These streets were made for walkin' -- or they soon will be
As part of a broader plan to gentrify the Thai capital and upgrade Bangkok's walking streets to meet the standards maintained by key cities around the world, three roads have been selected for a new urban design project called "GoodWalk".
They are Thong Lor-Ekamai -- the playground of rich young Thais and two popular night spots branching off Sukhumvit Road -- Ari-Pradiphat and Klong San.
Chulalongkorn University's Urban Design and Development Centre (UDDC) is responsible for the redesign.
The centre has been entrusted with several urban redesign projects, including some focused on improving the landscape along parts of the Chao Phraya River.
The UDDC on June 14 held a public forum to present its final research on potential walking streets in Bangkok at LHONG 1919 -- a group of reclaimed warehouses reinvented as an art space replete with co-working areas, eateries and design shops -- in Klong San district.
The results came from a study of walkable roads in 50 districts across the city that started in 2015. The UDDC made its assessment and proposed three streets as having the highest potential.
"Now it's up to the public and state agencies on how much they agree with the UDDC. Urban design isn't something state organisations can accomplish on their own, without the cooperation of the public," UDDC director Niramol Kulsombat said at the forum.
The project is partly aimed at promoting the improved physical and mental health of Bangkok's residents.
Another objective is to rekindle the local economy by boosting sales of shops along the routes, she said.
To find out which streets had the most potential, the UDDC applied several criteria including the available shopping facilities, educational institutes, entertainment venues and/or public parks, said Adisak Guntamuenglee, assistant director of the UDDC, in his capacity as manager of the GoodWalk project.
Thong Lor-Ekkamai was found to be a prime location because there are large number of modern and chic hangouts, eateries and shopping places, which can attract people to come and visit both day and night.
However, the study found the area has one significant drawback: a lack of walkable links between Soi Thong Lor and Soi Ekamai. Only Soi Thong Lor 10, a sub-alley, would seem to be large enough to serve as a convenient connection point between the two.
Another drawback is that most visitors drive there and need somewhere to park before starting to walk around. But critics say there are already too many cars and street vendors obstructing the walking space, despite a recent crackdown on food stalls that has seen many leave the area.
Nonetheless, the area has a huge advantage in the form of its ease of access to public transport. The Sukhumvit Road entrances to Thong Lor and Ekamai both lead directly to BTS Skytrain stations.
There are also Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA) bus services and a Klong Saen Saep boat service, meaning visitors can hop on a boat and enjoy a canal ride.
The UDDC proposed building more links between the two streets, imposing traffic regulations to deter visitors from bringing their cars while at the same time giving priority to pedestrians, and promoting and supporting development of more public space there, Mr Adisak said.
Ari-Pradiphat, meanwhile, is considered more of a mixed-use zone inhabited by well-to-do families who have owned land in the area for a long time, workers who have migrated there, white collar workers, and visiting diners and partygoers.
"This area shares some similar problems with those of Thong Lor-Ekamai including insufficient connections between the two main alleys, and pavements being unsuitable for walking on," said Mr Adisak. "Despite having numerous shops and places to see and stop by during a walk, there isn't even any pavement at some points."
Similar improvements have been suggested along with more recreational activities.
The Klong San area, on the other hand, is widely hailed as a culture-based tourism zone of Bangkok. It has a vast number of historic sites, major public parks and vantage points to observe scenic vistas of the Chao Phraya.
A main design strategy picked for this area is to build more links to facilitate longer walks. Key activity sites will be linked to a walking-route network.
Apart from proposing further land-use development, the study found that Thais actually enjoy walking. Ms Niramol said the UDDC study suggests some commonly held beliefs about Thai people are incorrect.
"It's not true to say that Bangkokians don't like to take long walks in the city," she said.
The study found that most people in the capital are willing to walk for up to 800 metres, or about 10 minutes, at a time for recreational purposes.
"That is equivalent to the walking habits of the people in Japan and the United States, and even better than Hong Kong locals' average walking distance of 600 metres," she said.
What holds people back is the hot and steamy weather, and the prevalence of potholes, the study found.
It also revealed that the local development budget has largely gone on improving road traffic and aiding motorists.
In fact, some 89% of Bangkok's budget for road development has gone to constructing and repairing roads for car users. Only 11% was assigned to improve pavements, the study claimed. Ms Niramol said Bangkok's road and urban development policy is jeopardising the health, finances and family life of its residents.
"The urban development policy for Bangkok makes people poor, fat and single," she said.
Citing figures published by the National Statistical Office in 2012, she said Bangkok residents on average spend about 20% of their earnings on travel costs.
The percentage of the population ranked overweight rose from 35% in 2004 to 44.5% in 2009, while people's living environment, both at home and at work, was blamed for deterring people from maintaining an active lifestyle.
"As for Bangkok making many people single, driving a car is mainly to blame for limiting their chances of meeting and interacting with new people out there on the streets," she said.