Organisers of the recently concluded Thailand International Motor Expo are jubilant after receiving bookings for 80,000 cars during the 10 day event. But they could hardly have been surprised by the number of customers. By the time it expires at the end of this month, at least 600,000 new drivers will have taken advantage of the government's tax rebate scheme for first-time car buyers which cuts individual costs by up to 100,000 baht. Perhaps the real surprise for car show organisers will come next year when they find themselves wondering where all the customers have gone. This is a problem that occurs frequently when governments artificially stimulate markets, although it was clearly a risk that auto manufacturers were prepared to take in the wake of losses suffered during last year's floods.
There is no mystery about where all the cars have gone. About 60 per cent have found homes in the provinces, while the proliferation of red number plates on Bangkok streets account for the rest; the sole exception being those repossessed by finance companies. This pushed up the capital's total number of registered cars to a record 7,384,934 on Oct 31. Of these, 296,553 were new automobiles bought under the first car scheme. It comes as no surprise that congestion is visibly worsening throughout the city, especially in the Samsen, Silom and Sathon areas, where many office buildings and schools are located.
Given that Bangkok has a history devoid of proper urban planning, the problem facing traffic experts is how seven million can be accommodated on roads that can only handle 1.6 million. Having 4.4 times more cars than the space available for it is a recipe for gridlock, even if an additional 1,200 vehicles a day were not being added to the mix. It is little wonder that the Land Transport Department keeps running out of number plates or that the bottlenecks are worsening with traffic slowing to an average of 18km/h in the morning and 23km/h in the evening.