An Active Transportation Planner’s Insights from Actively Transporting Through SE Asia

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by: Ryan Johnson, Planning Associate, Alta Planning + Design

Alta rewards employees at their five-year mark with a travel stipend to any international destination that provides experiences related to Alta’s business. This reflection recaps Ryan Johnson’s recent travels through SE Asia.

At any other time and place, bicycling in a steady rain would be one of the least pleasurable experiences I can imagine. Yet here I was, riding alongside my wife on a narrow concrete path between serene rice fields in central Vietnam, slowly growing soaked by the drizzle. And we were both as happy as can be.

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Last November, Sofia and I set out for a three-week adventure in Southeast Asia to experience the good, bad, and ugly aspects of transportation and public spaces in major cities and small towns (but to be honest, we were most excited about the food!). Spurred by a generous travel stipend from Alta — a reward for working on the team for five years — we spent about a week each in Taiwan, Vietnam, and Thailand.

We landed first in Taipei, and we were instantly immersed in the buzz found only in those East Asian mega cities. A rapid bus to the city center whisked us away, and we spent the next few days getting around on the amazingly efficient transit system. And while it was quite a pleasure traveling around with ease, the best part was the ubiquitous in-station kiosk selling metro-branded swag!

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Walking around was also a joy, due in large part to the beautiful public spaces and parks and sprinkled generously throughout the City, along with dedicated Pedestrian Lanes on narrow side streets (photo above left).

Even where typically unpleasant situations occurred, such as the site of a large construction site, the locals counter with creative green touches (photo above right).

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Bicycle riders are also rewarded with a network of riverside paths with beautiful bicycle- and pedestrian-only bridges as well as on-street cycle tracks (photo above).

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Hanoi (photo left) presented a much different story. While there was the well-known motor scooter mania, I was also struck by the limited amount of public transit in a capital city of nearly eight million people. Even walking was a tall order in Hanoi, due to scooter-filled sidewalks and a traffic hierarchy strongly favoring the biggest/fastest/boldest. However, this was more than made up for by the vibrant street culture on display at every food stall or cart, at card tables in small parks, and in any open corner of pavement.

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Hoi An, a small UNESCO Heritage town on Vietnam’s central coast (photo left), offered a calm respite from the cities. Here, bicycling is the star, and nearly every tourist under 40 could be seen cruising around narrow roads and farm paths. Riding into the historic colonial quarter, we immediately saw the superior advantage of the bicycle — it helps that Hoi An’s core is closed to cars and scooters for several hours every day!

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We concluded our trip with a long week in Thailand, which was particularly special to me since I had visited as a young lad ten years ago. I noticed immediately how rapidly Bangkok had embraced the automobile (and its inevitable spike in congestion and air pollution), but a ride on the public river ferry quickly reminded me that the experience of moving about a city can still be both enjoyable and practical if you have a little patience.

And I did see promising signs of a new consciousness towards providing sustainable transportation options, with a few new separated bikeways on the ground with plans for more in the works.

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In Koh Lanta, a rapidly developing island in the southern part of Thailand, I saw even more clearly the tension between the race towards greater prosperity and the preservation of human-scale spaces and transportation modes — for example, a recently completed bridge that includes a walking and cycling path intersects with the island’s main road that is currently being widened through established villages to allow for high-speed traffic.

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I’m hopeful that the people I was fortunate to spend time with during my weeks in Asia and my fellow Americans can learn from each other when it comes to expanding settlements and transportation networks in the name of economic growth. At the same time, I know we can learn positive lessons from their appreciation of shared public spaces — no matter how large or small — and their uncanny ability to weave bits of nature and humanity into otherwise alienating environs. With Alta now exploring potential opportunities in Asia, I’m excited to learn even more about the region and possibly offer our support in realizing a more sustainable and enjoyable future in these communities as they grow.

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