The future of two wheeler cities: Amsterdam and Hanoi

E-bikes can resolve common mobility problems facing Amsterdam and Hanoi and promote efficiency and sustainability in ‘two-wheeler cities’

Motorbiking in Hanoi

With over 5 million motorcycles, almost ten times the number of cars, Hanoi can be called a ‘two-wheeler city’. The benefits of this transport mode are clear. Compared to private cars, which are rapidly increasing, it provides space-efficient, affordable, flexible and fast access to economic and social opportunities for almost the entire urban population. Fuel consumption and CO2 emissions per passenger-kilometre is about three times lower, and comparable to that of buses. The latter covers less than 10% of trips and suffers from declining ridership. Rail-based public transport is not yet available, though four metro lines are under construction.

Hanoi traffic lane driving signs/©Stefan Bakker

Motorbikes however suffer from a bad public image, with a ban on non-resident motorbikes from entering the city being proposed. Although concerns of air pollution, noise and traffic safety are valid, two-wheelers are also blamed for the increasing number of traffic jams due to their sheer number as well as unruly behaviour. Cars are rarely mentioned as a cause, even if taking up three times the road space and often using motorbike lanes. Meanwhile, the Hanoi Department of Transport now offers a $200,000 prize for the best ideas that help solve the worsening traffic jams.

The once common bicycles, the mode share of which dropped from 47% in 1995 to 3% in 2008, are hardly part of the urban transport debate.

Cycling in Amsterdam

Since the 1970s, Amsterdam, famous for its bicycles, has taken many steps to combat urban congestion and change the modal split. The bicycle is the dominant transport mode (32%; 48% in the city centre), followed by walking (29%), car (20%) and public transport (17%).

The increase in bike trips did not come about without intervention, rather it is a result of decades of consistent choices in urban planning for the bicycle and making car traffic less attractive. However, whether this positive trend towards bicycle as a more sustainable modal split will continue is uncertain. One reason why it may not is due to the rapid increase of mopeds on the bicycle lanes. Even though they represent only 2% of total trips (doubling since 2008) they cause 16% of traffic injuries, which is a significant danger and inconvenience to the cyclists, which may deter especially young children and elderly.

Hanoi and Amsterdam: the dominance of two wheels

Perhaps surprisingly, the two cities are quite comparable in many respects. About half of the Hanoians (3.4 million) live in the urban area, in an area roughly the size of Amsterdam (0.8 million); population density is thereby 3-4 times higher in Hanoi. Both cities have a historical centre with narrow streets and centuries-old buildings, with traffic dominated by those on two wheels.

As you go out, road space increases. Although Hanoi traffic may still be more dense and chaotic, Amsterdam now has bicycle traffic jams and following traffic rules is not considered mandatory by many on two wheels and on foot.

Yet this non-linear, organic movement following the so-called ‘swarm logic’ based on human interaction, produces a much more efficient mobility system than organising it strictly through traffic laws that are designed predominantly for cars. Two-wheeler cities need to cherish and preserve their efficient ways of transport.

Bicycle traffic in Amsterdam/©Stefan Bakker

E-bikes and two-wheeler cities

So what does that mean for the two cities? Basically, promote e-bikes and facilitate bicycle traffic, together with public transport.

Amsterdam is already taking steps to ban motorcycles from the bike lanes. However, only through electrification, noise and pollution-free transport can be realised. Electric bicycles or pedelecs are rapidly increasing, while e-scooters are still a rare sight. For Hanoi promoting electric two-wheelers can be done through regulating conventional motorcycles mobility. Many Chinese cities, such as Beijing and Guangzhou, are establishing low-emission zones or even have banned conventional motorcycles. Together with a regulation that e-bikes up to 20 km/hr are classified as bicycles, this has led to spectacular growth with now up to 200 million e-bikes on Chinese roads.

For Hanoi, or in many other two-wheeler cities, regulating or banning motorcycles carries the risk of promoting the trend towards private cars, resulting in even more congestion, oil consumption, pollution and reduced accessibility for all groups of society. Rather, besides investing in convenient public transport, the current relatively efficient mobility system should be preserved and made more sustainable by promoting electric two-wheelers. These are popular already among students, yet no supportive policies to increase its use across the entire population are in place. There are concerns of safety and unpredictable traffic behaviour have led to prohibition of e-bikes in some Chinese cities. Hanoi can try something different — rather than a ban, which would disproportionally hit the urban poor, it may also be possible to provide better infrastructure to increase safety. In addition to door-to-door mobility, electric two-wheelers could be used to access public transport stations. E-bikes could be considered more feasible compared conventional bicycles, which are in rapid decline, however the latter may be part of the solution as well in the future – including for first and last-mile trips connected to public transport.

Compared to conventional motorcycles, e-bikes emit no local harmful pollutants such as particulate matter, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides at street level.

In terms of climate impact, CO2 emissions per km are at least 50% lower, even when electricity is generated from coal. According to the World Bank, introduction of electric bikes in Vietnam could save 5.9 million tonnes of CO2 annually, equal to roughly 20% of total transport sector emissions in 2010.

Through electric two-wheelers and bicycles the equitable, convenient, human-scale and space and cost-efficient urban mobility system can be preserved while contributing to improved liveability, air quality and CO2 savings.