Shutdown blazes a trail for cyclists

Shutdown blazes a trail for cyclists

Politics aside, the most amazing thing that happened when Bangkok shut down last Monday was the lovely lack of traffic.

Apart from long holiday weekends, hardly a day dawns when I don't end up sitting frustrated behind the wheel at some road intersection watching the countdown on the traffic-light timer for a third or fourth time in succession.

I will own up to driving my car to the office, located only a short hop from an expressway exit, that morning, but when I hit town in the late afternoon it was public transport all the way.

I couldn't help feeling a stab of envy when I spotted those cool cats on their trendy bicycles. Suddenly Bangkok had become a cyclist's paradise, and the cooler weather helped to complement that. This, I thought, is what Bangkok should be like all the time, not just during protests.

If anything, the protests have helped to prove that Bangkok people can survive without cars for a couple of days. So why not always?

London has made it difficult for cars to use the roadways by imposing a congestion fee for the past 10 years or so, which at the current exchange rate is equivalent to about 540 baht a day.

The catch is that Bangkok's public transportation system leaves much to be desired. We have the BTS system with two lines which during rush hours is approaching sardine proportions of crowdedness, if such a word exists. Then there is the equally modern but lesser used one-line MRT system, and, last but not least, the 16km BRT system which, according to my son, is the best-kept secret in town.

Then there's the Airport Link, an ambitious project that the public have still yet to discover. Slow on any other day, business on the Airport Link picked up tremendously during the Bangkok Shutdown, while the BTS was splitting at the seams.

If we could prove to the powers-that-be that the 200 trillion baht could be much better spent on expanding the public transport infrastructure in Bangkok rather than a high-speed train to nowhere, then perhaps Bangkok commuters would be happy to leave their cars at home, and our roads would not be so choked.

But I'll have you know that most of our powers-that-be would rather die than be seen dead on a bus or hanging to the straps of the BTS, so they would be the last to approve any kind of congestion fee in Bangkok.

Sigh...

So the next option is bicycles.

I'm really glad to see that the bicycle trend is really picking up now in the City of Angels. I remember plying the sois of Sukhumvit Road on my trusty Raleigh that weighed a ton. It was a bicycle that my mother used to ride to the market as a young housewife, and after years of storage, I brought it out, sandpapered away the rust, and painted it a ghastly shade of aquamarine.

I would ride it through the neighbouring sois after school, trailed from afar by a bicycle gang of boys _ from my school no less _ on their lightweight racing bicycles, to the horror of my parents.

There were fewer cars back then, and cycling was a much more pleasant leisure activity. Today, however, cycling is considered an environmentally friendly option for those who don't want to contribute to the traffic gnarls, and burn some calories at the same time. Rather than just ride a stationary bicycle in the gym, or go round and round the lake at the park, why not just ride to work?

It takes a bit of planning, and a sturdy backpack that can fit your change of clothes and shoes for the office, or a towel in case you want a quick shower. And, depending on the kind of bicycle you ride, you could just lock the wheels while you work, or just fold it and park it right next to your desk.

And if you get yourself the right gear _ helmet, eyewear and outfit, you could even make a fashion statement. The cyclists attending the protests have actually coordinated their look with patriotic red-white-and-blue details to show their spirit.

So while I hope the protests will bear positive fruition soon, I also hope that the lasting legacy of the Bangkok Shutdown will be a desire for a car-free city. We've already proved that it can be done.

It now depends on how committed we are.


Usnisa Sukhsvasti is the features editor of the Bangkok Post.

Usnisa Sukhsvasti

Feature Editor

M.R. Usnisa Sukhsvasti is Bangkok Post’s features editor, a teacher at Chulalongkorn University and a social worker.

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