Thailand: Traffic And Technology In Bangkok


Dr Helen Ross

The completion of Bangkok’s first modern mass transit system, Skytrain, and progress on an underground system, marks a turning point in Thailand’s addressing Bangkok’s vexed transport problems. But getting to this point has involved a series of transport proposals by different authorities, and controversies over lifts to the stations and fares. Why have Bangkok’s traffic problems grown so severe over recent decades, however, and proved so intractable? It is not just an absence of technology. The underlying reasons have some interesting connections with commerce and politics.

Bangkok first opened to commercial interaction with the west in the 1850s, and by the 1860s the King was lobbied by western expatriates to make life more comfortable for them by providing roads on which to drive carriages and ‘take the air’. This started a trend of replacing Bangkok’s ecologically reasonable adjustment to its floodplain location, using canals to provide transport, drainage, and a focus for social life, to one of competition with the environment. To meet increasing demand for road space, especially as the car became popular, bridges were built over canals, then many canals were filled in to create new roads. Drainage, water pollution and the viability of water transport were affected. Further, the roads were not well planned to cater for the volumes of traffic which soon developed. There is a weak ratio between road space and built-up space for instance, and the sois (lanes) between the major roads follow winding routes. Major roads built from Bangkok to the regions for military and development purposes triggered ‘ribbon development’ along the highways with inadequate lateral transport linkages. While technology or lack of it can be blamed for the traffic problems, Bangkok’s geography, political decision-making, and the behaviour of the populace are among several contributing factors. The ‘collaboration’ between business and bureaucracy in Thailand was noted by Craig Reynolds (Asian Analysis, January 2000). Although the city has competent planners, political support for the sustained planning necessary to improve Bangkok’s notorious environmental conditions is spasmodic and inconsistent. The city, by and large, has taken shape according to ad hoc decisions in which the furthering of business interests is clearly discernible. Thus individual buildings are erected according to the wishes of developers, with little attention to the cumulative effects on traffic. Loopholes in planning regulations assist developers greatly: for instance environmental impact assessment were circumvented for years by building units or hotel wings a few at a time.

This pattern has persisted both under dictatorships and democracy. The powerful military prime ministers of the past distributed largesse to their business connections, while fragile contemporary democratic coalitions are too unstable to maintain a sustained assault on Bangkok’s planning difficulties even if they so wished. The poor have also benefited to some extent from laissez-faire urban administration, since their activities have also escaped regulation. The result is severe distortions to land use and the built environment, which make long-term solutions to traffic and other problems difficult.

The irony is that individual businesses which were once happy to have their financial interests prevail over sensible urban management, now suffer collectively from the severe inefficiencies in traffic and infrastructure. Parts of the business sector have now emerged strongly in favour of democracy and improved governance.

WATCHPOINT: How much will public demands for improved political performance and curbs to corruption eventually be reflected in improved city planning?


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