At least we're first in something
Dear Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand:
I would like to congratulate you and the government on news that came out a few weeks ago as I never had the chance. Thailand is finally No.1! Never mind that it is No.1 as the most traffic-congested country in the world -- at least we're on top of a global list for something.
As you have been informed, according to the Global Traffic Scorecard survey conducted by the US-based transportation software firm INRIX, in 2016 commuters in Bangkok spent on average 64.1 hours stuck in traffic. We jumped from 30th place in 2015 to 12th place in 2016 among the most congested cities in the world -- what an achievement! In addition to that, we are No.1 for the most congested country in the world -- with commuters in Thailand spending on average of 61 hours in gridlock per year. That's nearly three days -- not that you would know, with your ever-efficient motorcades.
That's not all -- we also made another list: the TomTom Traffic Index 2017 from an Amsterdam-based firm that measures road congestion, which ranked Bangkok No.1 in Asia, and No.2 in the world for cities with the most severe evening rush hour. We spend 61% more time in our cars than we should.
Gen Prawit, as you are chair of the government committee to solve traffic problems, many would expect you to pinpoint a reasonable explanation for these findings and to do whatever you can to solve them. But the explanation that you announced to the public left me puzzled.
You stated that Thais earning more money is one of the key factors of the traffic congestion. That Thais, who are becoming wealthier, can afford to buy more cars -- hence more cars on the road. And to solve these issues, new traffic regulations will be enforced.
With all due respect, General, as rich as anyone may be, I highly doubt that a person can drive two or more cars on the road at once. It's physically impossible.
On a more serious note, according to the Bank of Thailand and the National Statistical Office, it's true that the average wage has increased slightly these past years. But according to TMB Analytics, 81% of Thailand's GDP is in household debt, and 25% of that debt goes into car loans.
So no, General, the average Thai isn't earning that much more to be buying more cars left and right. We're going into debt. And this is happening because there is a severe lack of convenient public transportation options available. (I am not blaming it all on you, sir, as I also am not forgetting former Prime Minster Yingluck's short-sighted policy on tax breaks for first-time car buyers.)
There is a saying, sir, that "a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation". You can see this in some of the wealthiest cities, such as Copenhagen, London, Tokyo and Singapore. Their urban planning and public transportation is focused on creating the most convenient and efficient ways for people to commute. They choose to not use cars and instead use what they are provided with -- because it works.
In Thailand, our buses have not been improved for more than 10 years. We only have two BTS lines and two MRT lines in Bangkok. The BRT system is closing down, and we don't even need to talk about the horrendous service of our taxis.
Sir, as the chairman of the government committee to solve traffic problems, it is earnestly suggested that you do two things. One is to have a conversation with professional urban designers, specifically those in the Urban Design and Development Center. They will not be able to solve traffic congestion within a month, as you yourself had promised to do last September, but they are currently working on very hopeful projects to make Bangkok a more walkable and efficient city in terms of public transportation.
Two, invest more in public transportation and city planning -- make travel more convenient and comfortable. Our buses need an overhaul. And currently, at least the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand (MRTA) and the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) are on the right track -- building more train lines. The only issue is that they have to link seamlessly. The failure of the MRT Purple Line to link with the MRT Blue Line has caused many to avoid using the system at all.
I understand that I may be oversimplifying things, and that (as you said) the construction of the transit system results in even more traffic and inconvenience. But for actual long-term results, don't just slap Section 44 into traffic laws, as National Police Chief Chakthip Chaijinda suggested. Have a plan. Improve the system and make people want to use public transportation by giving them options -- unless you want us to keep our No. 1 spot.
Apipar Norapoompipat is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Apipar Norapoompipat is a features writer of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.