What Vietnam can teach us about personal mobility

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Like the unwoke Scrooge, Gov. Andrew Cuomo snatched e-scooters and e-bikes from New Yorkers’ Christmas stockings in 2019, vetoing a bill passed by the state Legislature to legalize them. The push for personal mobility hasn’t run out of juice, however. New enabling legislation was promised in the governor’s Jan. 8 State of the State address and he highlighted the proposal in his budget address this week. 

The governor aims to add safety provisions to his new bill, believing that adding a new class of vehicle to our city streets will increase the vulnerability of pedestrians, along with e-scooter and e-bike riders. New York has an excellent record on traffic safety—with the nation’s lowest rate of traffic fatalities—and he’d like to retain it.

Battery-powered scooters and bikes offer a near-revolution in personal mobility, particularly in New York City. With streets jammed with cars, buses and trucks, the last mile or two in a morning commute can take as long as the first 30. Bike sharing helps, although weather and the confines of professional dress are natural constraints. E-bikes and e-scooters are a new and exciting option, one that many New York City delivery services already employ. Some delivery services (from GrubHub to UPS) rely on bicycles—although still illegal, many of these bikes are powered by batteries. Paid for performance, delivery riders have eagerly embraced this technology.

The view from Southeast Asia

“Personal mobility”—in the form of gasoline-powered scooters—is the heart of urban transportation in Southeast Asia, as revealed in my recent visit to Vietnam and Cambodia.

Take Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam: This bustling metropolis maximizes the use of its roadways by a heavy reliance on motor scooters or motorcycles, not cars. As of 2016, there were 47 million “motos” registered versus only 3 million cars. According to a United Nations report, Vietnam leads Southeast Asia in its reliance on motorized personal mobility.

Not only are the motos fabulously fuel-efficient, they occupy much less roadway than their four-wheeled fellows. In rush hour (is it always rush hour in Saigon?), there’s not an inch of roadway left unoccupied. Even sidewalks are used as needed (pedestrians beware!).

Nor are riders burdened by pesky traffic signals. There are no stop signs and few traffic lights. One does encounter traffic circles, however, whose principal advantage is that vehicles are not required to stop as long as the circle can accept another vehicle. As a driver, you simply slip into the stream of traffic when opportunity permits and exit the circle when you see an opening. In Saigon, there’s always room for one more.

Pedestrians are on their own. See the map and video below: My walk to the Vinmart grocery required crossing the never-stopping traffic circle at three points (depending on how you count). I lived to tell the tale. 

Some admire the “beauty of a finely-orchestrated ballet of pedestrians, motorbikes, cars, buses and the occasional dog or chicken.” Others view the streets “as a total breakdown of society.” You must choose to be a “ballerina or a traffic fatality.”

Advice on crossing the street sounds like a guide to higher state of consciousness (it is a Buddhist country, after all):

■ Block out distractions 

■ Ignore obstacles

■ Be like a rock in a stream

■ Commit fully

■ Do not fear failure

■ Know no rules

Travel guides flatly advise tourists against driving, either car or moto. As most cities are well served by the inexpensive Grab ride-hailing service, which offers both cars and the back of a moto, following this advice is neither costly nor inconvenient. But the scooter is a lot more fun.

I followed the guidebook wisdom in Saigon but took the scooter plunge in Hue, Hoi An and Can Tho, even persuading my wife to ride (with our son, however, not her less-experienced husband).

What about safety?

The skill of Vietnam’s drivers is remarkable. Despite watching millions of vehicle miles, we witnessed only a single accident, a minor skirmish between two motos. The riders are also quite skillful, most having ridden on the backs of motos for their entire lives. Nor is there a load too big.

Vietnam passed a helmet law in 2007, which is largely obeyed and has helped the country reduce fatalities from nearly 13,000 in that year to about 8,400 a decade later, even while the total number of motorized vehicles more than doubled. More emphasis has been placed on traffic safety, too. 

If there are rules governing the number of persons per scooter, these are widely ignored. Two adults and a child or two is entirely normal—without cars, that’s how families travel.

Yet the roadways may be safer than they look. The United Nations’ Road Safety Performance Review for Vietnam reports 8,400 fatalities in 2016. That’s a lot, but averages 9 per 100,000 population or 1.7 per 10,000 motorized vehicles. That’s a big improvement from 14 per 100,000 population or 6.3 per 10,000 motorized vehicles only a decade before and after the number of motorized vehicles nearly doubled. Vietnam’s fatality rate is better than those of Malaysia, Thailand and Laos, and tied with Indonesia. Myanmar, Singapore and the Philippines have better safety records.

Despite the apparent chaos, Vietnam’s traffic fatality rate is also better than all but a dozen states in the U.S. A better measure of traffic safety would be based on vehicle miles driven: By that standard, New York is fifth—many in New York City rely mostly on the subway and their feet. Good luck finding reliable data on vehicle miles in Southeast Asia—I could find no comparable statistic for Vietnam.

Our “posse” on the road in Can Tho, Vietnam.

Don’t apply Western rules

Stop signs, more traffic lights, stricter safety enforcement, and a push toward cars over motos would improve traffic safety. And all would slow a traffic system that remains remarkable effective. Consider the consequences for congestion if only half or a quarter of the motos in the first video above were replaced with cars. 

Bus or rail on existing roadways would only help if they displaced fewer motos than the number of passengers they carried, which would be a miracle. Mass transit can only help if it is either buried or elevated, a massive expense. 

Nor do autonomous vehicles offer any hope. AVs are a rule-based innovation. Traffic in Saigon may be rule-based, but not the kind of rules that can be mastered by existing systems. This would be a great challenge for artificial intelligence, of course, but I’m skeptical of the odds of AI improving on the natural intelligence displayed on Saigon’s streets. 

The application to New York (particularly New York City) is not easily made. I’m not suggesting that New York should allow unregulated e-scooters and e-bikes, and seek the balletic beauty of the Saigon street. Still, consumer behavior demonstrates that safety is not our only objective. We balance risk against other benefits, including efficient travel. Let’s work to find a trade-off that fits the American street.

Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon opinion editor.

7 thoughts on “What Vietnam can teach us about personal mobility

  1. Your column fails to point out that Vietnam has a traffic fatality rate of 24.5/100000 inhabitants – one that’s nearly 3x the traffic fatality rate of New York State (according to YOUR chart) – in a country where as you say “they all grow up using these vehicles” and are thus all experts at it. With some simple math that means your “Vietnamese utopia” of unregulated masses of lightweight vehicles could mean over 3000 additional NYS deaths per year. The Governor is trying to avoid that eventuality and I thank him, as I usually do, for looking after our safety vs corporate interests.

    Also – when was the last time it snowed in Vietnam – just asking because it definitely snows here. How do the regulations for a country in a tropical climate equate to one where 1/2 the year the roads are MUCH more dangerous for 2 wheeled vehicles, and share the road with 4 wheeled vehicles much more frequently.

    Not sure where you got your numbers but my source has a much higher traffic fatality rating than yours does, and that was compiled by WHO which has perhaps one of the best worldwide fatality databases on the planet:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_traffic-related_death_rate

  2. So from your own report:
    Motorcycles and motorbikes outnumber cars 50/3 in Vietnam. The predominant vehicles are motorcycles and motorbikes on the road. Of the 3 million only 2 million are cars, the rest delivery trucks and the like.

    There are currently 11,000,000 registered vehicles in NYS – only 380,000 of them are classified as motorcylces. That is a whole different dynamic and in a non-tropical climate where bikes are really only suitable 6-7 months out of the year unlikely to change in terms of vehicle makeup. We aren’t a tropical environment and no one but the most dedicated is going to hop on a bike on a wintry -10 degree day with ice and snow and poorly plowed roads to navigate. Even the Rochester grab and go bike rental places put their bikes away for the season.

    https://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/road_safety_status/2018/en/ – who lists the number of fatalities at 8417 in 2018. And the percentage of Traffic fatalities per 100,000 at 26.7. The numbers appear to be similar to the report you cite but you are drawing wildly different conclusions of how dangerous it is to use a bike in Vietnam. My viewpoint aligns exactly with WHO’s numbers. your are 3x as likely to die in a traffic fatality in Vietnam and that’s without the added dangers of a road that is predominantly heavy vehicles and has year round tropical weather.

  3. I’m in favor of anything we can do to accommodate more two-wheeled personal mobility in our city – bicycles, e-bikes, mopeds, or whatever. Last I heard on where the e-bike law stands in Albany, it wasn’t making a great deal of sense – to wit: https://biketarrytown.org/new-york-state/ebikes-2020-governors-budget.php But that’s fixable. I’m following the City of Rochester’s East Main Street improvement plan with great interest, too – and it’s meeting predictable resistance. https://www.wxxinews.org/post/east-main-street-improvement-plan-now-final-commissioner-says

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