Bangkok gridlock

The capital is already bumper-to-bumper, and there is no respite in sight

Liam Aran Barnes
February 13, 2013

The capital is already bumper-to-bumper, and there is no respite in sight

By Liam Aran Barnes
The first rays of sunshine filter through a fine blanket of haze that hovers over Bangkok’s streets, as weary-eyed vendors set up stalls and dress eclectic shopfronts. The skytrain rattles above and a smattering of subterranean commuters heads towards the underground system. Though it is barely 7am and the majority of the city’s workforce has yet to leave their houses, traffic on most of Bangkok’s roads is already at a standstill.

Alternative solutions: the BTS Skytrain was designed to alleviate Bangkok’s notorious traffic jams
Alternative solutions: the BTS Skytrain was designed to alleviate Bangkok’s notorious traffic jams

This familiar scene greets city residents on a daily basis and has done so for decades. More than the average rush hour gridlock, traffic congestion is part of everyday life in the Thai capital and shows no signs of improving.
Bangkok’s traffic woes can be traced back as far as the 1970s. While 1971 traffic police statistics recorded only 243,000 vehicles in the city, a World Bank Bangkok Transportation Study undertaken in the same year urged officials to draft plans for a mass transport system. At the time it was only the third city in Asia, after Tokyo and Hong Kong, to consider such a scheme. It took another 28 years for Bangkok’s first rapid transit system, the BTS Skytrain, to begin operations.
It was joined in 2004 by the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) subway system, but the number of registered vehicles in the capital continues to soar. According to figures from the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy Planning, in the first ten months of 2012, 7,384,934 vehicles were registered, surpassing the total for the whole of 2011 by 535,721, or 7.8%, in a city that the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) claims can accommodate only 1.6m vehicles.
A major contributing factor to the recent spike in Bangkok’s automobiles was the September 2011 implementation of the government’s populist first-car tax rebate scheme – offering first time buyers up to THB100,000 ($3,300) in tax refunds after one year of ownership. While the scheme boosted sales in the domestic auto industry by an estimated THB67 billion ($2.2 billion) and helped contribute THB174 billion ($5.7 billion) in revenue to government coffers through 2012, according to the finance ministry, the side effects are already noticeable in the capital and are likely to linger long into the future.
“We found that people have to spend 30 minutes to an hour more on the road, especially in the main congestion areas such as Silom and Samsen, as many office buildings and schools are located there,” Sujin Tayanukul, director of the national Land Traffic Management Division told local media in December.
A recent statement from the Transport Ministry also highlights the negative impact the additional cars will have on traffic in the capital city and suggests residents should prepare for the situation to get increasingly worse over the next five years. Coupled with the construction of 67km-worth of extensions to the commuter rail system, which will continue to undergo expansion throughout the year, Bangkok will simply run out of road space, warned the ministry.
Though delays to infrastructure construction and haphazard city planning have landed the capital in something of a catch-22, the development of public transport systems, both existing and new, is integral to the future of Bangkok, explained Dr Vilas Nitivattananon, associate professor of urban environmental management at the Bangkok-based Asian Institute of Technology’s School of Environment, Research and Development.
“[Improvements to public transport networks] can be seen as a very important measure, but it depends on how they are integrated into the bigger system, including other transport modes,” he said. “There should be a clear integrated system for different forms of public transport.”
In addition to rapid urbanisation, population growth and limited mass transit lines, Vilas cites the lack of synergy between the BMA, central government and private operators as a major factor behind the bourgeoning predicament.
“Some of the current problems include the poor quality of the bus network, its lack of connectivity to other modes of transport and the three sub-systems of rapid transport (State Railway of Thailand-owned Airport Rail Link, Bangkok Metro-owned MRT system and BMA-owned BTS Skytrain) which are each run by separate agencies with different fare systems,” said Vilas, adding that many of the city’s commuters still live far away from stations and therefore need to use various modes of transport to commute.
While the future for Bangkok’s roads and residents looks bleak, business is again on the up in Thailand’s auto industry. The sector was rocked by the 2011 flood – the Kingdom’s worst in half a century – but experienced a positive 2012, driven primarily by the first-car scheme.
Driving seat: the 34th Bangkok International Motor Show is expected to draw more than a million visitors during the 14-day event starting March 25
Photo by DPA.
Driving seat: the 34th Bangkok International Motor Show is expected to draw more than a million visitors during the 14-day event starting March 25

An estimated 1.27m vehicles were sold during the first 11 months of last year, Japanese Chamber of Commerce figures show – a 73% increase on the same period in 2011, which placed Thailand in the world’s top ten auto-manufacturing countries. Moreover, Ministry of Industry statistics show that last November’s Manufacturing Production Index (MPI) stood at 189.11, a year-on-year growth of 83.3%.
“A key factor behind the MPI increase was the expansion of the automobile industry. It has benefited from the government’s first-car scheme and the low manufacturing base experienced during the end of 2011 when the manufacturing industry was affected by floods causing a 45.9% decline in the November 2011 industrial index,” explained Dr Nattapon Nattasomboon, director-general of Office of Industrial Economics, adding that a further 2.5m cars are expected to be manufactured through 2013, an annual increase of 4.5%, boosted by the government scheme.
These additional vehicles will have a detrimental effect on Bangkok’s heaving streets, at least until a solution to the gridlock can be found. Some members of the private sector state that while a number of studies have been undertaken to improve transportation, the schemes by and large remain gimmicks that fail to garner any serious attention and do not offer a sustainable alternative for Bangkok’s roads.
An ambitious attempt to promote the use of bicycles saw the launch of numerous rental stations around the city last year, but the scheme has failed to make inroads due to the lack of designated bike lanes and limited publicity. Perhaps the most promising plan pitched, however, was the BMA’s idea to restore certain canals and encourage the use of waterways throughout Bangkok – once referred to as the Venice of the East – in an attempt to alleviate pressure on the roads and also attract additional tourism.
“Bangkok, like New York and Beijing, is a metropolitan area which is bound to have traffic issues, and we accept this is a problem. Although the government’s plans to expand the mass-transit routes, are a little late,” said Piyaman Tejapaibul, president of the Tourism Council of Thailand. “However, I believe its attempts to develop areas by the river and utilise waterways will benefit residents and tourists who want to discover what else the city offers.”
It may, however, take a little more than a few canal tours and leisurely bike rides to change the fate of the Thai capital. While the blinders remain firmly in place and the detrimental impact on business, the environment and residents’ quality of life is ignored in favour of the advancement of major industry, the required awareness will struggle to be raised and the City of Angels could face an unheavenly future.
“Environmentally, things are going to get worse as noise and air pollution increases, in addition to the serious impact high energy consumption will have on climate change,” warned Dr Vilas. “In terms of the economy, while some sectors may benefit in the short term, the bad traffic is likely to negatively affect the country’s GDP in the long run.”

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