Battle against motorbikes doomed to failure ?

8,000 new bikes hit the streets every day

Vietnam’s Communist party is stepping up an undeclared war on the motorcycle – with Ho Chi Minh City the latest conurbation to plan radical curbs on its swarming scooter traffic.

The authorities in Hanoi were first to take the offensive against the country’s favourite means of transportation, announcing plans in June to ban motorbikes altogether within 13 years.

The plan immediately sparked a backlash, with many seeing it as a direct attack on the habits and livelihood of millions of citizens.

The vast flocks of small calibre scooters that surge through city streets and back alleys are one of the most unforgettable sights of modern Vietnam.

Apart from its practical uses, the bike is also a much loved symbol of personal freedom in an authoritarian country where a sprawling security apparatus tries to keep tabs on all citizens.

The Communist party’s plans to restrict its use can only lead to further resentment of a leadership already seen by many as out of touch and remote from the concerns of ordinary people.

Memories of a more genteel age

Ho Chi Minh City has opted for a more gradual approach than the capital, saying that a full ban will only be considered once public transport is capable of meeting the extra demand.

The southern city is proposing a series of steps to discourage the use of private transport, beginning with restrictions on parking, increases in parking fees and tolls for vehicles entering the city centre.

Vietnam’s commercial capital has plans for a metro system and enhanced bus network after 2020. Danang has announced similar proposals to phase out scooters.

Hanoi, which currently boasts five million motorbikes, is planning a total ban by 2030.

The city council says the aim is to clear clogged streets and ease soaring levels of pollution.

It is also working to improve public transport , which is currently used by only about 12 % of the population.

But many see the bike ban as profoundly undemocratic and elitist, clearing the streets of poorer citizens on their humble Hondas, while leaving the wealthy and well-connected to rule the highways with their German saloons and SUVs.

The authorities argue that the current system is unsustainable, with 8,000 new motorbikes sold every day in Vietnam, against 750 new cars.

Whatever the value of the arguments, some sceptics believe the bans will never happen.

The motorbike has become an entrenched symbol of modern Vietnamese life and culture, the sharp suited spiv on scooter an updated version of the girl in pristine Ao Dai on a bicycle.

The Communist party has already learnt the limits of its power with its struggles to limit free expression on the internet. It can expect a similar lesson by taking on the modern city dweller and his beloved scooter.