. The first line was due to open at the end of this year, but that’s been pushed back to 2020. It’s anyone’s guess as to when the whole network will be up and running.


Among the younger age groups, which includes students, 81% of men are more excited about the metro rather than Uber or Grab, and a whopping 94% of women. In the middle-aged groups, and the elderly, those figures drop to 60% of men and 74% of women.


A clear 100% of men and women aged 16 to 24 said they would definitely use the metro when it was finished, suggesting the younger generation are as forward-thinking and progressive as one would hope. Both hilariously and tragically, many of the respondents over the age of 75 laughed away the notion of using the metro, the main reason being they don’t expect to be alive by the time it’s finished.


Unsurprisingly, the younger generation said they will be more drawn to using the metro regularly if it meets their modern standard of living. This means free Wi-Fi, comfortable and stylish carriages and affordability. Older, although not necessarily wiser, respondents said it would depend on whether they could park their motorbikes or cars close enough to metro stations, and if the service was faster and more reliable than buses.


What Does the Future Hold?


Right now, overcrowding is a big concern to many Hanoians, according to 61% of all respondents we spoke to who wished Hanoi had fewer people. The second most popular wish was that Hanoi’s millions of motorbikes would be far fewer in number, regardless of whether the respondent drove a motorbike or car.


On the future, everyone we spoke to expects either the car or metro to be the dominant mode of transport in Hanoi in 15 years’ time. Among young people, change is the flavour of the day, as 73% of people believed the motorbike would no longer be dominant in just five years’ time.


The general consensus seems to be that Hanoi is, sadly, heading the way of Bangkok and other Southeast Asian capitals, where the car has replaced the motorbike at the top. Hanoi has a golden opportunity to avoid repeating the mistakes of more developed cities, and instead focus efforts on improving infrastructure and public transport; the survey shows that young people are open to a future of using public transport.


Unfortunately, with cars being made cheaper by various cuts to import duties and luxury taxes, and motorbikes targeted in a proposed plan to ban them from downtown by 2025, the opportunity is flying past, and all we can do is stand by, watch and call an Uber.



The Survey


Focusing on three main demographics — age, gender and income — we questioned 100 people around Hoan Kiem, Cau Giay and Hai Ba Trung, targeting as diverse a group as possible. The questions were as follows:


1) Which vehicles does your family currently own?

2) Which vehicle do you use the most?

3) How often do you use public transport?

4) What is the biggest problem with public transport?

5) Which new mode of transport are you most excited about?

6) Will you use the metro when it’s finished?

7) What feature would make the metro most appealing to you?

8) Do you think the metro will be good for Hanoi?

9) Do you expect the metro do reduce traffic?

10) Would you swap your motorbike/car to only use public transport?

11) What do you wish Hanoi had less of?

12) After five years and 15 years, what do you think will be Hanoi’s main mode of transport?

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