3 Ways to Solve Bangkok’s Traffic Problem

Today Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, in his bid to connect to ordinary people and showcase his pragmatic thinking, hopped on the skytrain for an “inspection trip”. Lamenting the state of traffic in Bangkok, he ordered officials to alleviate congestion in the city within three months.

His intention is admirable. After all, the capital’s traffic is ridiculous. Commuters spend a significant chunk of their lifetime cursing traffic jams and staring at bright pink taxis, and just a little bit of rain is enough to paralyse the city’s roads. If Prayut can solve Bangkok’s traffic problems within that timeframe, he will win the undying love of Bangkokians and will deserve to be prime minister for life. But the overwhelming odds are that he will not succeed where numerous politicians have failed. Thaksin Shinawatra, as deputy prime minister, declared that he would eliminate congestion in Bangkok in six months; conveniently, he seemed to gain single-issue amnesia and never mentioned the pledge again after the one year mark.

But is there a way to resolve the traffic issue? There must be. I know little to nothing about traffic engineering and transportation systems, but here are my two satangs on three ways to alleviate Bangkok’s traffic woes. These ideas are intended not as “quick fixes”, but instead as creative proposals for how to tackle the underlying causes of why Bangkok’s traffic is so terrible.

1. More public transportation.

The most obvious fix is to increase public transport in Bangkok. The current two lines of the Bangkok Skytrain (BTS) and two subway (MRT) lines do not do justice at all to the sprawling metropolis that Bangkok has become, and the majority of people have no choice but to commute by car. The result, of course, is Bangkok’s gridlock. Instead of transit-oriented development, we need development-oriented transit.

Thankfully, this is something that the government has already been working on! The skytrain is due to undergo dramatic expansion in the next few years, and while this seems like an eternity for most of us who live in Bangkok’s mass transit-less suburbs, it will, eventually, come (although with a couple years added to the predicted finish date because, after all, this is Thailand). Take a look at the projected map of what Bangkok’s public transport network will look like when all is said and done.

It is glorious, it is beautiful, it is ideal and it almost feels like a pipe dream. Hopefully, for once, Thailand will follow through and make it happen. It will probably require the collective effort of the entire nation to sit down and pray to every single deity there is that neither corruption nor official incompetence (the two great nemeses of the Thai state) will sink these projects or delay them until the next century.

What else can be done? Biking could be encouraged, but this is unlikely to happen, due to Bangkok’s ungodly heat, the distance between places in this massive city and the fact that Bangkok’s roads were seriously not built for biking. And buses? Yes, but they need to be improved; the fact that one of Southeast Asia’s most developed cities still rely on un-air conditioned trains that look like they could have been on the road three decades ago is quite sad. The key, however, will remain Bangkok’s trains.

2. Encourage companies to adopt flexible hours.

A quick analysis of why Bangkok’s rush hour is so bad would go like this: everyone is trying to get to work in the morning, and trying to get home in the evening. Needless to say, when the entire city is on the move at the same time, no one gets anywhere. So how do we make rush hour better? By getting less people to join the crowd. A change in corporate human resources strategy might be able to reduce congestion.

The most extreme way to go about with this is to switch to a results-only work environment, where employees are 100% accountable and 100% autonomous and are paid not for the hours they work but for the results they produce. There’s no need for an employee to come to the office if they can work at home and still get their work done; it doesn’t matter that they be at the desk from 9 to 5 as long as they can get their work done. If they want to have meetings, they can do it through a call; only if more collaboration is needed do they need to come to the office.

A less drastic method is to encourage the use of flexitime, where workers can alter their workday start and finish times (to fit with their daily schedules, and to avoid rush hour). In this day and age where the internet reigns supreme and people come to the office just to log into their work email, it makes sense for them just to telecommute. If more companies were to switch to these models, rush hour would be less horrible for those who still must commute at set times.

Can it happen? Not without a massive paradigm shift in corporate Thailand’s thinking. But it shouldn’t be inconceivable. Some will fear that this will mean no work gets done, but the reverse is most likely true: research has shown that an increase in autonomy leads to increased productivity, not less. If the government decides to encourage a general shift to results-only work environments and adoption of flexitime, it could offer rewards to companies that make the move and commission research that show its benefits. Thailand will be more economically productive, its people will be happier, and there will be less cars on the road in the morning and evenings. Everyone wins.

3. Develop other cities. 

Geographer Mark Jefferson proposed the ‘law of the primate city’ in 1939, where he defined a primate city as being “at least twice as large as the next largest city and more than twice as significant”. By this definition, Bangkok is the world’s most extreme example of a primate city; by some counts it is around 50 times bigger than Thailand’s next largest city. In no other country is there such massive concentration of political and economic power in one city with so few rivals. The upside is that Bangkok has become a glittering metropolis fit to serve as the nation’s capital. The downside is that everyone in the country has to move here. With opportunities that no other provincial centre in Thailand can hope to match, there is no choice for many but to live in Bangkok. It’s unsurprising that traffic is so bad with so many people.

Chiang Mai’s skyline is incomparable to Bangkok’s

This means that one way to alleviate Bangkok’s traffic is to draw people out. Currently, this is not feasible; even if someone wanted to switch from working in Bangkok to go and do a corporate job in Chiang Mai, they would most likely be unable to. As such, the government needs to take action to develop other economic powerhouses. A good idea would be to do so in each of the country’s regions: Nakhon Ratchasima in the northeast, Chiang Mai in the north, Nakhon Sri Thammarat in the south and so on. What would such development entail? They should include developing service and financial hubs, building better infrastructure and linkages between the cities, and using those cities to pursue greater decentralisation from Bangkok as they serve as regional administrative centres. This would give people the option to be able to pursue opportunities in other cities as well as Bangkok. The government can produce economic incentives for firms to relocate to these cities or to open new branches there.

Not everyone wants to live in Bangkok. A few hate the concrete jungle, others dislike its sprawling size, and many simply want a place that is more peaceful and less hectic. It’s highly possible that given the choice, many people would move out. And there are more benefits than just less congestion in Bangkok. Growth would become more inclusive and be spread across the country, which would contribute to poverty reduction and narrowing inequality levels as well.

* * *

Are these ideas possible? More public transportation in Bangkok is already happening, but that doesn’t mean that we should rule out more imaginative options that will both reduce congestion and yield dividends in happiness, economic development and sustainability. More buses to train stations, as the prime minister proposed, is a good idea, but let’s not be afraid of thinking big and challenging the status quo.

Categories Writing

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