Understanding Bangkok's traffic woes
text size

Understanding Bangkok's traffic woes

A heavily congested road in Bangkok. Comprehensive measures with close coordination among related agencies are required to tackle the city's traffic problems. Patipat Janthong
A heavily congested road in Bangkok. Comprehensive measures with close coordination among related agencies are required to tackle the city's traffic problems. Patipat Janthong

Anyone who lives in Bangkok won't be surprised to know that the navigation company, TomTom, recently ranked the city among the world's worst for traffic congestion. The transport sector also contributes greatly to Bangkok's overall carbon emissions: a quarter of its emissions -- higher than the global average -- come from this sector and is driven by private automobile use.

Traffic congestion also worsens air quality. According to the Pollution Control Department (PCD), earlier this year Bangkok's air quality had degenerated to levels deemed unsafe. Thus, reducing traffic congestion is an urgent issue facing next year's incoming Bangkok governor.

In order to be able to solve the problem, however, we must first understand the causes of Bangkok's terrible traffic.

The first major cause is the city's layout. As the city expands, in order to build new roads and housing estates around the city, developers either filled in the city's numerous canals or reduced them to shallow drainage ditches and open sewers. Developers kept these roads -- otherwise known as soi -- narrow and limited because they preferred to develop large chunks of land, rather than smaller sections.

There was no law requiring developers to make new roads wider. As a result, many sois became traffic bottlenecks. Worse still, many became dead ends -- a recent study found that over 37% of the city's roads are blind alleys, a far higher percentage than other major global cities.

Because Bangkok expanded without any land use or transportation planning, it grew without sufficient road space, particularly secondary roads. Whereas New York has a 32% road-to-area ratio and Tokyo has 23%, Bangkok has only 8%. The limited amount of road space means that traffic becomes even worse when flooding occurs, making some roads impassable.

The city's low road-to-area ratio, in particular its dearth of secondary roads, has created "superblocks": large tracts of land without access to major roads and in the case of Bangkok, without public transportation. Residents have to traverse long distances via local roads before they could access the main road. Consequently, they have to pay extra to use another form of transport (such as a taxi or motorbike taxi) or walk long distances before they can access public transportation. A real estate developer once told me: "This is the problem of the first and last mile. It is one of the main reasons why people don't use public transportation."

When the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) finally enacted land use plans, they did not alleviate but instead exacerbated traffic congestion. In its most recent plan, BMA allowed extensive residential development in the suburbs, but forbade extensive commercial development. The plan -- combined with the availability of cheaper land in the suburbs and the desire to have bigger residences -- have facilitated the expansion of suburbs.

However, these areas lack public transportation. Since not only workplaces, but also the best primary, secondary schools and entertainment venues, are concentrated within the inner city, many suburbanites still have to drive to the inner city.

While the city's built environment contributes to traffic congestion, the governance of public transportation pushes users to purchase and then drive cars, if they can afford to do so. As a result, more cars further clog Bangkok's limited road space. Almost two-thirds of trips in Bangkok are made using private vehicles, which now totals over 4.3 million cars.

One incentive for Bangkokians to drive cars is the minimal costs of parking. This starkly contrasts to New York City, Sydney, and Hong Kong where the costs of parking are very high. A study of parking space required in commercial and retail spaces in major Asian cities found that Bangkok was one of the two highest providers of parking spaces in the region. This is largely due to the outdated Building Control Act, which stipulates that commercial buildings must have a minimum number of parking spaces based on its size. This law is the opposite of those in many other countries, where buildings are stipulated to have a maximum number of spaces.

Consequently, the proliferation of new condominiums and shopping malls has led to additional cars inside the city and thus ever-increasing congestion.

Societal pressure and cultural values also impel Bangkokians to buy and drive cars. This can be seen in media advertisements where cars are deemed as prestigious and status symbols. Overall, as Prof Pitch Pongsawat of Chulalongkorn University asserted, "The system pressures you to buy a car."

The high number of cars combined, with limited road space obviously translates into high levels of congestion. An obvious solution to the problem of too many automobiles is to persuade drivers to shift to public transportation, especially public buses.

Compared to mass rail, buses have higher flexibility, lower production and operational costs, and could better connect Bangkok's suburbanites to the inner city. However, most of the buses are of poor quality and severely outdated. Passengers are unhappy with wait times, insufficient information given at bus stops, and the poor quality of the stops. It does not help that the bus routes are as outdated as the buses themselves -- after the city expanded, many of these routes no longer meet the transportation needs of many Bangkokians.

Few areas in Bangkok have dedicated bus lanes. The existing lane network is scattered and disconnected from one another, rendering them ineffective. Further, enforcement of the use of existing lanes is lax. Police tend to focus on reducing overall congestion and will allow many cars to enter the bus lanes. Officers also give low priority to buses when managing congestion. In contrast to cars, buses are stigmatised by much of the middle class, with many viewing buses as "invading upon their car lanes" and oppose improvements in bus services because it's "their tax money". They prefer mass rail, but the current mass rail network can only be accessed in limited areas and is too expensive for use by the urban poor. While the mass rail system is set to expand, experts predict that congestion will remain unless further measures are taken.

So what can be done to reduce congestion and push more people to take buses? Changes won't be easy, but here are a few suggestions to next year's governor.

First, BMA could follow Japan's lead and use land readjustment projects to widen small roads and increase road connectivity, thereby reducing the size and number of superblocks.

Second, BMA could persuade the parliament to revise the Building Control Act so that a maximum number of parking slots is set in future buildings. BMA could also work with the police to crack down on illegal parking and find ways to make parking more expensive.

Third, with support from the Ministry of Transport, BMA could heavily invest in improving the bus system to make it more attractive to potential users. This would include buying a new fleet of buses, rerouting buses to better meet user demands and feed mass rail stations, improving bus stops, and expanding the number of bus lanes. BMA could also work with the police to better prevent cars from using bus lanes.

Fourth, BMA could implement congestion pricing in Bangkok's inner areas, a scheme which has proven successful in London, Singapore, and other cities.

Fifth, BMA could revitalise canals and expand the number of public canal boats and routes to better provide another alternative mode of public transportation, which is cheap and quick.

Finally, the BMA can improve walkability in the capital by improving Bangkok's sidewalks and crossings and providing more green space. Making the city more walkable would reduce the demand for driving.

While implementing these suggestions will be difficult, given bureaucratic fragmentation, institutional inertia, budgetary constraints, and likely criticism from swathes of the public and vested interests, it would certainly lower Bangkok's unenviable place in city congestion rankings, reduce emissions, improve air quality, and make Bangkok more livable. It could, in fact, make the future governor popular in the long-term.

Danny Marks is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Asian and International Studies of City University of Hong Kong.

Danny Marks

Dublin City University Assistant Professor

Danny Marks is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Politics and Policy at Dublin City University.

Do you like the content of this article?