White elephant spotted on new walking streets
The Bangkok Metropolitan (BMA) is planning to bring back popular walking streets in the city's three commercial hubs, namely Silom, Yaowarat and Khao San. The reason for the move is simple: to promote food shops and boost tourism as well as the economy.
Under the plan which is to be launched next month, two lanes on Yaowarat Road will be closed to traffic from 5pm until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, starting Dec 13. Plaeng Nam Road between Wat Mangkorn MRT station and Yaowarat will also be closed to facilitate pedestrian access. Meanwhile, parts of Silom Road will go vehicle-free on the third Sunday of the month from noon to 10pm, starting Dec 15.
On Khao San Road, traffic will make way for Thai boxing, traditional sword dances and cultural shows in front of Chana Songkhram police station, from 5pm till midnight starting on Dec 16. In January the shows will extend after midnight while the pedestrianised area will expand to Bang Lamphu.
The plan will be trialled for six months and seems worthy of our support. Yet in reality it merely demonstrates the irony of BMA's failure to understand that its own policy has made a large number of people poorer.
Amid the current economic slowdown, spending generates income that helps boost the economy. But how many local vendors will benefit from the new walking streets, and how many of Bangkok's residents who live in the suburbs will want to travel all the way to the city centre just to fill their stomachs.
Lest we forget, the BMA gained the green light from the military regime for heavy-handed measures to reclaim the streets from vendors over the past five years. Most street-food outlets were banned as the BMA kicked vendors out. In some cases the agency allocated new venues, mostly in remote districts such as Min Buri, but without checking whether the locales were suitable. Inner-city spots offered to vendors, such as the space under the expressway in Urupong, have failed to attract customers because of their inconvenient locations.
The BMA seems clueless about one fact: The city's white- and blue-collar workers need places to eat on weekdays while they are at work, not just at weekends when they are likely to be at home resting.
Suan Dusit Poll this week released findings from its poll on the impact of the economy's sluggishness on the public. The majority of the 1,174 respondents surveyed between Nov 19 and 23 said they had tightened their belts amid the economic slowdown. They are trying to cut unnecessary expenses, stay home and cook their own meals, and buy second-hand clothes or swap clothing with friends. Almost 70% said they refrained from going to parties or buying luxury goods. About 20% were planning to find extra jobs to make ends meet.
Some expenses, however, are unavoidable. About 63% of the respondents cited fixed expenses such as mortgages or car-payment instalments, as well as inescapable costs for travel, be it by rail, bus, or private vehicle.
This brings us to another example of how government agencies miss the target with policies to help people save money. A flat fare of 20 baht is being introduced for trains on the Blue and Purple lines during off-peak hours, starting Dec 25. The three-month trial is aimed at attracting more people to use public transportation.
The timing of the fare cut is perfect, given growing complaints among salaried workers of static pay cheques versus rising daily expenses.
But as the reduced fare will only apply during off-peak hours (9am to 5pm) on weekdays, and throughout the day at weekends and public holidays, it's clear that the policy leaves the vast majority of office workers who work 9-5 in the cold. Meanwhile, skytrain fares are not affordable for a large number of workers.
Returning to the "walking street" project, I'm not sure who will reap the most from the move -- residents who want affordable products and food, small vendors, or the organisers.
Complaints from the grassroots about worsening economic hardship are growing louder, but the government doesn't seem to hear. The deafness explains why it keeps rolling out controversial stimulus packages like Chim, Shop, Chai (Eat, Shop, Spend) -- which has become a flop -- or irrelevant plans like off-peak rail fares.
Now we are about to get walking streets in three commercial areas. Like its predecessors, this latest scheme will do little or nothing to benefit those hardest hit by the tough economic times.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.