Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Negotiating traffic in Vietnam holds lessons for govts



In Vietnam, where I recently spent a week, streets are a sea of scooters and small motorcycles. Ho Chi Minh City buzzes to the eddying of this two-wheeled tide. Entire families perch themselves on bikes, often with a small child up front who gets the best view, the hot breeze in her face and, of course, the least chance of emerging unscathed from a collision. Adults wear helmets; children and animals do not.

Along with the living — a chicken or piglet perhaps — various things may be wedged at angles, including small refrigerators, potted plants, metal frames and bunches of bananas. Bikes, the cars of the newly affluent, and pedestrians weave around one another in a seamless pattern fashioned not by any rule or organising principle but by individual awareness.

Major intersections, unburdened by anything as cumbersome or inflexible as traffic lights, function as massive group exercises in tentative advance, the principle being to coax others to the prudence of the brake by nosing ahead with just the right dose of insistence. Lo, the sea divides. A path opens. There is no logic at work, but there is a great deal of humanity.

Madness might be a verdict on all this, but then, to the average Vietnamese biker, there might be equal madness to Western culture, hemmed in by all the controls that a combination of fear and technology produce.

Surely, there must be a happy medium between placing a toddler on the handlebars of a scooter and denying children the freedom to roam and discover that is essential to their development. Surely, there is an appropriate balance between a free-for-all on the roads and a camera at every corner. But humanity tends to deal more in irrational exuberances than happy mediums. The pendulum swings too far.


In Britain, over-the-top safety obsessions have produced a society where cameras and so-called traffic-calming speed bumps are everywhere, visitors to churches and colleges are warned that medieval paving stones may be a little uneven, schoolchildren have been advised to wear goggles when using certain glues (and helmets under chestnut trees), trainee hairdressers are not allowed scissors in the classroom, and mail delivery gets suspended in an entire region if a postman slips and hurts his shoulder.

Mr David Cameron, the Prime Minister, spoke out five years ago against the health-and-safety culture that had produced “a stultifying blanket of bureaucracy, suspicion and fear that has saturated our country, covering the actions of millions of individuals”. Not much has changed.

Britain is only an extreme example of the broader phenomenon that can see the world’s greatest city, New York, shut down not by a snowstorm but by the possibility of a snowstorm (the blizzard that never happened); and the bizarre term “free-range parenting” applied to American mothers and fathers who believe their children should be allowed to walk home from school alone and play outside.

Earlier this year, a Maryland couple was found responsible for “child neglect” because they let kids walk home alone from a neighbourhood park. Whatever happened to the land of the free and home of the brave?

I am not recommending that Western urban planners go to Vietnam to study traffic management. I am suggesting that developed Western societies, increasingly fear-driven, tend to fall into a nanny-state mind-set where health, safety and security must all be stringently regulated, adults are viewed as children, and the emotional intelligence of humanity is underestimated or discounted. To cross a highway in Ho Chi Minh City — perhaps with a wave here and there to remind onrushing scooters and cars of your existence — is to experience not just relief at reaching the other side, but wonderment at how unregulated people can work together.

The Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman was intrigued by this phenomenon. His “shared space” idea turned traditional thinking about road safety on its head. For much of the 20th century, the assumption was that efficient traffic flow depended on a full separation of cars and pedestrians, complemented by traffic signals, signs, barriers and road markings that would keep people safe. The state took charge through regulation; the individual only had to obey instructions.

Monderman, who died in 2008, had other ideas. He wanted to raise collective awareness and responsibility by doing away with all that separateness, and he believed that safety might be increased by making all travellers intensely aware of one another. Cars, bicyclists and pedestrians would all move on a single curb-free surface, without sidewalks or signs. Sometimes he would test his schemes — developed in various Dutch, German and Scandinavian towns — by walking backward into dense traffic in a shared-space area. Of late, the idea of “shared space” has even gained a foothold in London.

I recommend walking backward into a Ho Chi Minh City street, for the heck of it, but also to be reminded of the limits of regulation and the power of shared humanity. 



Roger Cohen is a columnist at The New York Times, where he was previously foreign editor.

Traffic accidents are a serious problem here in Vietnam. Some 95 percent of registered vehicles are motorbikes or scooters. Vietnam’s rapid economic development over the past few decades has meant roads and traffic policing have not kept pace with the growing number of vehicles on the road.
The nation has a very high traffic death toll rate, though just exactly how many traffic-related deaths there are is difficult to know as reliable data remains scarce. 

Reliable Data?

Wikipedia article has a table. Extracted here:

fatalities  fatalities 
per 100,000 Pax per 100,000 vehicles Annual Fatalities 
 United Kingdom 3.5 6.2 2175
 United States 11.6 13.6 36,166
 Vietnam 24.7 65.3 21,651
 Singapore 5.1 27.4 259
 Thailand 38.1 92.4 26,312
 Cambodia 17.6 118.8 2581
 Canada 6 9.3 2075
 China 20.5 133.3 275,983
 Central African Republic 14.6 13472.8 644

From the table, Vietnam's accident stats are not very reassuring. They have about 25 fatalities per 100,000 population., and 65 fatalities per 100,000 vehicles. And they have over 21,000 fatalities a year.

In contrast, UK (which was what Roger Cohen was comparing Vietnam to) has drastically lower fatalities (by population and vehicle population) at 3.5 & 6.2.

In fact most European countries had drastically lower fatalities by population or vehicles. But bad though Vietnam's stats are, there were about 100 other countries with higher fatality rates. Most of them probably have more stringent traffic rules. 

The point is Vietnam is an interesting case study in how unregulated people can work together, but is this replicable in other countries, other societies?

The traffic fatalities tells the other side of the story - the potential for fatality is making road users intensely aware of each other. Instead of fear of violating some traffic rule, there is also fear in the Vietnamese system - the fear of being another statistic.

When you see drivers checking their phones, and pedestrians with their eyes glued to a little screen in Singapore, you can be sure that they are not intensely aware of each other. They are not even slightly aware of their surroundings.

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