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Lee’s Wild Ride

Lee on Two-Wheeler
Photo courtesy of J. Weinert, Univ of Calif, Davis
Dr. Tuan Le An, from Hanoi University of Technology, who is EMBARQ’s counterpart in Hanoi for our emissions project, kindly drove me 6 km back to the Melia on his Honda Dream. The project we are working on, sponsored by US AID, has us combining a pre-existing set of traffic scenarios for 2020 with estimates of emissions from vehicles, both CO2 and local pollutants. Riding on the back of the bike gave me the chance to try out the local pollutants.

What an experience!

Don’t worry, he drove, while I held on for dear life to my laptop and, more importantly, to the back of the seat. My arm was very sore when I got back.

First, safety was not an issue, even if the swarms of bikes – I estimate hundreds on every block – remind you of a street race like the “Bay to Breakers” or the New York Marathon. Drivers in the thick of traffic tend to go at the same speed, and the main danger is thoughtless car drivers. There were no accidents, not even near misses. But it was impressive to see up close how the drivers weave around other drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians, cars, and even the occasional bus.

Second, however, pollution was an issue the whole time. I really did come back with a slight headache, a sure sign of carbon monoxide. And with all the gases spewing out of the bikes, who knows what other toxins I was exposed to.

I rode on the back of the bike for two reasons. First, because it was faster than a cab or bus, a key point about two wheeler mobility. And second, because it gave me a first hand appreciation after spending all day discussing pollution from two wheelers at a conference on the subject. In our presentations, Fanta Kamakate of the ICCT and I emphasized the importance of viewing not just motorcycles but the entire transport context in which they apply. The conference had many positive results, but they were meaningless to me unless I finally took the plunge and rode on a motorcycle.

The real issue is how much longer Hanoi or any similar city – there are many in Asia – can accommodate more and more motorcycles, and perhaps a similar rush of cars. It is clear that there is not enough room on the streets in Hanoi for many more motorcycles and cars. Compared to when I first came here 3 years ago, there are roughly 30% more motorcycles. The accompanying traffic and fumes are awful.

I write this because I am intrigued: It may be that clean two wheelers driven slowly and within other traffic rules permit a great deal of individual mobility where cars will not. Put simply, cars just take up too much room and in a funny way, isolate their occupants from the outside realities, namely the externalities of congestion, risk, and emissions each vehicle imposes on other drivers and passengers.

At least I survived!

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