Wider roads only bring more traffic
Earlier in the month, work began on the expansion of Ratchapruek Road, a major route north of Bangkok which links the neighbouring provinces of Pathum Thani and Nonthaburi. The road, according to the Department of Rural Roads (DoRR), will see almost 50,000 vehicles pass through it every day, as it is expanded into a 10-lane thoroughfare, up from the present eight.
The road needs to be further expanded to accommodate the expected increase in traffic between Pathum Thani and Nonthaburi, which serve as de facto satellite cities of the capital, DoRR acting director-general Apirat Chaiwongnoi said at the start of the project.
Eight years ago, the DoRR under the Ministry of Transport said the same thing. Then-department chief Chatchai Thipsunawee said Ratchapruek Road -- at the time, still a six-lane road -- must be widened as 29,000 vehicles use it every day, and the figure was expected to rise as both areas developed.
In fact, the DoRR also parroted the same line when it launched the first major expansion of the road in 2006, albeit with different numbers. It seemed no matter how many lanes the government adds along the road, traffic along it would just get worse each year.
On the surface at least, expanding roads to accommodate an expected increase in traffic makes sense -- after all, more lanes mean less congestion, right? However, the ongoing expansion of Ratchapruek Road has shown that this approach doesn't work, as it overlooks the important concept of induced demand.
In reality, the added capacity on Ratchapruek Road won't just serve motorists who routinely use the road, but attract other road users, who, in other circumstances, would avoid the road due to congestion. In other words, it won't only be used by people who have no choice but to sit through the traffic (for example, commuters heading to work), but also by "flexible commuters" who will only go on the road if the conditions are right -- which include those who usually travel on other roads, off-peak hours and public transport users.
This is induced demand at work -- more and more people will be attracted to use the road to cut on travel time, and soon Ratchapruek Road will reach its capacity again and the cycle will repeat to exhaustion.
The fact of the matter is, road expansion goes hand in hand with the suburbanisation of country's cities, but few realise that it is a self-fulfilling recipe for congestion and urban sprawl. As roads are built to connect different areas, business would boom along them, which in turn causes congestion that necessitates the building of more roads.
When will the government draw the line? Will it wait for the road to be as wide as the Katy Freeway in Houston, Texas -- which started out as a six-lane road like Ratchapruek Road before becoming the 26-lane highway that it is now -- before it realises that widening it won't do any good?
Or will it realise that ultimately, congestion can only be solved by taking cars off the road?
Road authorities nationwide should remember that in addition to building roads, maximising the use of existing roads are also a part of the job. There needs to be more synergy with public transport authorities because the only sustainable way forward is limiting the number of private vehicles on the road -- and the only way that can be achieved is by offering a convenient and comfortable alternative to being stuck for hours on a jammed-up road, competing for space with trucks headed to factories and warehouses on the other end.
Perhaps, it is worth pointing out that other cities across the globe have gone one step further and begun to remove roads and highways in their bid to reduce congestion, as more and more people are becoming aware of how counter-intuitive building roads to ease traffic jams is.
In the early 90s, Boston began rerouting Interstate 93 -- once nicknamed "the Distressway" -- which ran through its city centre, swapping it for a boulevard with bike lanes and public transport options which reduced congestion by 62% and significantly improved the area's liveability. And earlier this year, the United States' senate actually considered a US$10 billion (336 billion baht) budget to remove highways.
The time is ripe for the government to realise that a chronic problem like traffic congestion will require a creative solution. Furthermore, given how long cars have been the primary mode of transport across Greater Bangkok, it will take a concerted effort from all stakeholders to prevent its rapid descent into becoming an unlivable tangle of tarmac, where massive roads and highways intended to connect far-away communities, end up dividing nearby locales.
Reimagining the city will undoubtedly require immense political will from decision-makers within the government.
Given how prominently construction tycoons feature in Thai politics, is this really too tall a task?
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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