Bangkok bikers are taking back the streets

Heavy traffic in the Thai city makes bicycle commuting more convenient, but also dangerous

By Thanyarat Doksone

Published October 10, 2013 12:56PM (EDT)

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's transport minister got some advice from his mother when she learned he was going to bike the chaotic streets of Bangkok to open a bicycle campaign: "Bring your ID card. In case you get run over, they can contact home."

Bicycling has long been almost nonexistent in this city of 10 million, where those who dare to pedal must cope with unfriendly road designs, crumbling pavement, sweltering heat and growing hordes of cars, buses and motorcycles.

"It is quite dangerous," agreed the minister, Chadchart Sittipunt, who survived the ride and bikes in quieter realms of the city on weekends. He said most drivers "don't feel that bicycles belong to the road. The cars do not feel that we are part of them."

Yet bicycling is making early signs of a comeback. There has been some government encouragement, including a new project that allows people to borrow city-owned bikes from 50 stations scattered across the central business district. But Bangkok's traffic failures may be the greatest incentive: When cars are at a rush-hour standstill, bicycles are sometimes the only vehicles capable of moving.

"It's faster to go around on a bike in Bangkok. I used to spend 40 minutes driving to work. Now from home to my office, it takes about 20 to 25 minutes on a bike ride," said Tomorn Sookprecha, a magazine editor who started commuting in the city by bicycle two years ago. "This is because when you drive, you have to take longer routes and face even more traffic."

It's a bargain that comes with a price. Bicyclists pedal amid hot exhaust fumes and engine noise on shadeless streets, forced by cars and legions of motorbikes to ride close to the curb, bumping over potholes and drainage lids and watching out for swinging car doors. A red light gives cyclists a chance to wipe a sweat and take a break, but as soon as it turns green they start pumping, hoping to outrun the rumbling herd of automobiles behind them.

Bangkok has flat terrain that would be perfect for bicyclists, but the existing road system was not built with them in mind. Some roads do not have functional pavement, let alone bike lanes. There are officially 200 kilometers (124 miles) of bike lanes across this Southeast Asian metropolis, but not only are they a discontinuous and faded mish-mash of paths, their purpose is largely unknown to Bangkok's motorists, street vendors and pedestrians.

Even the transport minister was unaware that his own upscale neighborhood has a bike lane.

"No, you can't ride there. It must be just for gimmick," Chadchart said.

He said bicyclists number "in the thousands" in Bangkok — numbers dwarfed by the 100,000 trips by boat, 200,000 by subway, 600,000 by elevated rail, 3 million by bus and millions by car and motorbike made each day in the city.

The number of cars on Bangkok roads is growing — nearly 580,000 were added last year alone, according to the Department of Land Transport. The central Thai government had a hand in much of that growth: About 245,000 of those vehicles who purchased by first-time car buyers who each received a 100,000 baht ($3,200) tax rebate.

The gridlock those cars create inspires people to at least think about bicycling, but it also increases the danger.

"In other countries, as soon as a pedestrian steps on a crosswalk, the cars stop and wait for them. Bangkok is never like that," said Tomorn, the magazine editor. He switched from a small foldable bike to a full-size model after he felt "threatened by cars" on smaller wheels.

Still, there are signs that Thais are bicycling in greater numbers. Growing groups of riders ride in the city at night and on the weekends, and dozens of bicycle and bike-accessory shops have opened across town in recent years. Last month, nearly 20,000 bicycle riders showed up at city's annual "car-free day" event, compared to about 2,000 six years ago and only 150 in 2005.

Advocacy groups like Bangkok Bicycle Campaign have made efforts to promote cycling in Bangkok and to ensure that bike lanes are respected. They started working with police to install traffic poles to segregate bikes from cars on a scenic road not far from the Grand Palace, and they alert authorities every time a car is parked on the bike lane.

"People often start off by riding at nighttime or going on a trip in a big group, but once they know how to get around safely, they are confident to use the bike in daily life," said Nonlany Ungwiwatkul, the campaign's founder.

Panit Pujinda, an assistant professor at Chulalongkorn University's department of urban and regional planning, said bicycling could become "a jigsaw-puzzle piece" that helps complete Bangkok's transportation picture. "People find it inconvenient to access the public transport system, so they take motorcycles or taxis or drive. Biking can replace that," he said.

For a few at least, it already has.

"When my friends complained about traffic, I felt very lucky that I bike to work. It liberates me from traffic hassle." said Narawan Pongpimai, a graphic designer who has a 30-minute commute in a heavily congested area in the north side of town. "Even though I get wet during the rainy season, it's still better than waiting in vain for the bus, getting turned down by cab drivers, or spending hours in traffic jams."

Thanyarat Doksone

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