The difficulties of carfree life in Bangkok

I’d been in Bangkok half a dozen times since the 1990s and had come to know the city moderately well. Although it’s a large, pleasantly complicated place, with a rich traditional culture and a distinctive approach to modernization, Bangkok had never been one of my favorite cities: it was just too automobile-oriented. Considerable investment in new rail transit lines in recent years, however, encouraged a revisit, and I spent several days there in mid-January. In this post, I describe my reaction, after a bit of background history.

One key to understanding Bangkok is that in modern times it has always had a much weaker city-planning apparatus than some other Southeast Asian cities, notably Singapore. There has been a strong preference for doing as much as possible by private enterprise.

Thus, as Bangkok grew enormously between the years of the Vietnam War and the 1990s, it invested practically nothing in public transport. The expectation was that most urban transportation would be by automobile, or by privately-run bus companies. Automobile—and motorcycle—ownership grew to high levels, especially given Thailand’s status as a middle-income country. The city expanded horizontally and ended up covering an enormous area, something like 3000 sq km. Thai cultural preference for single-family houses was a factor here. (A complication is that Bangkok’s large Sino-Thai population—at least according to a widely believed stereotype—has traditionally preferred living at greater density.) An elaborate network of mostly elevated expressways was built by the Expressway Authority of Thailand, some in partnership with private enterprise, but, as in so many places, limited-access roads could not come close to keeping up with demand, and traffic jams and high levels of air pollution became features of Bangkok life. Furthermore, because motorcycles with two-stroke engines made up such a large percentage of vehicles, noise levels on Bangkok’s major urban roads were among the highest in the world.

Sirat Expressway, which runs in part through many of Bangkok’s older neighborhoods along the Chao Phraya River. There are several of these elevated expressways, which of course degrade the landscape for people living nearby. They also complicate life for pedestrians trying to cross speedy traffic at entrances at exits.

The widespread realization that road-building alone could not solve Bangkok’s mobility problems led to a decision in the 1980s to add rail transit. The early history of Bangkok’s modern rail transit lines, however, is not pretty. The government preferred to pass on responsibility to private enterprise, at least in part (the State Railway was involved too). The result was two separate failures. The Lavalin Sky Train and the Bangkok Elevated Road and Train System (the “Hopewell project”) both went bankrupt. The latter bankruptcy left Bangkok with a legacy of thousands of concrete columns, which became one of the most distinctive features of its urban landscape. Finally, an elevated railroad run by the Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS) opened in 1999. It was joined by a subway system operated by the Bangkok Expressway and Metro Public Company Limited (MRT) in 2004 and the elevated Airport Rail Link (run by the State Railway) in 2010.

Map of central Bangkok and vicinity showing rail rapid transit lines, pedestrian facilities, roads, and waterways. “U/C” = under construction. Older, long-standing commuter rail routes on 1-meter gauge track are omitted. See text for comments on the diverse pedestrian facilities. Base GIS data from the BBBike.org and MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap, modified somewhat.

The first two systems have both been extended since their debut, and further extensions are under construction, mostly elevated. Except for a stretch through Rattanakosin, the oldest part of Bangkok, even the MRT subway has shifted to building only elevated lines. Additional rail lines are planned, including monorail lines to be operated by two additional companies.

The MRT Blue Line under construction west of the Tao Poon station. Many middle- and upper-class neighborhoods in Bangkok consist, like this area, of somewhat isolated tall apartment buildings inserted among generally lower, older buildings. The city’s residential districts have a lower population density than the presence of skyscraper apartment blocks would lead one to expect.

The preference for passing as much rail building as possible onto private firms has had consequences. Fares, for example, are pretty high considering that Thailand is not a rich country. You pay by distance on Bangkok’s urban rail system, and travel between the ends of lines can cost nearly $2. Furthermore, while the rail transit lines seem to form a kind of network, there are no free transfers between routes run by different companies or to the privately run bus companies—or, of course, to the motorcycle taxis that often cover a journey’s “last mile.” As a result, it can cost several dollars to cross the city, more than you’d have to pay in New York or Paris. This must have some effect on ridership, which is less than a million in an urban area of perhaps 15,000,000. Bangkok has only to a limited degree become a transit-oriented place.

The peculiar geography of the elevated/subway dichotomy in Bangkok is also connected with Bangkok’s use of private firms to build its rail lines. BTS was the first successful rail-building firm, and it naturally got to build in the busiest, most important places, which happened to be the most pedestrian-oriented parts of the new central business district: along Sukhumvit and Silom Roads, for example, and around the Siam Square shopping malls. The BTS always aimed to build what it called (in English) a “Skytrain”; all its lines are elevated. The MRT concession called for a subway line, and the MRT ended up building for the most part in places where, in many cities, subways would have seemed less necessary: major arterials that have only a modest amount of pedestrian-oriented commerce. It needs to be said that the elevated railroads do not seem to discourage pedestrian traffic very much. The modern trains running on welded rails make very little noise—far less noise than the road traffic—and the quite massive concrete elevated structures in a generally hot city actually may provide a bit of welcome shade.

The Asok station on the BTS elevated Sukhumvit Line, which abuts one of Bangkok’s many shopping malls . Note the overhead walkways, the traffic, and the pedestrians crossing the street at left.

Despite the city’s autocentric development history, Bangkok seems at first sight to be a “vibrant” place with a healthy pedestrian life. The major commercial streets in the new CBD, as well as in older neighborhoods along the Chao Phraya River like Chinatown and Banglamphu are full of people, modest shops, and street vendors.

Pedestrians maneuver among street vendors in Bangkok’s Chinatown.

Side streets in these parts of the city are often pleasantly crowded too, and so are many commercial centers in the suburbs.

The very substantial fly in the ointment is that it’s so hard to cross streets. Drivers simply won’t yield to pedestrians, even when pedestrians have a green light and drivers are making a turn on a red. There is also an issue when motor traffic emerges from side streets or driveways. Here too drivers expect that sidewalk users will yield. I haven’t been able to locate statistics for Bangkok alone, but it’s telling that Thailand has the world’s second highest rate of automobile fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants.

Of course, casual automobile aggressiveness is a problem throughout the Third World, and it’s not unknown in developed countries (like the United States!), especially in places where there are few pedestrians. But the problem seems most acute in certain large urban areas of the Third World. There are parts of some cities (Delhi and Jakarta, for example) where pedestrians have practically been intimidated out of existence. Bangkok has lots of pedestrians, which makes the awkwardness of pedestrian-motor vehicle interaction all the more problematic.

The marginalization of pedestrians in much of the Third World is no doubt in part a function of the association of automobile ownership in poorer countries with wealth and a certain tendency in these countries for wealth to come with automatic privileges. There is also the issue that widespread automobile ownership is a fairly recent phenomenon and that driving skills are pretty low. The lack of enforcement of the traffic rules in many places is another factor. Then there is the related (and extremely complicated) issue that “rule of law” does not seem to come naturally in certain non-Western countries.

It needs to be said that these things can change. Russian and Italian cities were precarious places for pedestrians not so many years ago. Some combination of enforcement and culture change has made them much more pedestrian-friendly. In Moscow and Rome drivers often stop when pedestrians are approaching crosswalks. In Bangkok and many other Third World cities crosswalks are meaningless and even traffic lights don’t prevent drivers from feeling they have the right of way.

Have things gotten better in Bangkok? They probably have. Red lights are more likely to be obeyed than they were in the 1990s. The ratio of cars to motorcycles seems to have increased. This may have unfortunate consequences in some ways, but on the whole this is a good thing for pedestrians, since motorcycles are noisier and more polluting than cars and since motorcycle riders are far more likely than car drivers to pay no attention to traffic rules (for example, to ride on sidewalks when there’s a traffic jam). Furthermore, government-mandated reductions of lead in gasoline and a shift from two-stroke to four-stroke engines in motorcycles have marginally reduced road noise and air pollution. And, while I haven’t been able to locate figures, many people in Bangkok believe that the growth in rail transit lines has reduced the number of vehicles on the roads despite the continued rise in automobile ownership.

The government, however, has done little for pedestrians. Aware that there’s an issue here, the authorities have cracked down somewhat on sidewalk vendors, who, up to a certain point, actually make sidewalks more interesting for pedestrians, but, so far as I can see, they’ve done nothing to make street crossings less precarious, which is where the real problem lies. Punishing the poor is easier for many governments than disciplining the relatively wealthy (Thailand’s poisonous class-based politics may exacerbate this tendency).

In any case, Bangkok, unlike, say, Singapore or Hong Kong, has made little effort to build walkways of any sort. The “pedestrian facilities” that appear in the OpenStreetMap data base (see map above) consist mostly of paths in Bangkok’s few parks (which can be very crowded);

Runners and walking pedestrians in Lumphini Park, Bangkok.

alleys in the older parts of the city near the Chao Phraya River and footpaths in the anomalous (and still rural) Phrapradaeng Peninsula; overhead crossings over major streets (which almost never have escalators or elevators); a single walkway under the elevated railway in what has become Bangkok’s most important modern shopping district;

The overhead walkway that runs between the Chit Lom and Siam stations under the BTS elevated railroad, Bangkok.

and (maybe most distinctive) a certain number of paths along remaining canals, which, for the most part, have been there for a long time and are not really very usable for long-distance walking. Among other problems, these paths often feel rather private, are discontinuous, and can bring one too close to badly polluted waterways. However, as the sign in this photo suggests, the canals, with a bit of improvement, could become distinctively Bangkokian pedestrian corridors.

An advertisement from a local council showing how the path along one of Bangkok’s many canals might be transformed into a public walkway.

A few canal walkways have been renovated seriously. One is the path (which even contains a lane for bicycles) between Lumphini and Banjakitti Parks, the central city’s two largest public open spaces.

The walkway with a bicycle lane northeast of Lumphini Park, Bangkok. It includes two bridges over highways, which must present a problem for cyclists. Walkways like this are very rare in central Bangkok.

The possibilities of the bicycle, however, have generally been neglected. The government has painted a few bicycle lanes here and there and has built a serious if somewhat useless bicycle track around Suvarnabhumi Airport. It’s also allowed a bikeshare program to be set up. But bicycling just isn’t safe enough to seem practical to most people, and there are few bicycles on Bangkok’s streets.

Bangkok remains a big, serious city that is enormously likeable in many ways, but it remains an extraordinarily difficult place for anyone who wants to walk more than a short distance.

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