Vietnam News

HCMC bus system can’t keep up with growth

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Thu Huong rides the public bus every day, but she had to rely on ride-hailing services for a recent appointment because she did not want to arrive late.

Riding various bus routes from her home in District 2 to District 7 takes 1.5 hours, while ride-hailing services only take her half an hour.

The 40-year-old employment consultant has been taking public buses regularly since moving to her current home in the former District 2, now Thu Duc City, which is supposed to be HCMC’s new urban center.

Her house is a three-minute walk to the bus station, the ticket is cheap and she does not have to jostle in the traffic herself, which are the three reasons she has grown fond of the buses.

“But on the other hand, you have to accept that it takes time. It’s not an option if you are in a hurry,” Huong said.

After 6 years taking public buses to different parts of Saigon, Huong’s verdict about transport in the city is this: Public buses are only convenient if your destination is in District 1. The further it is from the central district, the more trouble passengers have to go through as there are fewer stations and fewer routes.

For many new passengers who live far from the city center like Huong, HCMC’s public bus system has become outdated.

Dr. Nguyen Thi Bich Hang, a lecturer at the University of Transport, said the city’s public bus network has exposed its shortcomings after decades in use.

Most of the buses run on 20-km routes that directly connect the city’s major entryways to the city’s central districts 1, 3, 5 and 10.

The routes were mostly built dozens of years ago and never went through any major upgrades.

Hang said the network has become outdated because the city now has multiple new urban centers in different directions.

The city lacks routes that cover its surrounding districts, as well as routes that connect new urban areas with main traffic routes, she said.

The bus network is too dense in the central districts while underdeveloped in new residential areas such as Thu Duc, and Districts 7, 12, Nha Be and Binh Chanh.

According to a 2015 research by Dr. Vu Anh Tuan, director of the Traffic Research Center at the Vietnamese-German University, the four central districts 1, 3, 5 and 10 are the only places in HCMC that meet the public bus standard of 2.46 km of bus routes per square kilometer.

The rate in other areas is 0.22-0.69 km per square kilometer.

“Many bus routes have been shut down since, meaning the coverage is even less now,” Tuan said.

Dr. Huynh Nhat Nam, a lecturer at Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management and an expert on big data and urban transport, said the city has failed to conduct annual surveys to catch up with people’s travel demand.

Nam said public transport planning should find the answers to basic questions such as where people are traveling from and to, at what time, for how long every day, for what purpose, and how much time and money they are willing to spend on their daily transport.

Having participated in setting up public transport models in Sydney, Nam said the 5-million-person city conducts surveys every year of around 5,000 households, using results from the three most recent years to make necessary adjustments to its bus system.

“This is the first step HCMC must take if it wants to reform its public transport system.”

The southern metropolis is also under more pressure than ever to reorganize its public bus network in order to support its first metro line, Ben Thanh – Suoi Tien, which is set to go into operation next year.

The HCMC Public Transport Management Center announced plans in June to open 22 new bus routes and adjust 15 existing ones to serve passengers using the metro line.

For the 2025-2030 period, the center has plans to reorganize nearly 100 bus routes into 179 ones.

Of them, the 18 main, longest routes will run along HCMC’s busiest roads and use larger buses that can carry up to 80 people. Another 73 branch routes, with buses that can carry 40-55 people, will connect the main routes and the metro line with large residential areas, schools and industrial parks. Another 88 minor routes will run short hauls within districts, using buses that can carry 20 people.

If the reorganization is done right, the center expects public buses in the city will attract 1.87 million passengers a day by 2030, four times the current number.

But it will need to invest more than VND18 trillion (US$760 million) to upgrade infrastructure and expand the fleet.

Hang from the University of Transport said that to ensure the network runs well, authorities should choose capable operators, especially for main routes.

She said many operators have complained that they “cannot survive” with the current ticket subsidy rates, so the city should recalculate the cost to set reasonable ticket prices.

Exclusive lanes

Tran Quang Lam, director of HCMC’s Transport Department, told a meeting of municipal legislators on July 11 that the city also has plans to develop a clean energy-run system, using electricity, CNG and LNP by 2030, as well as deploy mini buses to serve people living in small roads.

But experts said development plans for city buses can only be realized if individual vehicles are brought under control by 2025, and if buses are given exclusive lanes so they can run faster and be more attractive to passengers.

“Exclusive lanes do not mean special treatment for buses, but fair treatment for passengers. They accept to give up the convenience of their personal vehicles, they should get to travel faster,” Hang said.

As a person who has given up her motorbike for buses, Huong said that “passengers need to be very patient.”

She made the switch as she did not want to struggle with her bike in heavy traffic, and she wanted to set an example for her children about protecting the environment.

But Huong also said not everyone would have the same motivation to accept the longer commuting times via public transport.

“I still hope for the day when we can easily travel anywhere in the city by bus. And I hope I don’t have to wait for years,” she said.

By Viet Duc & Gia Minh – – July 31, 2023 

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