The Future of Transit in Ho Chi Minh City

By: Aleksandr Smechov

Vietnam’s economic growth in the past two decades has led to more and more motorbikes, and as of late, many more cars. Driveways are now lined with cars as the Vietnamese find comfort in what up until recently was considered a luxury. Congestion has grown with population, and the streets are jam-packed with vehicles of all sorts. Pollution is rampant and road safety is an increasing concern.

To combat the increasing issue of mobility, the government has put forth a plan to dramatically streamline transit for the masses. Fanny Quertamp of PADDI, a decentralised cooperation project between the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in France, the Greater Lyon metropolis, and Ho Chi Minh City, informed us of the city’s future plans (translated from French):

“To fight against these negative externalities, the government has planned the construction of an ambitious transport network, including eight lines of MRT, two monorails, a tram line and six lines of BRT. By 2020, the economic capital of Vietnam is poised to acquire several subway lines and a bus line along the high traffic area of Vo Van Kiet. The development of such infrastructure will profoundly change the urban morphology, landscape [and more….]”

It is an ambitious and difficult undertaking that becomes exponentially complex due to the city’s geography and the unique habits of commuters. But various departments and investors have committed to getting everything done in time, despite negative criticism in the press.

Who is Involved?

To get a clearer perspective we have to take a look at the key players in the transit game:

People’s Committee: The figureheads of all transit projects, the People’s Committee makes the final call for any decision after listening to the opinions of relevant technical departments, foreign donors, consultants, think tanks, academics and decentralised cooperation projects like PADDI.

Transit Departments: These are the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Management Authority for Urban Railways (MAUR) and the Urban-Civil works Construction Investment management authority (UCCI). They are under the direct supervision of the People’s Committee.

International Donors: These are donors from international organizations such as ADB, BEI, World Bank, or bilateral aid agencies like JICA and GIZ. This is how the metro project gets part of its funding. There are not that many international donors, and the city wishes to involve more stakeholders.

Institutes: These institutes can be dedicated to the fields of urban planning and transport planning, engineering, architecture, transport or social sciences. They act as advisors to the transit departments under the People’s Committee.

Decentralised Cooperation Projects: Projects like PADDI who provides training courses, technical assistance and studies on urban issues, especially on public transport.

Commissioned Companies: These are the companies actively involved in the construction and engineering of the project. They may be local or foreign.

What Challenges are Faced?

It’s a day-by-day learning experience for everyone involved. Fanny remarks on the two major challenges faced by authorities involved with the various transit projects (translated from French):

“From a technical standpoint, the authorities face two major challenges: the design and construction of subway lines - part underground - require a high level of technicality in an environment with many uncertainties.... The second challenge is to optimize the management of existing bus networks (140 routes operated by 18 operators).”

In addition, there are many other problems faced on a daily basis:

• New institutions (such as a Public Transport Authority or PTA) must be created on-the-go while the projects are still taking shape.

• Because the city has no end of winding side alleys, floods and non-existent sidewalks, people’s routes need to be constantly assessed and re-assessed. Factor in the increasing number of traffic jams, the connections to be developed between the new bus routes and the metro lines, the conflicts with real estate and a number of other issues, and this becomes an incredibly complex puzzle.

• External factors have to be considered every step of the way, including: road safety issues; motorbike parking at stations; balanced ticket pricing; the public, private and corporate aspects of the bus system; and much, much more.

A Lack of Perspective and Communication

Between 1990 and 1997, it took Shanghai nearly seven years to build 16km of Line 1 of its metro. Between 2009 and 2010, it took one year to build 1,140km of rail in Shanghai. What’s happening now in HCMC is a test project - whatever is learned by all participants should expedite the process the next time around.

On a final note, Fanny remarks that it is important that all those involved remain flexible to adapt to the constantly changing circumstances as the future of transit in the city inches towards completion.

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