In 2013 the BBC gave Bangkok the first slot in its “Monster Traffic Jams” story. This was not breaking news to any locals, expats or tourists. Traffic congestion has been a chronic complaint for decades.
Every time the high tides of traffic seem to be abating a little, a new wave of motorists hits the streets to flood the gridlock with yet more vehicles – as was the case in 2011 when the administration of Yingluck Shinawatra introduced a rebate for first-time car buyers, a policy that spurred GDP but ran counter to sustainable development goals. Domestic car sales reached 1.45 million in 2012 and 1.33 million in 2013.
During the morning rush hour in Bangkok, a city that can accommodate around two million vehicles in transit, there are an estimated five million vehicles plying the streets at an average speed slower than a horse-drawn carriage at the turn of the 20th century: around 16 kilometers per hour.
The rising number of automobiles reflects the growing number of motorists with means – or at least access to credit – who see the car as one of the ultimate status symbols.
Of the more than eight million vehicles registered in Bangkok as of 2013, some 57 percent are private vehicles, 37 percent are motorcycles, 2 percent are trucks and around 1 percent are taxis. Since the economic boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s every successive government and each new Bangkok governor has had to push the traffic issue to the forefront of their agendas. But more flyovers, more expressways, more traffic cops and the building of the Skytrain and subway have not solved the dilemma.
The problem is exacerbated by a lack of private car parks and bad drivers who do not respect the rules of the road in collusion with the corrupt traffic cops who let them off the hook for small bribes.
The authorities could take some cues from other countries which have made traffic into a big issue. The United States, for example, has implemented national strategies to improve traffic flows by imposing fees on motorists entering inner city areas, by operating express buses and by promoting strategies to reduce unnecessary trips, as well as staggering working hours. Singapore, on the other hand, operates an electronic road pricing (ERP) system to collect road usage fees during rush hours. In Japan, motorists must prove that they have their own parking space before they can apply for a driver’s license.
Perhaps it’s time that the Thai government thinks about implementing such measures aimed at changing the behavior and mindsets of automobile drivers by taking aim at their most vulnerable parts: their wallets.