Cycling should not only be a fad for the rich
Walking into the "A Day Bike Fest 2014" at Makkasan Airport Rail Link station last week, I didn't really want to believe that Bangkok finally has its own bicycle festival, not to mention other bike expos, focusing on selling bicycles, spare parts, and accessories, almost every month in the capital and some other big cities.
It's obvious that this bike fest in particular has attracted a crowd of young, trendy cyclists and high-end potential customers. It seems Bangkok has suddenly become a paradise for cyclists, or probably shoppers!
Last year, the domestic bicycle industry boasted five billion baht in revenue and the industry has continued to prosper. The Tourism Authority of Thailand was also earning credit for 20% growth in domestic tourism, with the number of cycling tourists surging to 320,000.
What is extraordinary is the drastic increase of the peloton on the annual "car-free day". From a few thousand in the past five years, the number of cyclists reached 30,000 this year.
On the surface, the number seems to suggest bicycles have become a commuting option in the capital. But to me, they have become more of a fashion statement for a large number of middle-class Bangkokians. It hardly reflects the real growth of cycling commuters in the capital. It can be said cycling has become more or less haute couture while we don't really have street fashion.
Although market research by the domestic bicycle industry found about 60% of those using a locally- or China-made bicycle costing between 1,000 and 3,000 baht, which are used by those aunties, housewives, or security guards in their everyday lives, the five billion baht in revenue seems to come from sales of imported high-end bicycles. Some come from the Netherlands; hand-made ones come from Japan.
A high-end bicycle costs between 100,000 baht to 500,000 baht while a leather pannier costs 10,000, a few more thousand for lights, and probably 10,000 for a pair of cycling shoes. In an extreme case, a high-end cyclist could spend half a million for a bicycle kit which means it needs just 10,000 high-end cyclists to make the industry easily earn that five billion baht last year.
But do these people ride their bicycles on the streets of Bangkok which are most of the time bumpy, and filled with holes and cracks? Few, if any, dare to ride their expensive bicycles or risk their even more valuable lives on the city roads.
It has reached the point where we have a largely mature bicycle market that hasn't resulted in the improvement of cycling infrastructure. Bangkok governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra has had his part in making cycling a hot trend, when he made a promise during the election campaign to make Bangkok a cycling friendly city.
But he made little progress. There's no infrastructure in the city that facilitates cycling commuters; be it bike lanes, safe parking spaces, or connecting paths between public buses, boats and trains. I'm not sure if bicycles are really welcomed at public services. At some BTS stations, my folding bike and I were not allowed to use the lift that was meant only for the elderly, commuters in wheelchairs and pregnant women.
Some may be thrilled that we have the Suvarnabhumi cycling track or the so-called green track − which has not only become an attraction but also been voted as one of the best cycling tracks in the world − invested in by Airports of Thailand. (Well, it's clear that the Dutch and the Danes don't need such cycling tracks because bikes are their way of life.)
An expert told me that a city with less than a 2% cycling population (real cyclists, not hobby riders) is not a healthy one. With our official population of about six million in Bangkok − but it's believed we actually have about 15 million (10 in the capital and another five in suburban areas) − we cannot say if we have up to 200,000 cycling commuters.
I reckon we have more than 200,000 bicycles (many are high end) in Bangkok and more than 1.2 million in the whole country, but how many cyclists dare to pedal their delicate bikes on bumpy roads or, without bike infrastructure, put themselves at risk of being run over by reckless motorists?
I wish we could buy less expensive bicycles and ride them on the road every day, rather than packing them in the boots of our cars and driving all the way to the airport to ride on that green cycling track for the weekends. But before we achieve that, we need to make our roads safe for two-wheelers.
I only hope that PM Prayut Chan-o-cha's order to make bicycles a national agenda item will make a difference.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is an assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.