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Asia

Southeast Asia struggles to tackle chaotic traffic

The burgeoning traffic in the region's rapidly expanding cities has worsened congestion on the streets and enveloped them with exhaust gases. A German firm is assisting Vietnam and Thailand to overcome the challenges.

Hanoi residents Thang and his wife Lien spend hours everyday commuting through the city's filthy, smoke-filled and noisy roads. They are not alone in this. Millions of the city's other residents share the same fate. 

Thang, an interior designer, and Lien, who works as an advertising expert, are part of Hanoi's rapidly bulging middle class. The couple lives in one of the city's suburbs, where rents are fairly affordable and the quality of the air is better.

But the most important reason behind their decision to reside in this locality is the fact that their parents live there and they can take care of the couple's three-year-old daughter, while Thang and Lien go out to work.

They both spend at least 12 hours daily working and commuting, due to the city's deficient and degraded infrastructure, coupled with its burgeoning traffic. Sometimes, it even goes up to around 14 to 16 hours.

Hanoi is typical of other fast-growing cities in Southeast Asia. The development of transport infrastructure hasn't kept pace with the rapid rise in the number of people and vehicles in these cities in recent years.

The outcome has been an array of social, economic and temporal problems, says Yap Kioe Sheng, a Bangkok-based expert on urban development. He points to the jump in fuel consumption and air-pollution levels as a result of the poor state of infrastructure. "Wasting so much time in the commute causes both economic as well as social problems," he told DW, noting that, "If the parents don't see their children, if they have to leave for work at 4 AM and reach home only at around 10 PM, what sort of family life can they have?"

Vietnam Motorradfahrer in Hanoi (Xuan Thang Nguyen)

Thang spends hours daily commuting to and from work

A status symbol

Yap believes the traffic problems in Hanoi will intensify even further, citing the example of Thailand's capital Bangkok, a bustling metropolis of eight million inhabitants where people are increasingly buying cars. The rapidly expanding middle classes in these countries are buying cars and "that's a disaster," the expert said, explaining that the streets of Hanoi and Bangkok have already been clogged by millions of bikes, mopeds and three-wheeler auto rickshaws.

If these vehicles are replaced by cars, then the traffic would come to a standstill, Yap stressed. In Bangkok, which is some 15 years ahead of Hanoi in terms of city development, the car boom has led to massive traffic congestion, he reckoned.

The proclivity for cars, explains Yap, has to do with the countries' speedy economic development in recent years. As the people have grown richer and are able to afford things that their parents were previously unable to, there has been a shift in their living and consumption habits. Increasing wealth has allowed them to be able to afford cars and relocate to suburban areas, from where they commute daily to work.

"The result of this trend is that they get increasingly stuck in traffic for hours," says Yap. "Still, it's more prestigious here to get stuck in traffic while sitting in a car than to take a subway to commute faster." The expert believes this trend won't change anytime soon.

In fact, Thang's older brother recently bought his family's first car. It is mainly a status symbol, although it provides a certain protection from the exhaust gases, the dirt and noise engulfing the city's streets. However, the commute now takes much longer than on a scooter.

Verkehrstau in Bangkok (AFP/Getty Images/S. Khan)

The boom in car ownership has led to increased traffic congestion in Bangkok

Expertise from Germany

The solution, according to Yap, is a well-designed public transportation system. But people would use it only if it's affordable, convenient and efficient. A system which most people cannot afford or which does not provide connectivity to the suburbs and nearby villages, will not serve the purpose, the analyst underlined, stressing that only a network that avoids all the aforementioned problems would prove attractive for the commuters.

The German engineering firm IVU Traffic Technologies is assisting these countries to overcome the challenges. The company is specialized in traffic management in large cities.

"IVU systems support transport companies or railways in all their tasks," says Frank Nagel, Head of Business Development for Asia-Pacific at IVU. "From the planning of the vehicles, the management of the personnel, the control of the fleets to the passenger information, the ticketing and the billing," he noted, referring to the tasks. The company has been active in Thailand and Vietnam for several years.

Making public transport attractive

In Bangkok, IVU was involved in the "Purple Line" project that was inaugurated in August this year. The new 23-kilometer-long elevated railway connects the northwestern suburbs of Bangkok with the Thonburi district in the center of the city.

The city's rapid transit system transports about 250,000 people a day. In order to make the process as smooth as possible, the IVU software registers the passenger volume, coordinates the arrival and departure times of the trains by controlling the signals on the route. The commuter is informed in real time when the next train arrives. As a result, the system has become attractive for the public.

Things haven't come that far in Hanoi, though, where the first rail line is still under construction. At the moment, people have to commute by bus. "The buses are also outdated and are far too few to adequately meet the mobility needs of the residents," said Nagel.

But a speed bus system that was launched a few years ago, with the support of IVU, has stalled, noted Nagel. Nevertheless, he pointed out, a training center for traffic managers -  jointly founded by IVU and the University of Transport and Communication in Hanoi - is functioning without any hitches. It focuses on various areas including traffic planning, fleet management and ticketing. 

"Only by developing a comprehensive plan for urban transportation will Hanoi be able to escape traffic chaos on its streets," highlighted Nagel.

Vietnam Zug der Vietnamesischen Staatsbahn IVU Bordrechner (IVU)

German firm IVU is assisting Vietnam and Thailand to overcome their traffic challenges

Good future?

But Thang remains skeptical about the modernization of local public transport in Vietnam. The buses are not only outdated, unpunctual and chronically overfilled, but also have a bad reputation. They are considered as safe-havens for pickpocketers. Only poor people, pupils and students who have no choice, use the bus. If this changed, however, he could imagine commuting to work using public transport.

Yap, for his part, sees no alternative to the construction and expansion of an affordable, effective and efficient public transportation system in Vietnam. "I have lived in Bangkok for 30 years. And I've seen the mass transit system and the subway doing very well. It has not solved the traffic congestion on the road, but without them it would have been worse probably."

He is also optimistic about the future, "I see lots of young people, students and school children who are taking the mass transit system to commute. It's packed with them at peak hours. So it's working well and I hope that the culture that they have adopted of using public transport will continue."