Uncovering JAPA

Motorbike Contributions: Enhancing Street Life and the Local Economy

While motorbikes are the primary form of transportation in many cities throughout Asia, they are often accused of discouraging street commerce and vitality. In "Productive Frictions: A Theory of Mobility and Street Commerce Grounded in Vietnam's Motorbike-Centric Urbanism," (Journal of American Planning Association) Huê-Tâm Jamme addresses this assumption in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in Vietnam. She discovers that motorbikes, especially when driven at a slow speed, enable vibrant street life due to their encouragement of "productive friction" between people in transit and the built environment.

Motorbikes Drive Street Life Diversity

To understand how motorbikes influence trade and street life, Jamme collected data on mobility and street activity in HCMC, including 68 interviews and 333 videos. She then used a grounded theory approach to analyze how different transportation modes relate to sidewalk use and retail.

In over 20 of the 0.5-mile street segments where street uses were recorded at six different times of the day, she found that on average motorbikes made up 72 percent of traffic volume, 96 people were in public space, 87 retail shops were open, and 168 motorbikes were parked.

Using interview data, Jamme revealed that dense and slow-moving traffic of around 15-20 mph allows people to easily perceive the surrounding environment, permitting easy contact with the streetscape, spontaneous shopping, and social interactions. Jamme uses the term motorshopping to refer to the common practice of purchasing without stepping down from the motorbike.

Parking is also easy and abundant for motorbikes. People can stop almost anywhere for a quick pause during their trip to engage in street life. Fine-grained curb and sidewalk management in the city accommodates motorbike parking, food vending stalls, outdoor seating, merchandise spillover, and recreational uses. Finally, the malleable streetscape encourages a shifting arrangement of shops and amenities that attract users throughout the day.

Figure 1. Street uses in HCMC. 1 Motorbike traffic passing by shophouses on mixed-use street. 2 Motorshopper and street vendor. 3 Motorbike and car traffic on a boulevard. 4 Motorbike parking, pedestrian path, and sitting areas on a sidewalk in front of a pagoda. 5 From inside a restaurant open to the street. 6 Young people dining on a sidewalk. 7 Motorshopper through a street market. 8 Motorbike

Figure 1. Street uses in HCMC. 1) Motorbike traffic passing by shophouses on mixed-use streets. 2) Motorshopper and street vendor. 3) Motorbike and car traffic on a boulevard. 4) Motorbike parking, pedestrian paths, and sitting areas on a sidewalk in front of a pagoda. 5) From inside a restaurant open to the street. 6) Young people dining on a sidewalk. 7) Motorshopper through a street market. 8) Motorbike parking and employee in charge. 9) Parked motorbikes and people hanging out on the sidewalk in front of a closed store at night. Photo credit: Author, 2018.

Motorbikes Enhance Street Life Dynamics

Jamme posits that motorbikes are more conducive to a vibrant street life than other forms of transportation in Ho Chi Minh City. The comparative analysis demonstrates that motorbike users stop more frequently and spend more time in public spaces than non-motorbike users. In particular, car usage corresponds with lower participation in street life. And, while walking promotes the most friction on a local scale, motorbikes support it over larger distances.

Car use is rising, but Jamme is concerned that this may have negative impacts on street life in HCMC. Because motorbike usage is more flexible and better integrated with the built environment, they induce more productive friction. If mobility preferences shift, this will likely harm equitable accessibility and the livelihoods of countless small business owners. To avoid this trend, Jamme argues that policymakers should promote motorbikes, especially electric versions, to sustain street vibrancy and achieve sustainability benefits.

Urban planners should avoid infrastructure that limits interactions between people in transit and the streetscape. Jamme frequently mentions the benefits of "longitudinal contact," which ensures the visibility of businesses and services and facilitates parking for large numbers of smaller vehicles. This may manifest differently depending on location, but in general, it can be achieved through street design and policy that maximizes contact between flows and places.

As cities modernize, productive frictions offer a framework to assess mobility options based on the degree to which they enhance street life and the local economy. Instead of banning motorbikes or other forms of transportation deemed undesirable, planners should consider how they contribute to the urban environment and apply insights from the success of vernacular mobilities.

Top image: iStock/Getty Images Plus - David_Bokuchava

About the author
Adin Becker is a student in the master of urban planning program at Harvard University.

December 7, 2023

By Adin Becker