Negotiating the Hanoi Traffic Jam: Folding Bikes Take Their Place in Post-Modern Indochina

January 12, 2009

I live in Hanoi and I commute to work on a folding bicycle. If you’ve been to Hanoi, or have seen it in the news, you’d probably say that this is tantamount to suicide. As Asian cities develop, the streets are literally becoming impassable with motorbikes and cars. Infrastructure is not catching up because public funding rarely goes where it’s supposed to, and each day more and more people stuff themselves onto roads that are not growing to accommodate them. They regard red lights as electric things next to the road that make a nice color as they speed past. Or in Bangkok, when there is a freak instance of open road, cars immediately accelerate to triple digits as if it were possible to go faster than the earth is spinning and get back to where you would have been were there no initial delay. (By the way, none of this is researched or fact-checked. I live it.)

The air pollution is beyond belief in all of these places. At major intersections here in Hanoi the fumes actually distort your vision like the heat off a desert road and I once saw a lorry driver roll down his window and vomit. Public transport is too little too late and in most cases just makes things worse particularly because city traffic authorities buy used busses from developed cities like Seoul, with diesel engines that have already done several hundred thousand miles.

Riding through the middle of this is me on my ‘folder’, offsetting at least one person worth of carbon monoxide. I would like to stop being a minority, but how do you tell people that, just as soon as they get enough cash in pocket to improve their lot with personal motorized transport, they can’t have that because the West has already brought us to the brink? The history involved in answering that question is far more than any folding bicycle ever asked for, but it definitely didn’t create an environment conducive to high-minded talk of saving the planet. Vietnam has 85 million people and they all want cars, because they were already riding bicycles. They had no choice. Most Vietnamese would just as soon never be seen on anything with pedals again, and there is virulent disdain among the nouveau riche for real peasants in their conical hats, flooding onto the cities, hawking tomatoes from rusted, brakeless bicycles.

A lot has to happen to get urban Vietnamese on folders, then. Like broadcasting the message in awareness-raising campaigns that motor vehicles create harmful emissions and bicycles don’t. The United Nations Environment Program, IUCN, WWF, and some others are tapping young people too, and they’re finding that there is a healthy respect for sustainable development. It’s just a sprig now, and survives on foreign funding, but it is there and the Vietnamese will probably go along with it as their cities are increasingly flooded during the monsoon by rains that even they have never witnessed in thousands of years of living next to a shallow, warm sea. Last autumn, Hanoi had its worst flooding in 20 years and I saw, for the first time in my life, a drowned person, a woman who had gone out during a storm and fallen into a small Lake that hadn’t overflowed its banks in living memory. For her, climate change turned out to be too real.

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