VIENTIANE: The motorcycle is king in the Laos capital.
But in rapid fashion, its mantle on the streets of Vientiane is being challenged – by the car.
The implications for a city in the midst of swift urbanisation are perfectly clear. Already the daily commute is no longer a leisurely cruise. Peak hour is rearing its head. Private car ownership doubled from 2009 to 2014.
The government knows it and, with the support of technical assistance partner Asia Development Bank (ADB), is expected to soon endorse a multi-billion dollar sustainable public transport system. It will see the construction of a bus rapid transit (BRT), improved car parking around the city, better traffic management and a centralised transport agency.
Construction is currently underway at the new main bus station in the city.
Dedicated lanes would be implemented for the low-emission BRT along a 11.5km corridor, in addition to an extended 84 km bus network. Some roads would become completely motorised vehicle-free, stations would be enclosed and air-conditioned and trips would be paid for using electronic smart cards.
It is an ambitious project set for possible completion by 2021 – and one that could provide Vientiane with some of the most efficient public transport in the region for a city its size. It would be a huge leap from a low base.
“There’s no real public transport system in Vientiane now. The system sort of radiates from the one station to different parts of the city,” said Jeffrey Miller, ADB’s principal transport specialist.
That single point is the city’s morning market, where a handful of lumbering antique buses jostle for parking space alongside some newer green vehicles donated by the Japanese government.
There is no bus station at present – a new structure is currently being built – and no real procedure. Only recently was a bus locator system installed to allow tech-savvy commuters to track buses and arrival times on their routes using smartphones or PCs. There remains no effective timetables.
Dedicated bicycle lanes are part of the plan for improving Vientiane's transport options.
But time is precious for authorities, before the situation becomes too difficult to manage. Dr Bounta Onnavong, the deputy director general of the Ministry of Transport admitted that is has become a “hot issue” for the government.
“It is good in terms of approach and it can help preserve Vientiane as one of the beautiful capital cities in Asia and not to congested and further deteriorated,” he said.
“However, when it comes to implementation, we are expecting a lot of challenges.”
Some of Vientiane's bus fleet is decades old.
Miller says Vientiane needs to take advantage of “the window” open now to take action or face the traffic perils of other large cities in the region.
“Vientiane’s growth is so recent that it’s still manageable, it’s not Manila or Yangon or a lot of other cities in Southeast Asia where they’re so big now that it’s incredibly difficult to do anything,” he said.
“If we wait five years from now, it will be far more difficult.”
The lack of investment so far can be explained by a lack of necessity – currently fewer than one per cent of journeys in the city are taken using public transport, and much of that is accounted by tuk-tuks. A master plan created for Vientiane in 2011 aimed to increase that number to more than 25 per cent.
With US$82 million budgeted for this project, there is a necessity that a behavioural shift occurs, whereby residents start to switch their private transport to public.
“It’s not that simple. It has to be attractive,” Miller said, emphasising how a modern system could trump riding a motorcycle in wet season, as most people would do currently.
“I’m confident people can be convinced if the system works the way it’s been planned.”
Dr Onnavong agreed. “Of course it is normal for people to take time to adapt to a new system,” he said.
Most residents use private transport, including motorcycles and, increasingly, cars.
One local Vientiane resident predicted that "people will use it as long as it is reliable".
"Many people have cars these that's obvious because public transport is not efficient. But I am sure many Lao would use modern networks, especially now that most ministries have moved outside of the downtown," he said.
Enforcement of existing and more formal adapted rules would also require changes in attitudes for drivers and riders. Under the plan, parking would be monitored with the help of sensors sending real-time information to a central system, and assisted by a national vehicle electronic registration.
“It is a new concept but if it proves to bring modernisation and is a better system, then people will be happy and like it later.”
Follow Jack Board on Twitter:@JackBoardCNA