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Blog-Traffic Jam Now, Apocalypse Tomorrow



If you ask someone from anywhere in the world what they most associate with Bangkok and they’ll probably say torrid women, temples and traffic jams. What a reputation for a city to have!

I admit no particular knowledge of the first, but I do know that when I came here with my wife in the seventies the Bangkok traffic was horrendous. I remember one long stop-over here on our way to Hong Kong we decided not to sit around in the airport but to spend the day in the city centre. By the time the taxi had got us to the Grand Palace, there was about half an hour before we had to head back to the airport.

Would you believe it, a lot has been achieved since then and things are not nearly as bad as they were then. There’s still plenty of ladies in Bangkok but today the traffic sometimes actually moves and it’s not always total gridlock.

The traffic police deserve some of the credit for this achievement. Their suicide squads are often out there in the middle of the road facing the heat and fumes in their tight uniforms, waving their arms around to some effect. And at major intersections they manually operate the lights, stopping the traffic only after long intervals, thus maximizing the flow quite effectively.

I like the digital countdown displays too at the big junctions telling you how long you’ll have to wait, thus alerting drivers to move off quickly when the lights change. The idea of having three of four lanes going into town in the morning rush hour and and vice versa in the evening also seems to work pretty well.

There’s plenty of impressive new infrastructure since the seventies too. Many of the expressways and overhead flyovers, sometimes creating eight lane highways, are quite phenomenal and the mass rapid transits are first rate. I love the Skytrain which whisks me silently above the toiling traffic on Sukhumvit road and the new underground railway is as slick and glossy as any in the world. Bangkok would now be chaos and intolerable without them!

Progress in Bangkok can be fragile though. Out towards the old airport you can still see the gaunt gantries of a never to be completed rail link, a joint venture with Hopewell Holdings of Hong Kong that fell victim to the ‘Asian financial crisis’ of 1997. The political turmoil since the coup of 2006 has also threatened the new transport mega-projects that the former Thaksin regime hoped would power the economy through its second electoral term. Normal practice in a kleptocracy is that every new government cancels as many of its predecessor’s projects as possible so that it can maximize the benefits from placing new contracts while briefly in office.

One interesting transport scheme long ago proposed by an Australian project manager but rejected at that time, is the so-called BRT or Bus Rapid Transit. Air conditioned buses run on ‘dedicated lanes’, some of them newly constructed on overhead lanes at points of congestion. The buses are like a Skytrain but they come down to earth in places where traffic flow permits, offering considerable flexibility at a much reduced cost.

Sadly it was reported (Bangkok Post, 12 November 2007) that of the eighteen companies expressing an interest in supplying 45 new buses for such a scheme, not a single one in the event submitted a tender. Bangkok’s deputy governor expressed surprise at the lack of response, saying that perhaps the bidding terms were too strict or ‘someone does not want the project to succeed’.

While the BRT is much cheaper per mile than both the underground and the Skytrain, currently being extended at huge cost, all these mega-projects absorb vast sums of public money. The crunch is that Bangkok grows constantly and however much money is thrown at the problem, it only gets worse and worse. There are traffic jams now but it could be apocalypse tomorrow and the city near paralysis.

What is needed is some lateral thinking to curb the monstrous growth of this unruly city. Could they not, for example, spend a little money decentralizing government offices to the provinces? A regional development policy offering incentives to set up factories in provincial centres, would also relieve the pressure on Bangkok and help solve the problem of urban drift and migration from the countryside.

Fundamental change is surely essential even if such policies only make a marginal difference.

Does anyone for example dare mention traffic management schemes for Bangkok, such as in Singapore and London? Allowing citizens to drive alone into a dense urban centre in a large metallic capsule on wheels is sheer madness. If you drive into Singapore’s Central Business District there’s a charge if there’s only one person in the car. On top of this, Singapore long ago discouraged car ownership with penal taxation of new cars and tough incentives to scrap or export cars when they reach ten years.

London’s former mayor, Ken Livingstone more recently required all cars to pay a ‘congestion charge’ to drive into the city centre and while not solving all traffic problems at a stroke, this has generally been regarded as a success. It certainly took a lot of political courage and strength but he bit the bullet.

Bangkok needs something of the same though the odds are always against it. It’s all about politics as the disruption caused by such changes is unpopular and loses votes. Anyway, the Thais are tolerant and can accept life’s traffic jam. Mai pen rai! It doesn’t really matter spending several hours a day steaming in a traffic jam if there’s nothing you can ever do about it.

I can think though of some other lateral solutions to traffic problems that are less intrusive than traffic exclusion schemes. For example, if there are traffic jams, perhaps it’s because there are too many unnecessary journeys.

The worst traffic I’ve ever encountered was in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria. They tried banning cars with odd or even registration numbers on alternate days which gave plenty of new business to the shops that printed number plates.

It was also argued persuasively that the traffic problem could be alleviated most quickly by improving the appalling telephone system. If people could actually speak to each other on the phone then they wouldn’t have to make that unnecessary journey.

There was also a universal culture in Nigeria, peculiar to ‘developing countries’, that business, official and otherwise, can only be done if the supplicant goes to beg the man in power for his favour. Unless you actually go and grovel in person, nothing will ever get done.

Thailand doesn’t seem too advanced in this respect which is inefficient in every way, particularly as it generates road traffic. If there were a culture here that it’s normal to reply to letters and emails, if officials and businesses could only deal promptly with correspondence, then millions of journeys would be saved.

The bureaucracy should also review its many regulatory procedures and requirements and cut them down to the essential minimum. To take one example, for me as a foreigner to get married in Thailand, I had to produce a duly anointed ‘Affirmation of Freedom to Marry’, an unverified statement that I was not already married. Obtaining this piece of paper required me to make no fewer than twelve journeys to various offices in Bangkok, thus adding to the traffic jams and providing no assurance whatsoever that I was not a dastardly bigamist.

Cutting red tape, streamlining regulations and official procedures, conducting more business by email and mail and the use of video-conferencing and home working by computer would hugely add to efficiency and free up the roads a percentage or two. It would certainly be much cheaper than digging more undergrounds.

The present mid-century culture of business and bureaucracy in Bangkok thus maximizes journeys to the benefit only of the taxis, whose drivers have my admiration for surviving the traffic jams in most cases with such good humour.

How tough it must be to pay for fuel and the rent for the taxi and then to make a little on top, much of the time facing impenetrable traffic jams. Nobody though is exempt from this creeping urban sclerosis. The buses rattle by, old and smoky, the passengers standing shoulder to shoulder, the lucky ones sitting slumped forward, exhausted after a day’s work. That’s just the way Bangkok always is.

For the poor Bangkokian, traffic jams are a torment that must push the low paid wage slave almost beyond endurance, yet somehow Bangkok people still keep smiling. Somehow they seem to accept with good humour conditions that elsewhere would be regarded as beyond the bounds of human intolerance.

Stickman's thoughts:

Knowing the city as a driver (or as a passenger) allows you to avoid the worst of the city's traffic snarl ups. If you plan your journey carefully, you can avoid the worst of it. There are certain times and certain places where that is, however, unavoidable and in those instances you are better off on a motorbike or on the underground or the skytrain. I know it sounds crazy, but the worst of Bangkok's traffic jams are, for the most part, avoidable.