Transport Minister Dinh La Thang has called on all ministry staff to use buses in a bid to promote the vehicle as the primary means of public transportation.

The minister has requested all officials to use buses at least once a week and to encourage their family members and relatives to opt for buses instead of private vehicles in the two biggest cities, Hanoi and HCM City .

Thang's directive was sent as an urgent telegram to all the organisations under the ministry.

The minister's request aims at gradually easing the chronic traffic congestion in the two cities and making the use of public transportation a regular part of the city dwellers' lifestyle.

Pham Xuan Mai of the HCM City University of Technology (HCMUT) welcomed the move, saying commuting by bus would help ease traffic congestion. He said commuters' use of buses was much less than other individual vehicles. Mai said international studies verified by his research team showed that each bus commuter occupies only 2sq.m of road space while travellers by motorbike each take 10-12sq.m and those that use cars, 30sq.m.

For this reason, using a bus was the most urgent and effective solution to chronic traffic congestion that had reached alarming levels in both Hanoi and HCM City , the minister said.

The campaign calling on people to use buses was initially launched in HCM City , the country's most populated city, home to nearly 10 million people, early this year.

The first stage of the campaign was launched in July and runs until December, calling on Party members, State employees, civil servants and students to commute by bus.

The next phase, which runs for four years from December, will encourage all city residents to do the same.

The rapid growth in private vehicles has been identified as the main reason for steadily worsening traffic congestion in the country's biggest city.

The campaign targets increasing the proportion of commuters using buses to 15 percent over the next five years, up from the current 7 percent.

However, the campaign has not been effectively implemented because as of now, it remains at the propaganda level and has not yet become part of residents' daily life.

Despite efforts made by the city's Transport Department, such as improving the quality of buses and the service they provide, and introducing environmentally friendly buses fuelled by CNG (compressed natural gas), the number of people switching to the bus has not increased by much.

As long as the number of private vehicles keeps increasing and buses are not able to reach their destinations in time, people will not be interested in using them, experts have said.

HCM City has around 500,000 cars and 4.5 million motorbikes; and around 100 new cars and 1,300 motorcycles are added to the city's roads every day.

With the vehicle numbers surging and infrastructure development having failed to meet demand, the call on the MoT officials and staff to commute by bus, and the campaign to persuade everyone to use buses was not feasible, said Nguyen Van Hiep, deputy director of the HCM City Construction Department.

In a survey by the HCMUT, around 86 percent of the respondents said they would choose to commute by bus if the buses were punctual, the service good and the bus stops located within walking distance of residential areas.

In another effort to address the worsening traffic problem, the Transport Ministry has proposed changes in working hours for offices and schools. It has suggested that State-run offices and agencies would start and finish their workday an hour later.

But experts said these measures by themselves were insufficient. They said, a comprehensive, long-term strategy was needed.

Mai said it was necessary to extend and complete the public transport system by opening bus routes in the central areas using smaller buses that carry around 10-15 passengers.

Another transport expert, Nguyen Thi Bich Hang, suggested the State authorities to adjust the public transport management to reduce the number of routes that are sparsely used and increase the frequency in areas with a large number of bus commuters.

Hang also suggested the use of small buses that can run on small streets. It was necessary to combine the use of public and private transportation by setting up free parking lots for motorbikes and cars near bus stations, she said./.