Don't promote cycling until bike lanes are in place
Several government organisations have recently been very active in their attempts to come up with possible solutions to fix problems in both Bangkok's public transport system and those caused by private motorists.
Adul Narongsak, the deputy chief of the Bangkok Metropolitan Police, for instance, proposed discouraging the use of old cars in the capital, reasoning that vehicles older than 10 years are more prone to breakdowns which exacerbate the city's already terrible traffic situation.
A while back, the fast and furious No.8 briefly became a burning issue when it was voted as offering the worst service by any public bus in the metropolis by participants in a Facebook survey initiated by Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt.
Then there was the Land Transport Department's most recent pet project, a suggestion that "lady taxis" be provided to guarantee the safety of female commuters. Plus a proposal for the reorganisation of the city's commuter vans with restrictions placed on where they can park while waiting for passengers, etc, etc.
Speaking as a Bangkok resident, it's always good to hear new ideas about how we can remedy transportation-related headaches, even though no one can predict which of these measures, if any, will ultimately prove effective in easing our daily commute. But when we start discussing initiatives to improve traffic gridlock we should not overlook the contribution that alternative modes of transport, like the humble bicycle, can make to alleviating congestion.
The first obstacle to greater use of two-wheelers here is that we lack the most basic infrastructure for cyclists in the form of designated bike lanes. Admittedly not every road in the capital is wide enough to accommodate bike lanes which, currently, are only available on Ratchadamri, Sathon, Ratchadamnoen and Phra Arthit roads.
And because there are no proper bike lanes on the majority of Bangkok's streets, many of those who choose to pedal to work or to do other errands invade space set aside for pedestrians. While many cyclists find it both fast and convenient to ride on the footpaths, some hesitate to do so and only succumb to the temptation when they are feeling nervous about the possibility of collisions with motorists. Well-behaved cyclists who think riding on the footpath is impolite have no choice but to stick to the road, where they mingle with cars, trucks and motorbikes and may actually add to traffic congestion and increase the likelihood of accidents.
One of my co-workers once wrote an article on a bike-rental scheme. As research for that story, she and I decided to organise a short contest between a cyclist and a car owner in order to reach a conclusion about what the ideal mode of transport in the city might be. We agreed that I would use my car and she, along with two cyclist friends of hers, would use their two-wheelers. Starting from the same place, we would all head to the first agreed-upon destination, park our vehicles, meet up at a designated spot before heading back to our vehicles and rushing on to the second destination, and so on.
When some simple ground rules had been agreed on, the race began. It ended with my colleague reaching the finishing line a while before I did. But to do so she had taken several shortcuts by mounting the footpath. Cycling on the sidewalk is a nuisance not only for pedestrians, but also for food vendors who often share this crowded space _ and it certainly increases the risk of collisions.
From a pedestrian's perspective, zig-zagging through hordes of people on Bangkok's footpaths is hard enough already without the added complication of having to dodge oncoming cyclists; bicycles just make life harder. But we motorists are not eager to see more bicycles on the roads either. Not only does avoiding cyclists make our job harder, but their presence increases the possibility of accidents occurring. Simply put: cyclists need a safe space of their own.
I'm not a huge fan of cycling. I don't even own a bicycle. But I have nothing against the idea of cycling as an economical, environmentally-friendly mode of transportation. I just don't believe that Bangkok is ready to accommodate an upsurge in bicycle use _ at least not yet. As long as the infrastructure _ a proper network of bike lanes _ is inadequate or totally absent, I believe that two-wheelers should only be used for exercising and only in parks or other areas where they do not have to compete for space with motorists or pedestrians.
Unless sufficient infrastructure is put in place, bicycles will continue to be little more than playthings for the well-heeled and attempts to include cyclists in a radical overhaul of the whole transport system will be largely in vain because a vital piece of the jigsaw is missing.
Arusa Pisuthipan is the editor of Muse.
Deputy editor of the Life section
Arusa Pisuthipan is the deputy editor of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.