The peril on Thai pavements
SPECIAL REPORT: Despite crackdowns, riders continue to zip along Bangkok's footpaths
A video clip of a Japanese woman blocking motorcycles from riding on the pavement has once again reminded society about the state of Thailand's shared public spaces.
On Thursday last week, footage of Megumi Morimoto -- a 55-year-old senior student at Kasetsart University, Chalerm Phrakiat campus in Sakhon Nakhon -- blocking motorcycles from riding on the pavement went viral.
"I've been doing this for over five years because as a pedestrian, I don't feel safe walking in Bangkok," she told the Manager, a local news site.
"Motorcycle riders hijack the city's pavements at the expense of pedestrians. They don't know that they're endangering others, nor do they care that they are damaging public property."
Over the past five years, Ms Morimoto said she has blocked more than 100 errant drivers from riding on the pavement. She has also been attacked at least four times.
"I would urge [the riders] to obey the law, but believe it or not, some of them don't even know the traffic law," Ms Morimoto said.
"They would kick and hit me, but I always fight back -- I know Aikido."
Not only does Ms Morimoto's campaign show how the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration's (BMA) efforts have failed to stop people from riding on the city's pavements, it also shows how Thailand still has a problem with law enforcement and misplaced compassion towards wrongdoers.
Shortly after the video went viral, the BMA immediately ordered local police to arrest motorcycle taxi riders who were parked on footpaths in Bang Kapi.
"After we ordered officials to monitor the situation, we moved in to arrest scores of motorcycle taxi riders," deputy Bangkok governor, Sakoltee Phattiyakul told the Bangkok Post.
The deputy governor also said enforcement remains an issue, and the penalties aren't enough to deter people from riding on the pavement.
In July last year, the BMA doubled the fine for riding on the pavement from 500 baht to 1,000 baht, after a litany of public complaints and reports of accidents as motorcyclists ran into people on the footpaths.
After a year, the BMA decided the fine was not enough to deter offenders. As a result, it decided in August this year to double the fine again to 2,000 baht. BMA also said offenders who fail to pay their fines in time will have their vehicles seized and stored at the local district.
If the vehicles are not claimed within 15 days and the fines remain unpaid, the BMA will confiscate the vehicles and send the cases for prosecution.
In the 14-month period since the fine was first increased, the BMA managed to arrest and fine 21,755 riders -- making some 12.59 million baht for the city's coffers.
Mr Sakoltee said officials will regularly inspect areas where violations are reported regularly, including Wang Thonglang, Chatuchak, Huai Khwang, Pomprap Sattruphai, Bang Khen, Bang Kapi, Bueng Kum and Lat Phrao districts.
Despite the fines collected, the deputy governor admitted the problem is far from solved.
"We can still see motorcycles riding on the pavement despite the fines," said Mr Sakoltee. "Our officials should be working harder."
A municipal police source, who asked not to be named, said the traffic police would often ask BMA officials to turn a blind eye to 500 motorcycle taxi stands which occupy pavements across Bangkok's 50 districts.
"Many of these riders set up their queues and parking spaces on the road, but they were asked by the police to move their stands onto the pavement," the source said.
"This double standard undermines the credibility of BMA's campaign."
Mr Sakoltee said the BMA is asking the BTS Skytrain operator to set aside a small space beneath its stations to accommodate motorcycle taxi stands.
For its part, Mr Sakoltee said the BMA will also talk to its private partners about allocating some space on their lots to house the stands.
So far, only the Nation Multimedia Group has agreed to allow BMA to take up some of its space for the motorcycle taxi stands.
"We are also talking to several other private companies," said Mr Sakoltee on Friday.
"By the end of next month, we aim to move 20 out of the 500 stands off the footpath in a month's time."
There are plenty of laws in place to punish motorcycle drivers who ride on the pavement. Section 43 (7) of the 1979 Land Traffic Act, for instance, sets the fine for this offence at between 400-1,000 baht. Section 19 (2) of the 1992 Public Health Act also deals with the problem, setting the maximum fine at 5,000 baht for each violation.
BMA officials had previously mulled raising the fine from 5,000 baht as a last resort.
In addition, Section 390 of the Criminal Code could also be used to prosecute motorcyclists who cause accidents and injuries.
Violating the code may result in a fine of up to 10,000 baht, one-month imprisonment or both.
These laws are rarely enforced due to manpower shortages. However, Mr Sakoltee admitted, the attitude of officers on the ground also determine the campaign's success.
"Municipal police officers have let offenders off the hook because they believe the 2,000-baht fine is too high," said the deputy governor.
"I told them I can understand their compassion, but it is time for us to get tough."
Besides the obvious safety risk to pedestrians, riding on the pavement risks damaging the curb, which are designed to withstand weights of up to 200 kilogrammes, said the director of BMA's Public Works Department, Sakchai Boonma.
Vasin Sakulnont, a 39-year-old messenger, was arrested on Aug 1, the day BMA's new penalty for pavement riding came into effect.
"It was only for a few metres to the main soi," said Mr Vasin told the Bangkok Post.
"The traffic around Bangkok is so bad that sometimes couriers, motorcycle taxi riders, and messengers have no other choice but to take a shortcut."
While Mr Vasin admitted that he violated traffic law, he suggested the BMA should work harder to educate the public because there are many people who are still unaware that riding on the pavement is illegal.
Urai Phewnuan, a motorcycle taxi rider in Chatuchak district, backed that stance and asked for some understanding.
"We don't want to ride on the pavement, and we prefer to ride at normal speeds on normal roads," he said.
"However, many of our passengers are office workers who aren't shy to press us to ride on the pavement to save time."
Despite its limited success, the BMA's campaign has been welcomed by Bangkok's pedestrians.
But many remain doubtful of its chances in succeeding in driving motorcycles off the pavement.
Businessman Athiwat Sachadamrongrit said the high fine will gradually deter people from taking a shortcut at the expense of pedestrians.
"Of course, there will be a bunch of bad apples who would refuse to comply," he said.
"But the campaign effectively establishes the pavement as a pedestrian-only zone.
"Eventually people will realise that riding on the pavement is not an acceptable thing to do."
Office worker Thanchanok Kulima said fair law enforcement is key to the campaign's success.
"These riders would even sound their horns to force pedestrians to make way for them, as if the pavement is their own," he said.
"These irresponsible riders are giving all of the other riders a bad reputation."