Slow road through Bangkok

Traffic along the Ratchadaphisek Road (above), a major thoroughfare in Bangkok, on a typical afternoon.

Thailand - Taking the bus is an anonymous affair, unless you happen to be the transport minister in a capital notorious for its traffic jams. So it was when Mr Chadchart Sittipunt boarded a public bus recently in Bangkok to get to the airport.

The Thai minister reportedly set aside two hours for the journey. But he had to exit the bus halfway and hop into his chauffeured car in order not to miss his flight.

His experience, which made headlines, did not surprise Bangkok residents. For them, congestion is a daily affair.

Average speeds on city roads have been steadily falling in recent years, and dropped to an agonising 18kmh during morning peak hours last year.

Bangkok is twice the size of Singapore and hosts as many as 12 million people on a working day.

Critics of the ruling Puea Thai party pin the blame on its generous tax rebate for first-car owners, which added more than a million vehicles on the country's roads.

But Puea Thai has also put Mr Chadchart in charge of transport. The former associate professor of engineering from Chulalongkorn University is one of the few technocrats in a Cabinet where posts are allocated according to political affiliations and reshuffled every few months.

Since assuming the post last year, he has pushed for greater use of rail in Thailand, and overseen the development of a seven- year infrastructure plan that includes high-speed rail links. Mr Chadchart has also urged top officials to take the public bus at least once a week to find ways to improve the service.

His presence has brought a measure of hope to long-time city officials familiar with the political rivalry that scuttles solutions to traffic problems. While the central government is run by Puea Thai, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) is headed by the opposition Democrats.

BMA deputy governor Amorn Kitchawengkul, speaking to The Straits Times on Friday after a joint meeting with Transport Ministry officials, disclosed with amazement: "No one talked about politics!"

This amiable atmosphere bodes well because the scope for tighter cooperation is broad. A complex patchwork of jurisdictions controls Bangkok's transport networks. The BMA installs traffic lights in the city, but these are superseded during rush hour by traffic policemen, who in turn report to the central government.

Bangkok's skytrain network is run by a concessionaire of the BMA. The city's subway is run by a company majority-owned by the Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand.

The rail link to Suvarnabhumi airport is operated by a subsidiary of the State Railway Authority of Thailand. Although the three train networks intersect at some points, they all use different farecards and tokens.

In recent years, developers have cashed in on rail routes, building condominiums close to skytrain stations to cater to yuppies seeking a way out from the jams. There are plans to add more than 100km of mass transit track in Bangkok by 2019, but experts say it will take a lot more to get city folk to ditch their cars for public transport.

Bangkok's mass transit networks are still not easily accessible to two-thirds of its residents, estimates transport expert Chamlong Poboon from the National Institute of Development Administration.

This is aggravated by the lack of a proper hierarchy in its roads, with many long, narrow lanes branching out from primary roads. Many of these lanes are also dead ends, which serve individual houses fine but pose a problem once these houses are torn down for high-rise condos.

Over the past few decades, cheap cars, extensive road development and affordable landed housing in the suburbs have expanded the population living farther and farther away from the city centre.

These communities cannot be reached by rail, simply because they are so dispersed it is not financially feasible to build tracks to reach them, says Chulalongkorn University Associate Professor Saksith Chalermpong.

Technically, public buses can serve such residents. In the case of Bangkok, however, public bus services have been hurt by years of under-investment and have deteriorated to the extent that "they are not acceptable to the middle class", he adds.

The problem will not go away even with more rail lines built through Bangkok, because feeder services are still needed to draw commuters in, says Prof Saksith. So, while Thailand's rail-centric plans are a good start, they must be developed together with other forms of transport to really make a dent on Bangkok's congestion.

All the more reason for Transport Ministry officials to take the bus - just like Mr Chadchart.

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