Rapid expansion of ride-hailing services like Grab and Go-Viet has seen many Saigon commuters ditch cumbersome public transport.
It’s 5:30 p.m. and Bui Thanh Truc uses her smartphone to book a 5-km Go-Viet ride from District 5 to an English center in District 3 where she works at night.
Truc used to be a loyal bus passenger at university but, at 25 switched to using ride-hailing apps for short trips.
“I used to get in trouble arriving late for class, busses being so slow, especially during rush hour,” Truc explained. “It felt like a nightmare. The bus inching forward, horn blowing continually while the assistant screamed at passing motorcyclists.”
Using Go-Viet, it takes Truc two minutes to book a trip and five to be picked up. The journey from Truc’s house to her work takes a mere 15 minutes, costing VND12,000 ($0.52).
Truc is one of many Saigonese who’ve turned ride-hailing apps for their convenience, prices only slightly higher than a bus ticket.
A Go-Viet driver is seen in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Shutterstock/StreetVJ.
In 2016, the ride-hailing sector lured 20.8 million users, the figure hitting 191 million so far this year, according to local transport department data. Ride-hailing services partly caused bus revenues to plummet as passenger numbers dropped by 3 percent to 571 million last year, less than the annual 10 percent target.
The struggle public buses face in the wake of increasingly popular ride-hailing services is a sorry tale.
Over 131 million commuters boarded public buses in the first eight months this year, down 13.2 percent against the same period in 2018, and meeting just 51 percent of this year’s target, officials informed a meeting this month.
Over the past six years, the number of bus passengers in HCMC decreased by more than half from 413 million in 2013 to 200 million last year. A report by property consultants Savills Vietnam last year said the rate of Vietnamese people using urban public transport is the lowest in Southeast Asia.
Grab has more than 175,000 driver-partners in 15 provinces and cities across the country, followed by rival Go-Viet with 100,000, mainly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
“The development of ride-hailing firms like Grab, Go-Viet and Be has increased competition with buses in attracting passengers who travel short distances. The firms’ services are flexible and priced competitively,” said Tran Quang Lam, director of HCMC’s Transport Department.
Nguyen Van Trieu, chairman of Transport Cooperative 19/5, said earlier most students used its public buses to go to the National University in Thu Duc District.
“Now they not only prefer using their own motorbikes, but are in fact using their free time as motorbike-taxi drivers for ride-hailing firms such as Grab and Go-Viet that compete with public buses,” he added.
Another transportation specialist in HCMC said buses used to be the cheapest mode of transport, but that some ride-hailing firms now offer discounts that sometimes drag fares below those of buses. It only costs VND5,000 (22 cents) for a trip of less than eight kilometers via motorbike-taxi whereas a bus ticket was VND 6,000 (26 cents).
“If you look at factors such as convenience, punctuality, ability to avoid congestion, then ride-hailing services beat buses by a mile,” said the specialist.
The appearance of ride-hailing apps is not the sole reason for bus passenger decline. Traffic congestion and poor service quality has also contributed to the sorry state of affairs.
Lam said traffic congestion was the main reason residents found public buses unattractive in a city boasting 13 million people, around 7.6 million motorbikes and 700,000 cars.
A bus driver looks tired as his vehicle is jammed on a street in HCMC during rush hours. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.
Le Nguyen Minh Quang, a city legislator, said at a recent meeting heavy congestion was another cause leading to tardy bus services, making passengers feel bored.
“Buses must be fast, punctual and safe. With schedules not guaranteed it’s understandable many passengers give up,” Trieu commented.
Official data shows that in the first seven months this year, 330,000 bus routes experienced delays of more than 15 minutes.
One of reasons Saigonese have waved goodbye to public buses is the poor attitude and behavior of some drivers and their assistants.
Truc used to be threatened by a female bus assistant because she apparently talked and laughed too loudly. The bus assistant said Truc could distract the driver with her behavior.
Phuong, who refused to provide her full name, has worked as a bus assistant over four years. She said job pressure often made her annoyed with passengers.
Though city authorities are exerting efforts to improve public transport and reduce chronic traffic gridlocks, Truc remains dubious about bus service delivery in the country’s largest city.