Amid frustration with metro line construction, its time to rethink urban planning in Vietnam
For residents and visitors to HCMC and Hanoi, construction work related to Vietnam’s first metro lines is almost impossible to ignore. But unfortunately, the initial excitement about these projects among locals has been dampened by complications.
In HCMC, construction of the Japanese-led effort has blighted the downtown landscape and worsened traffic problems. In Hanoi, a series of high-profile accidents have cast a larger shadow over the Chinese-led project. Both lines have suffered from delays and cost overruns.
Some international experts say Vietnam should not be discouraged by these setbacks. A few troubles were inevitable given the country’s lack of experience in managing and building projects like this. Furthermore, the HCMC and Hanoi lines will be completed within the next few years, and there is a reason to hope the evident problems with the first metro lines can be avoided in future undertakings.
However, even though a more effective institutional framework and better construction management could hasten site delivery and reduce waste, the reality is that metro projects are time-consuming and expensive to build. Modern metro systems can be a source of pride for emerging cities seeking to establish themselves as a modern global metropolis, but sentiment alone cannot justify these costs, given that resources are limited and so many other pressing issues needing to be addressed.
For metro projects to be worthwhile, they need to have tangible economic, social and environmental benefits, such as improved traffic conditions and more breathable air in the city center. They also need a “critical mass” of passengers willing to pay the tickets, which is necessary to make the project economically viable.
To help ensure Vietnam’s metro projects meet these benchmarks, it is important to place them in the broader context of the nation’s urban planning.
According to Du Huynh, a teaching fellow at the HCMC Fulbright Program, the city’s urban planning has been a “facilitator ” that has encouraged the private sector’s involvement in building the city, in addition to securing financial and technical assistance from foreign aid donors. Up to this point, urban planning has not yet become a “navigator.” This means it has been mostly reactive to market forces and less successful in shaping urban development in a proactive sense.
Although the results have not been ideal, this approach can lay claim to a certain level of achievement. HCMC’s urban “hardware” (i.e., roads and canals) has been significantly improved by projects completed in the last two decades. But the greatest success may lie in the problems HCMC and Hanoi have managed to control.
The first is the traffic situation. The second is the social problems that arise when a small elite lives in luxurious enclaves while a larger impoverished population lives in sprawling makeshift slum areas. While these problems are visible in HCMC and Hanoi, they are not nearly as severe as what can be seen in Manila, Jakarta and many other cities in the developing world.
But despite a moderate level of success up to this point, it seems likely that the old approach has run its course. Looking to the future, new metro lines can make HCMC and Hanoi more economically competitive and livable, but these cities may also need urban planners to take a more hands-on approach to upgrade their urban “software.”
Currently, a big difference between Vietnam’s largest cities and those in more advanced countries is the nearly total absence of zoning laws to separate residential areas from commercial and industrial ones. Another concern is the absence of regulations on where people can drive and park their motorbikes. Both of these issues could end up reducing the usefulness of metro projects, as well as other new infrastructure.
Bringing in investors to build infrastructure is all well and good, but it seems likely that the authorities will need to start “navigating” these issues more proactively to put urban development on a better footing in the future.