The towering symbols of progress – skyscrapers – are actually symbolic of a steadily worsening quality of life. We breathe polluted air and lose time we can never regain.
|Ngo Chi Tung|
I wake my children up at 5:30 every weekday for our 12.5 km commute from Cau Dien Ward in Nam Tu Liem District to the city center. It takes us 1-1.5 hours.
Winter days are the worst. Dawn doesn’t break by 6 a.m., and seeing my third grader daughter shiver as she sits inside the school guard’s booth to wait for the school to open breaks my heart, each time.
It gets even worse in the afternoon. The journey home has always been long, but by 5 p.m. it is almost like a pilgrimage that would demoralize even the most devout believers. I’ve now become used to being stuck on the road for hours, while my daughter has learned to frequent the school guard’s booth, like many of her classmates, as they wait for their parents to show up.
It wasn’t like this a couple years ago. Back then, it only took me around 30 minutes to get to work. But then, high-rise buildings began to sprout, seemingly out of thin air, overloading the city’s inadequate traffic infrastructure. Traffic jams have become an everyday occurrence, prolonging the way home several times over for many people.
Our family wastes an average of 5-6 hours on the road each day. That time can be better spent on literally anything else, but there is just no way around it.
For middle class workers like us, wasting time on the road means paying more for fuel and losing our productivity. An entire city experiencing traffic jams every day would mean millions of hours of work lost. A report by the Transport Development and Strategy Institute has shown that traffic congestion costs Hanoi around $1.2 billion every year and HCMC around $1.3 billion. That’s not to mention the adverse health effects they unleash on community health, social security and medical infrastructure, as toxic fumes and particulate matter (PM) invade our bodies.
|Vehicles jam Nguyen Trai Street in Hanoi, May 11, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.|
Vietnam is ranked 15th among countries most polluted by PM, with a yearly average PM2.5 level at 34.1 µg per cubic meter. That’s up to four times higher than the safety threshold determined by the WHO. The report also states that environmental pollution would cost Hanoi and HCMC around $2.3 billion each every year.
At this stage, we cannot but seriously question our approach to development in general and urbanization in particular. We have to ask why our traffic infrastructure is so painfully inadequate and answer the question honestly.
Another key question we have to ask is this: Why must we continue to build skyscraper after skyscraper even as major traffic routes are becoming more congested every day?
Economically speaking, the presence of high-rise buildings only means more profits for their investors, but the promised comfort and convenience for customers can never be delivered in the current situation. How can our lives be truly fulfilled when we still have to suffer from so much pollution and so much lost time? We can look at the experience of other countries in this regard, and the answers we get don’t look good: the price for economic development is, invariably, environmental degradation and, very often, a ticket to shorter lifespans.
I believe the problem is rooted in inappropriate urban and population planning and that the solution does not lie in very “futuristic” approaches.
Let us just look at one aspect of the French colonial era. Town planning. The buildings and traffic systems were intertwined, connecting all the streets with each other. A 2019 demographic report revealed that the downtown Hoan Kiem District had a population density of around 39,830 people per square kilometer, which is over 137 times that of the entire country’s population density, and even higher than Monaco, regarded as one of the most densely populated places in the world. Hoan Kiem also has around 17,000 businesses, yet traffic jams don’t really happen that often, thanks to the district’s interconnected streets, which allows multiple paths from one place to another. Compare this to traffic near the edge of the city, where people have only one or two choices for the road they choose.
The French also never really approved skyscrapers, whether in downtown areas or the suburbs. Such high-rise buildings not only ruin urban architecture, but also place undue burdens on the traffic systems.
As you read these lines, such buildings are being built in whatever land slots are left along the roads leading to downtown Hanoi.
We need to ask ourselves this: If our current life means forfeiting our rights to breathe fresh air and spend our time the way we want, where will we end up?
*Ngo Chi Tung is a Vietnamese journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.