In Vietnam, cities are scrambling to be smart. But can it solve pressing problems?

Wednesday, 2018-04-18 16:51:32
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Serious traffic congestion in Hanoi
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NDO - Millions of dollars are being spent on building so-called “smart cities” throughout Vietnam. But whether or not the initiative can solve increasing congestion or serious air pollution is what city residents are really interested in.

A few days ago, I got stuck in the middle of a traffic jam caused by a small marketplace on the roadside. I was suffocating when I heard some motorbike taxi drivers gossiping as they fidgeted with their phones. “Smartphones can now do lots of things, right? Even birth registration.” “They are building smart cities, men.” “Will smart cities make the traffic better?”

The chit-chat was drowned out by the rumbling of motorbikes moving slowly like no-one was in a hurry.

Then I was a bit astonished by what the motorbike drivers just said. It turns out the story of smart cities is spreading more widely than had been expected. It is not confined to the urban elites but has also become a talking point among ordinary citizens.

Like how seaports used to mushroom in the recent past, building smart cities has become a fever from north to south, with workshops and seminars taking place in every corner. I have a feeling that cities are scrambling for fear of missing out on the ship 4.0. For the capital city, priority will be given to smart traffic management, smart tourism, smart healthcare, and smart communication between the government and citizens.

A smart city is useful to some extent. For instance, a driver steers his car into the parking lot without the hassle of taking out small change or arguing with the keeper over the fees since the fees will be automatically calculated and debited from their bank accounts.

Using technology is a piece of cake but finding a place to park is no easy task at all.

Interaction with government is not an everyday routine. Birth and death registration are only a few times in a lifespan. But no-one can stop eating, drinking, and going out on the streets.

For the past decade, those living in Hanoi’s outer districts and working in downtown districts or vice versa have suddenly become more attached to their offices than to their homes.

They get up as early as the urban chickens begin to crow and arrive at the office when the pavements are still full of people doing their morning exercise. Some even have time to take a stroll around the nearby streets. Such a healthy lifestyle. In the afternoon, many also stay at the office longer than usual and only go home when the street lights hum and flicker into life.

The office hour regulations no longer seem necessary because more and more office workers are staying late. But it turns out things are not what they seem to be. When I ask a friend why he suddenly becomes so diligent, going to work early and coming home late. He answers without hesitation “I’m taking refuge from traffic congestion.”

For Hanoians, it is not unusual to take one hour to travel ten kilometres in the urban centre during rush hour. Seeking refuge by going to work early and coming home late is the best option for families whose children can now go to school on their own. Arriving at the office, taking a stroll, having breakfast, and drinking tea before beginning official work hours. What is more comfortable?

And for those who cannot avoid travel during rush hour, they hope in desperation that today’s traffic will be better than yesterday’s.

I once heard a pretty girl exclaim, “I have to get through 12 red lights from my home in My Dinh to Hoan Kiem. At some intersections, I have to wait as long as 100 seconds. A few such stops will add up to minutes that could have been used for a good breakfast.”

Ostensibly, not all Hanoians flout traffic rules. But they have a fairly reasonable urge to roar ahead even when the green lights have turned red a few seconds ago.

Walking is no more pleasant. On the pavement are a myriad of restaurants and shops that pedestrians fear they might crash into and receive unwanted grumbles.

What is more? Women have to cover their entire bodies like ninjas to shield themselves against dust, dirt, exhaust fumes, and sunlight, of course. But in such jackets, they are moving in an awkward manner and could easily tumble down with just a slight touch. They really don’t want to be that way but there is no other choice. Are there any reports of abating air pollution for them to feel relieved? Or is the dust just becoming thicker and thicker?

In Ho Chi Minh City, the urban residents have to endure even greater suffering with occasional flooding.

No-one knows if living in cities will shorten their life expectancy, but it is obvious that city residents are having to spend a great deal of time travelling, and money on medicines, especially for respiratory problems.

It is said that when smart traffic management is rolled out, citizens will know which roads are congested so they can be avoided. But in Hanoi, most of the streets linking the city centre to outer suburbs are the only roads, with alternative routes very thin on the ground. In addition, each year Hanoi has to take in an additional 200,000 people, along with their vehicles.

Each citizen looks at the “smart city” from a different angle. But a smart city should provide its citizens with the utmost convenience. The majority of residents don’t give a hoot to stellar technologies. The ordinary people need very real things, like traffic congestion, to be solved.