Playing the numbers game in recent weeks have been two of the agencies paid to solve Bangkok's worsening traffic problem. It all started when the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) posed the question of what would happen if all seven million cars registered in Bangkok tried to occupy the capital's road space, sufficient for only 1.6 million vehicles, at the same time. This puzzle of what to do with an exploding car population that is now 4.4 times greater than the space available for it gave rise to some good cartoons but no solutions. Nor was there much enthusiasm for the BMA's plea that citizens use their cars less and public transport more.
Now it is the turn of a government transport agency to warn that the 1,200 cars a day being registered in Bangkok have reached an unsustainable level. Proof lies in the fact that traffic flows are slowing down and bottlenecks are worsening. But unlike the BMA, the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning has some suggestions for improvements.
Short-term recommendations are to eliminate many of the worsening bottlenecks on major roads by relocating some U-turns and bus stops. But the agency's main proposal is to vary the hours of government offices, schools and businesses to lessen peak traffic loads. In other words, businesses would open and close later to avoid clashing with the hours at which students and government workers are on the roads. At present primary school students start first and department stores open last with the main crush coming in between. Some companies have avoided this by using flexitime, satellite offices in the suburbs and home telecommuting.
Bangkok's problem is that rush hour can last all day. Much of the blame for this lies with traffic light mismanagement by police and lack of respect for others by drivers. Add to this poor parking, needless lane-changing, tailgating, jumping lights, an abundance of often-empty taxis and decades of abysmal city planning. The proliferation of red number plates demonstrates the popularity of the government's rebate scheme for first-time car buyers but does nothing to ease congestion.
Operators of 50 shopping malls earlier this year offered to provide park-and-ride facilities with easy access to public transport. At least half have the advantage of being located near BTS skytrain stations and the Metropolitan Rapid Transit (MRT) lines. That leaves the problem of persuading commuters to use such facilities while, at the same time, improving the skytrain service to make it a more attractive alternative. People have grown tired of the massive overcrowding at peak hours.
Clearly no car driver would want to exchange one ordeal for another. But soon they might not have a choice. The Transport Ministry last year warned everyone in greater Bangkok to expect "nightmare" traffic jams while the seven mass transit rail lines were being constructed. Those in the suburbs were told to expect to spend four to six hours a day commuting up until 2014. And that assumes that construction work finishes on schedule. Those dire predictions look to be coming true.
The good news is that by 2019, electric railway lines should cover a catchment area of 525 square kilometres and serve 3.8 million commuters a day. That will be a good time to pedestrianise the central areas of Bangkok. Mass transit is the only answer as we cannot keep on building more roads to accommodate the many single-passenger cars. Before then comes an unenviable choice of inner-city congestion charges or requiring a minimum number of passengers in a non-essential vehicle at peak hours. Whatever solution is adopted will only work if there is full public awareness and a firm political resolve.