Can Hanoi tame its pollution nightmare, the motorbike?

In Vietnam's capital Hanoi, bicycles have almost entirely given way to motorcycles as the preferred mode of transport. In recent years, electric bicycles and e-scooters are becoming increasingly popular in the cities.

In 2014, the Environmental Performance Index again ranked Vietnam among the worst 10 of 178 countries on the air pollution index. Myanmar, Bhutan, Laos, India, Pakistan, China and Bangladesh were ranked worse.

Vietnam has grown remarkably fast from one of the world’s poorest nations in the 1980s to a middle-income country. Its urban areas have come under pressure from surging population, increasing transportation demand and economic growth. Is Vietnam getting short of breath?

Is the state of Vietnam’s air quality alarming?

The Environmental Performance Index, a worldwide ranking created by researchers at the Yale University and the Columbia Universities, uses satellite-derived estimates to measure fine particulate matter (PM2.5) exposure and exceedance. This method makes cross-country comparisons possible – many countries do not yet measure ground-based PM2.5.

A look at Hanoi’s real time Air Quality Index data shows the concentration of pollutants varies during the day. “While the air quality in some regions in the country is still good, we worry about some cities and industrial areas”, says Dr. Hoang Duong Tung, Deputy Director General of the Vietnam Environment Administration, under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. According to their data, PM2.5 concentration in cities on many days exceeds Vietnam’s national air quality standard, which is set at 50 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) for a 24-hours average, he says.

“Yes, the figures are alarming.  Air quality has become a priority concern for the government. We saw TV reports on Beijing’s severe smog pollution – a situation we want to avoid in Vietnam,” he says. Besides particulate matter, dust and ozone are also of concern, while SO2 levels are less of a problem, says Tung, adding Vietnam’s air quality issues are typical to many southeast Asian countries.

What is air pollution?


What are the main sources of air pollution in Vietnam?

In the cities, the leading source of air pollution emissions is transport. Up until the end of the 1980s, the main means of transport in Hanoi were bicycles and trams. Economic growth and the rise in living standards have led to a surge in motorised transport. Bicycles have almost entirely given way to motorcycles as the preferred mode of transport in Vietnam. Motorcycles account for more than 9O per cent of the fleet in the nearly six-million-strong Hanoi, with its many narrow streets and alleys often too tiny to be accessible by car.

“Almost everyone has a motorcycle, while public transport is limited and not very popular. Busses carry only five per cent to 10 per cent of the population,” says Tung, adding, “Also, the habit of walking is anything but common here. People use motorbikes even for very short distances.”

Vietnam’s vehicle fleet grew consistently at an average of 16 per cent per annum from between 2000 and 2012, while growth in car numbers was highest, at 18 per cent, during this period, according to a report by the air quality network Clean Air Asia. More than 37 million motorcycles are registered in Vietnam, with a population of 90 million people. The number of cars is around two million.

Another significant source of air pollution are coal-fired power plants and cement and steel factories. Construction dust also adds to the pollution, as well as the burning of the field residue during the harvest season, which affects the local air quality during certain times of the day and brings noticeable smoke into Hanoi for about a week, Tung explains.

What measures are being taken in Vietnam to fight air pollution?

Vietnam is gradually tightening standards for new vehicles and has put measures in place to control petrol quality. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, Vietnam is moving to 50ppm sulfur in fuels by 2016 to meet Euro 4 vehicle emission standards, and has confirmed moving to Euro 5 by 2021.

To control the number of cars, Vietnam is also taking financial measures. The country has a 200 per cent tax on auto purchases. The registration fee in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City was increased. “Ironically driving up the price of cars makes them more attractive to own,” Dr. Terry F. Buss, a Fellow at the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration wrote in an article on traffic congestion in Vietnam’s major cities published by Tuoi Tre News. “Because they are a sign of wealth, car owners are very unlikely to ride buses or trains.”

Tung says for motorcycles the country still lacks a good maintenance program. “Many old motorbikes are still in use, although they often get sold in the countryside. There aren’t any strict inspections for existing busses in place yet either,” he says. Unlike in some other Asian countries, two-stroke motorbikes are not a big concern since they are not popular in Vietnam.

According to an article on traffic safety by Thanh Nien News from November 2013, several experts had proposed the idea of imposing a motorbike ban in major cities, which had been met by opposition. The article quoted Nguyen Hoang Hiep, deputy chairman of the National Traffic Safety Committee, saying a ban was currently impossible because of undeveloped economics, lack of infrastructure and insufficient public transport.

With the current limited infrastructure and street capacities, the number of public busses in the cities can only be increased in certain areas, says Tung. Metro projects for Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, which aim to reduce the use of private transport, face years of delay.

Eight subway lines are planned for Hanoi. The project is being coordinated and financed by several organisations including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the European Investment Bank. In Ho Chi Minh City, a rapid transit network with seven metro lines and three monorail routes is planned with Japanese aid. Construction work started in 2012. A new 14-kilometre rapid transit route for buses with a separate road lane in Hanoi is planned to go into operation in 2015.

Electric bicycles and e-scooters seem to be becoming increasingly popular in the cities, especially among students. “It is encouraging to see that more and more people are using e-bikes,” says Tung, “But we need to develop a sustainable battery collection and recycling system.” Hanoi is planning to start a pilot public bicycle rental program similar to programs in European cities and in China.

How could cities systematically improve their air quality?

At a local level, sufficient and consistent data on air quality monitoring is often unavailable.  The project Clean Air for Smaller Cities in the ASEAN Region, funded by the German government, is being carried out by the German International Cooperation (GIZ) in eight countries in Southeast Asia. “In Vietnam, we have recently started with our project activities,” says Project Director Martina Kolb.

In the city of Bac Ninh, an emission inventory is currently being developed to detect which sources are emitting which air pollutants and to what extent. The same procedure is planned for the city Can Tho. “At this stage we don’t have any completed analysis for these two cities yet,” says Kolb. “Generally speaking, in smaller cities in the ASEAN region, transport tends to be the main source of air pollution. In Bac Ninh public transport is currently limited,” she says.

Based on these emission inventories, targeted measures to reduce air pollution will be suggested in clean air plans. “Such clean air plans have been common practice in the European Union. If a city exceeds the air quality standard on a particular number of days, measures have to be taken to reduce air pollution, such as introducing low emission zones,” Kolb says.

Suggested measures in these clean air plans are following the approach “avoid-shift-improve”. Heavy traffic can, for example, be avoided or significantly reduced by an urban planning that keeps distances between workplaces and residential areas at a minimum. By offering more public transport, motorized individual transport can be shifted to more environmental friendly modes of transport. The infrastructure can be improved by creating sidewalks and lanes for busses and bicycles.

About Anemi Wick

Anemi Wick from Switzerland has been living in Vietnam and Southeast Asia since 2009 after working as a newspaper reporter in Berlin, Germany for several years. She graduated from The Swiss Journalism School MAZ, and from the Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism with a Diploma in Multimedia Journalism.

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