Uber “moto-taxis” come to Hanoi

Credit: Blaise Bordeleau

In 5 seconds

A favourite mode of urban transit in Vietnam's capital, independently owned "moto-taxis" are now getting a run for their money from Uber and other foreign companies.

At a time when Hanoi is developing its bus network and preparing to open its first subway line, motorcycle taxis still rule the roads. "There are more moto-taxis in the Vietnamese capital today than there are households!” said Danielle Labbé, a professor at Université de Montréal’s School of Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture.

Labbé decided to investigate the phenomenon along with master’s student Blaise Bordeleau. In Hanoi, they observed that the motorbike was still the go-to vehicle for a large part of the local population. In fact, the concept of moto-taxis was born in the 1990s and has been a steady source of income for drivers ever since.  For a few dong (Vietnamese currency), drivers, who are often rural migrants, zigzag through traffic delivering customers to their destination. “Motorcycles have a major advantage," noted Labbé. “They are affordable and well-suited to the narrow lanes of Hanoi’s neighbourhoods and the heavy traffic."

While the convenience and affordability of motorcycles is well known, comfort is not the overwhelming feature of moto-taxis. They’re especially disliked by old people, who have difficulty getting up on them and coping with the jolts caused by bad roads. Safety is also a concern. Another disadvantage is related to the growth of this means of transportation. With their increasing numbers, motorcycles are beginning to disrupt traffic. Furthermore, the enthusiasm for this type of vehicle is not viewed favourably by the authorities, who frown on the retrograde and chaotic image associated with motorbikes. “They prefer heavier modes of transportation such as subways, buses, and cars,” said Labbé. “The result is that little effort is being made to integrate the various ways of moving around the city.”

Rethinking the role of public transit

More than 80% of trips in Hanoi are made by motorcycle, compared to 10% by bus and 5% by car, noted Bordeleau, who studied "the role of motorcycle taxis in intermodal practices." As part of his research, he explored the possibilities of aligning bus services with moto-taxis. The underlying concept is intermodality, i.e., a single trip using at least two modes of transportation - for example, walking and bus, or subway and bus. “We wanted to know what place the moto-taxi still holds in the mobility of the population given changes in the supply of services. Can moto-taxis continue to play a role in the movement of people in conjunction with other modes of transportation?” asked the researcher.

For 12 weeks in the summer of 2015, he and Labbé conducted interviews with 130 transit users. They also made observations near bus stops and moto-taxi stations. Did people arrive by moto-taxi? Did they transfer from bus to moto-taxi to get to their final destination? What are the advantages and disadvantages? Analysis of their data revealed that transit users only occasionally include moto-taxis in their trips. Some consider the fares too high, while others consider moto-taxis unsafe, according to Bordeleau. It emerged that “less than half of moto-taxi users employ this mode of transportation to transfer to or from buses,” he said. “In total, only two percent of respondents used moto-taxis frequently (at least once a week) and as part of an intermodal trip that also involved public transit.”

But the arrival in Hanoi of international motorcycle taxi services such as Uber (a U.S. company) and GrabBike, based in Singapore, could change the situation. “These services are thriving while independent moto-taxis are declining,” said Professor Labbé. “There are several reasons for this: to begin with, their competitive and fixed-metered fares.” To change the negative perception of users about safety, various measures have been introduced such the ability to switch drivers, review the service, and incorporate GPS functionality into meters. “All these innovations that meet the expectations of the population exert pressure on independent moto-taxis,” said Labbé.

To find an Uber motorcycle, for example, you simply go to a public square or an intersection where moto-taxis are waiting for customers, or download the mobile app connecting passengers with drivers. "These companies provide services tailored to local conditions and the needs of Hanoians,” added Labbé. They open the way to intermodal and multimodal practices. This new reality must be taken into account by public transport authorities in cities, and the role of conventional public transit must be rethought.”

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