Safety first, then power to the pedallers

Can Bangkok really become a city of bicycles?

I ask myself this question after spotting two bike-related campaigns in the city this month.

One of them is "A Day Bike Fest 2012", which is taking place this week at the Airport Link's Makkasan station. It will include several activities accommodating both hardcore riders and newcomers.

The other campaign, to be hosted next week by this newspaper and its partners, involves a competition that will also promote reading.

These campaigns are part of a string of events organised by activists to promote this environmentally-friendly mode of transport in the city.

One successful event was "Car Free Day" on Sept 23 this year, in which some 30,000 cyclists _ the highest number ever to mass in the Thai capital _ turned out in force in a campaign to convince the public that pedal power can be a good alternative to cars on the road. The number of cyclists in Bangkok has grown steadily over the past few years thanks to active campaigns like this.

Yet I am still a reluctant rider.

I used to be a serious cyclist during my two-year stay in the Hague, the Netherlands, a country known for its bicycle-friendliness. Like for the locals, cycling was part of my everyday life.

I was once asked by a Dutch friend why Bangkokians didn't embrace cycling _ the mode of transportation that would provide a seemingly ideal solution to our infamous traffic.

With its flat topography, like most Dutch cities, Bangkok has the potential to become a cycling haven.

He showed much surprise when I told him that the hot climate may discourage would-be cyclists.

His argument was that the Dutch weather could also be harsh, with freezing temperatures in the winter and all-year-round rain, but the Dutch are still faithfully committed to their two-wheelers.

"Besides, the sun would not be so intimidating if we planted lots of trees along the streets to provide shade for cyclists," he said with confidence. He was right. Compared to the rain, the sun is a lot more manageable.

But my reason for not cycling yet is about safety. Or the lack of safety, to be precise.

My cyclist friend, however, insisted that this lack of safety is just a technical problem that can be solved with good bike lanes and practical bike routes.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? But it's easier said than done.

Actually, the present city administration has tried to accommodate cyclists by providing more bike lanes, especially on the Thon Buri side of Bangkok.

It is unfortunate, however, that most of those designated lanes have been invaded by motorists who misuse them as parking spaces.

It remains unclear why traffic police don't try to enforce the law in this case. Worse still, some police even break the law themselves by parking on the designated lanes. The complaints of cyclists have gone unheard.

Another effort by the city administration to promote city cycling is the "Public Bike" project, which will provide rental bicycles in spots that link subway or skytrain stations. The project is set to be launched early next year.

For this project to work though, it must be simple and practical, or else it is doomed to fail.

While the provision of bike lanes and rented bicycles are significant, the city administration still needs to do more to instil a "bike culture" _ that is, respecting the right of cyclists to ride safely.

There are strong signs that cycling activists will push the candidates in the forthcoming governor election to make safe cycling a campaign policy.

But promoting cycling needs more than just lip service. It needs strong political will and commitment on the part of politicians, or it will go nowhere.

Bangkok has lagged behind most other modern cities, which have successfully encouraged their residents to turn to cycling as an alternative transport method by developing infrastructure that allows them to ride safely.

It may be too ambitious at this stage to make Bangkok a city of cycling. How about making it a "bike-friendly" city?

Let's just start from there.

Ploenpote Atthakor is Deputy Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Ploenpote Atthakor
Position: Deputy Editorial Pages Editor