Filthy city air can't be cleaned with pie in sky
As PM2.5 fine dust particles continue to blanket Bangkok, the government has begun to toy with the idea of banning private cars from city roads on certain days of the week -- a harsh-yet-successful measure practised in many major cities around the world to curb air pollution.
I have to admit that I was almost impressed by the idea, coincidentally proposed both by a Palang Pracharath MP and the Natural Resources and Environment Minister earlier this week. The proposal, to solve the soon-to-be chronic problem at its root cause, sounds almost sensible. However, it also leads to questions about practicality given the fierce resistance it would spark among commuters, presumably motorists.
An online poll conducted by a local TV channel showed that 62% of 20,000 respondents opposed the idea, saying it's impossible to commute without cars in a city where public buses are so worn-out, electric trains overpriced, and the public transport network so inefficient.
Although it's possible to commute in Bangkok by public transport, I couldn't agree more with those who say it will only make commuters' already-tough lives harder, especially those who live on the outskirts, and whose houses are not along city train lines.
At the same time, the government can't seem to stop asking us to show our spirit and pitch in with efforts to tackle air pollution.
Earlier this week, the prime minister said that the pollution problem can't be solved solely by the government, and everyone must help. At least people should protect him/herself from the pollution by wearing a mask because the government "can't stop people from driving, factories from producing, or farmers from burning their agricultural leftovers".
A comment by the interior minister, referring to the air pollution crisis as a "natural disaster" resulting from the use of vehicles, construction work, factories, and open burning by farmers was equally absurd.
Although the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has offered a number of solutions, I'm not sure they are useful or worth the budget.
Last October, the BMA said it would spend its 2020 kitty on "cleaning the air". It planned to spend about 50 million baht on six water-spraying trucks and another 127 million baht to install 24 air-purifying towers to fight air pollution in highly congested areas of Bangkok such as Asok, Chatuchak and Victory Monument. But the Pollution Control Department last year claimed Bangkok needed as many as 16,000 air-purifying towers to clean the whole city. Imagine the budget and the space needed for this solution.
The agency also asked private operators, including BTS stations and high-rise owners, to spray water to help reduce PM2.5 levels.
I understand that we need urgent solutions to ease the immediate impact of air pollution. But are the state and City Hall being too passive, asking people to help themselves without coming up with any long-term solutions to solve this? Don't forget that we city people have suffered from this annual super-fine dust for a long time.
I also understand that, in a democratic country like Thailand, it's impossible for the state to order members of society to leave their vehicles at home and shift to public transport. But I'm sure the state can offer choices, such as a more convenient and efficient public transport network, to encourage people to give up driving, at least for a few days or weeks during the PM2.5 crisis.
The Pollution Control Department's head has set an example by giving up his car one day a week and has encouraged his colleagues to follow suit.
Yet while repeatedly asking for cooperation from motorists to drive less, none of the policymakers have volunteered to follow the PCD head's lead. Not even the Bangkok governor, environment minister or the prime minister himself. I'm sure the PM's motorcade isn't getting any shorter.
I hope that over the next few years we won't have to hear about the state's attempts to provide "immediate solutions" while also being urged to buy our own masks to protect us from the smog.
I hope the state, especially the BMA, becomes more sincere about tackling the root causes of the problem rather than pursuing expensive projects with dubious results.
Instead of urging the commuters to stop driving at certain times, how about purchasing new fleets of public buses, cutting city train fares in half and improving public transport network?
Instead of wasting budget on air-purifying towers, water-spraying trucks and headline-grabbing but pointless exercises such as the Tree/You/Again project, the BMA should implement policies that might actually provide a long-term solution to our filthy air.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.