The 2018 arrival of the metro system is great news for Ho Chi Minh City. It will reduce congestion and provide a more convenient way to travel around an increasingly polluted city. However, anyone who takes faith in the Field of Dreams motto — “Build it and [they] will come” — is mistaken. To make the metro a success, a lot of work beyond building the lines and the stations needs to be done.
Here are some of the challenges to be overcome. Not only could the metro system be positive in its own right, but it could lead to the transformation of the Ho Chi Minh City we know today.
For a metro system to be successful you need sidewalks or pavements, the facilities that make a city where the metro exists into a walking city.
While Central Hanoi is reasonably well-endowed on this front, Ho Chi Minh City is not a walking city. Large numbers of roads don’t have sidewalks, and those that do exist are often in disrepair or crowded with motorbikes and street sellers. For people to be able to use the metro system they need to be able to walk, regardless of the climate. And more importantly, they need shade. Clever town planning has enabled Singapore and Bangkok to deal with these issues, Kuala Lumpur to a lesser extent. Ho Chi Minh City has a lot of work to do.
A lack of adequate parking in the out-of-town stations will mean that few people will use the metro. But according to Dr. Akira Hosomi, a consultant on the project, they are looking at ways of providing motorbike parking. “This will depend on space and the acquisition of land,” he explains, admitting that this may be vital for getting passengers to use the network.
Ho Chi Minh City is built on a swamp and there will definitely be fears that the metro system will lack stability. But, says Dr. Hosomi, this has been taken care of thanks to “drilling pylons deep enough to keep the structure stable along with latitudinal supports to make sure the project is safe and reliable over a long-term period”.
With so many stories circulating in Vietnam of bad construction, convincing the people of Ho Chi Minh City that the metro is safe may be one of the biggest issues the authorities have to face.
4) Smartphone and Tablet Usage
Go to any metro system — Paris, New York, London, Singapore, Bangkok — and people comfortably bring out their smartphones or tablets and use them while they’re on the trains.
Sitting on a train, especially an underground train, can be dull. So, the use of these gadgets as well as books, magazines and newspapers is vital — they take away the monotony of the journey.
However, with petty theft and snatching rampant in Ho Chi Minh City, it’s going to take a lot of convincing to persuade people to take out their phones and use them in public.
The metro will need security guards and a good CCTV system. More importantly, it will need a security system that works.
According to Dr. Hosomi, the metro system will use some sort of contactless smartcard, similar to the cards used in places like London or Singapore. This means that you put money on the card and top it up when you run low.
There are, however, two issues with this. First, credit cards or debit cards are still not widely used in Vietnam. These ticketing systems rely heavily on payment by card. Also, there are few, if any, machines in Vietnam taking payment by cash. And with Vietnam only using notes rather than coins, there may be issues with making this work. Paying with wrinkled paper money is far slower than paying by card.
For the contactless smartcard system to work, there will need to be alternative forms of payment available. Some possibilities are scratch cards, payment by SMS or top-ups at convenience stores.
If the metro is going to priced the same as the buses — around VND5,000 a ride — then it will attract the everyday passenger. This may well deter Saigon’s growing middle-class from using the system. Status is a big issue in Vietnam, and if the metro is seen as transportation for the lower income brackets of society, it will put off office workers and other potential commuters.
Likewise, if the cost of a ride is too high, then potential passengers will continue with their existing forms of transport — motorbike, car and bus.
Getting this right — both price and the type of passenger they want to attract — will be a big challenge. And more importantly, getting people to switch from their existing mode of transport to the metro will take time. In Bangkok it took years. The initial projection of 400,000 passengers a day still hasn’t been reached.
With more national and international flight travel, the previously non-existent concept of queuing is now starting to be understood in Vietnam.
In Singapore and Bangkok, there are clear arrows showing where people should wait for an arriving train. During rush hour in London, passengers waiting on the platform are informed by loudspeaker that they should allow people to get off the train first before boarding. These rules are followed.
Ho Chi Minh City will not only need those arrows and those public announcements, it will also need to make sure people follow them.
8) Eating and Drinking
In Vietnam, few people eat or drink while they’re on the move. So, avoiding eating and drinking on the metro or on platforms shouldn’t be an issue.
However, stopping people from spitting, smoking or littering may be a touch more difficult. In the late 1990s an anti-spitting law was introduced in Bangkok. This was then followed by anti-litter laws that are so stringent there are even fines for throwing a cigarette butt on the ground. Ho Chi Minh City may have to follow a similar formula.
9) Proximity to Centres of Activity
For people to use the metro, offices, schools, hospitals and shopping malls must be in close proximity to the stations. In Thao Dien, the location of one of the stops, a shopping mall complete with apartments has already been built above the future station. Further up the line at An Phu and Rach Chiec stations, developments are presently underway that include the building of the largest shopping mall in Vietnam. An underground shopping mall is also being constructed between the first two stops on Line 1, Ben Thanh and the Opera House. This is an encouraging start; more of this will be needed.
Says Dr. Hoshimi, “The close location of shopping malls, business parks and educational establishments [is key] to persuade people that the metro system is an easy and efficient way to commute to where they want to go.”
10) Walkways to these Centres
And of course, it’s vital to make these centrepoints accessible. That is something that has been done amazingly well with Singapore’s MRT. Each station has a number of exits — some of them long subterranean walkways — making it easier for people to leave the metro at the exact spot they require. Bangkok has also followed this example, but relies more on overground walkways as opposed to underground passages.
But to do this requires vision and planning. And with it presently being unclear what establishments will be close to all the stations — especially in Districts 2 and 9 — it may be difficult to enact prior to the completion of Line 1.