A recreational activity. A green and convenient transport option. A fashion statement. A major issue for the next gubernatorial campaign. Take your pick, it's all the same thing: cycling.
Once a fading old-world mode of transport, or limited to some university campuses, cycling has re-emerged as a serious business, attracting a large number of urban commuters who flaunt the two-wheeler around the city. The sight of chic candy-coloured fixie riders or individuals on utility bikes has become more familiar.
Their appearance has favourably altered Bangkok's streetscape, and there has been a growing acceptance of the vehicles on the road. This is in part thanks to a series of campaigns a group of activist cyclists held last year, advocating for better infrastructure, like bike lanes, as well as greater public understanding for those using two-wheelers. Among them was last year's Valentine's Day campaign, when city cyclists showed their love by creating dedicated lanes and spraying pink images of bicycles on the left-hand lanes in the Sukhumvit neighbourhood. While not long-lasting, the signs were a success as a wake-up call, reminding other road users of cyclists' equal rights.
A volunteer fixes a bicycle at Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus. There are about 200 bicycles which the university loans to the students for getting around.
The popular a day magazine produced an all-bicycle issue after a search for cycling communities throughout the country. A bicycling-campaign poster competition called Teep Chan Tammai (Why Ride?) was held at Chulalongkorn University. More clubs are being established to cater the rising demand of the cycling trips. Regular bike shows have also been held during the past few years.
In November, a day held a four-day "Bike Fest" that attracted 22,000 visitors and combined the chic and the practical. The show, held at Airport Rail Link's Makkasan station, drew an unexpectedly high number of visitors and showed how trendy and popular the human-powered vehicle has become among young people.
Another noteworthy project was the launch of the first Bangkok Bike Map, made by the Green World Foundation. It features safer backstreet routes, the "insiders' routes" allow cyclists to go explore the city without having to venture on to main roads. The map will not only become a bible for those pedalling around the city, but also will help create a great network between like-minded people from different neighbourhoods.
While there are no official figures of Bangkok's cyclist population, yet, the gathering on the car-free day in September was stunning, with more than 12,000 people _ the highest number ever for this annual activity. Their procession, forming into a tri-coloured national flag, captured public attention.
The increasing number of cyclists means a larger market and more business opportunities. Shops offering used and brand-name vehicles and accessories are mushrooming on street corners and in the online shopping world. New importers are becoming a force, with mass and niche products for all segments of the market, giving consumers greater choice.
Bangkok cyclists have a new option for enjoying the city safely, with the first Bangkok Bike Map offering a guide through the backstreets of the capital.
For the upper end of the market, there is greater variety for popular brands like Trek and Giant, while design brands like Vanmoof or sought-after brands like Brompton and Alex Moulton have become household names. People with limited budgets can opt for used bikes from Japan or more affordable options from China.
But without political commitment from authorities in the city, cycling can never be a real success story. For this reason, activists are pushing for cycling policies play a role in the forthcoming Bangkok governor election, which will take place next month.
Among their demands are an extension of the bike lane network, and making sure existing designated lanes are kept free of parked vehicles and motorcycle taxis.
One candidate for governor, Suharit Siamwalla, has already promised to improve public transport and the cycling network: it is one of his eight-point policies. He is to debate his policy _ especially on how to enhance quality of life and make the city more green _ with other candidates at a forum organised by Thammasat University.
Incumbent Bangkok Governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra, seeking a second term, will also attempt to cash in on the bike issue.
In the past few months, the governor has responded favourably to the activists' demand by replacing dangerous vertical-grid drainage on the streets with a safer horizontal version. MR Sukhumbhand will feel the urge to prove that he is ready to take the bike matter more seriously, continuing the work left by his predecessors, former governor Bhichit Rattakul, who was the first to address the need for bike lanes in city development, and Apirak Kosayodhin, who turned the plan into action.
MR Sukhumbhand is likely to highlight the BMA bicycle rental service which he launched to the press in October with two mock-up stations in Siam Square and Sam Yan. If re-elected, the governor is expected to complete the service, inspired by the London version, updating it from a manual system to an online one which will operate 24/7, with more stations to better serve city commuters.
- Thammasat University is making good progress on its Green vision both at Tha Prachan and Rangsit campuses. Last year, about 200 old, flood-damaged bicycles were repaired by volunteer students, the Thai Cycling for Health Association and the Thai Health Promotion Foundation. The repaired bikes have now been on loan to students for getting around Rangsit campus, reducing their reliance on motorised vehicles. More bike lanes are also being introduced.
At Tha Prachan campus, Cafe Velo Dome was launched last year. Unlike typical venues that offer drinks or use bicycle parts as decoration, the cafe acts as a bicycle hub, giving cycling information and leading cycling tours in the city _ free of charge.
- In Nakhon Pathom's Salaya district, Mahidol University has gone a step further. It successfully introduced the "Jakka Mahachon" project as part of a Green campus concept in mid-2011. Some 420 free-rental white utility bicycles were on loan for students and visitors on a daily basis.
The central academic zone's six traffic lanes, originally paved for motor vehicles, has been divided into two. One half is for one-way traffic flow for motorised vehicles only, with no parking allowed; the other has been raised and paved for bicycles and pedestrians. Bike lanes, painted in blue, are also provided around the campus.
More than 12,000 cyclists filled the Royal Plaza to mark Bangkok Car Free Day 2012 on Sept 23.
About the author
- Writer: Sirinya Wattanasukchai