Productive Frictions: A Theory of Mobility and Street Commerce Grounded in Vietnam’s Motorbike-Centric Urbanism

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2 Scopus citations


Problem, research strategy, and findings: Walking, biking, and transit are known to shape street commerce, whereas private motorized mobility is assumed to act against it. I advance a new theory of productive frictions according to which opportunities for street commerce depend not on the mode of transportation but on the mode of interaction between people in motion and the built environment. The construct of productive frictions is grounded in Vietnam’s motorbike-centric urbanism. There, what core factors relate private motorized mobility with vibrant retail that anchors street life? To answer this question, I recorded 68 interviews and 333 video clips of street life in Ho Chi Minh City in 2018. Grounded theory methods guided systematic data collection, coding, and mixed methods analyses that led to the conceptualization of productive frictions. Productive frictions are the opportunities for social interactions produced by the contact of people on the move with the built environment they traverse. In Ho Chi Minh City, the core factors that create contact and make motorbike riders particularly prone to productive frictions include: slow speed, direct sensory perceptions, ease of weaving in and out of traffic, and abundant stimuli from stalls, stores, and people lining the streets. Evidence suggests that motorbike riders experience productive frictions less intensely than pedestrians but over greater distances, whereas automobilists generally experience low levels of productive frictions. Takeaway for practice: Productive frictions support small businesses, which shape accessibility, economic vibrancy, and street life. Cities like Ho Chi Minh City experiencing rising automobility should preserve motorized two-wheeled mobility for their productive frictions benefits, at least until mass transit is sufficiently developed to support dense and walkable urbanism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)86-100
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of the American Planning Association
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2024
Externally publishedYes


  • Vietnam
  • grounded theory
  • mixed methods
  • motorized two-wheelers
  • street commerce

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Urban Studies


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