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Story Publication logo August 14, 2012

Thailand: The (Real) Cost of Cars in Bangkok

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In the 1930s it was called the "Venice of the East." Hundreds of canals used to cut through Bangkok...

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An endless traffic jam in Khlong Toei, Bangkok. Public infrastructure has been slow to accommodate the city's rapid growth. Image by Adam Janofsky. Thailand, 2012.

When one thinks of Bangkok, it's easy to picture ornate temples, bustling markets, and spicy food. But ever since this capital's rapid urbanization started in the 1980s, one ever-present and inescapable truth not found in travel brochures is traffic.

In central Khlong Toei, known for being one of Bangkok's largest slums, a sea of cars and trucks idle motionlessly on four different highway-sized roads that intersect and overlap one another. The only movement comes from motorcycles inching between cars or hopping the curbs onto narrow, pedestrian-filled sidewalks.

It's not rush hour yet but the sound of car horns is all one can hear.

The number of vehicles in this city has skyrocketed over the years, from just 600,000 in 1980 to 6.8 million now. In 2007, Bangkok had both 5.6 million registered vehicles and 5.6 million residents, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

As a percentage of the population, the number of vehicles in Bangkok completely eclipses traffic levels in many other Asian metropolises: There are almost twice as many vehicles per person in Bangkok than in Tokyo or Seoul, and about eight times as many as Shanghai. And on top of that, the number of cars in the city continues to soar over 6 percent each year, said Soithip Trisuddhi, director of the Office of Transportation and Traffic Policy and Planning.

At first glance these statistics might seem like a good sign: The fact that people can afford cars can be seen as a marker of prosperity, and access to transportation can boost efficiency. But inadequate public infrastructure and drastically under-regulated vehicle standards have helped make traffic one of the most severe health problems in Bangkok. There are few signs that things will change anytime soon.

Besides the short-term costs of traffic to the city—including long commute times, dangerous road conditions, and high levels of noise—the long-term effects of vehicle emissions, the "greatest source of air pollutants in Bangkok," according to the UN, is becoming the city's most pressing health risk.

A clear marker is the prevalence of asthma in Bangkok, which has reached 15 to 20 percent in the past two decades—up from 5 percent in the 1980s—partially due to increased air pollution. Critically high levels of chemicals like benzene from car exhaust also pose a risk for heart disease and cancer. Although it's impossible to calculate the number of deaths caused by auto pollution, recent studies suggest that twice as many people die worldwide as a result of air pollution than traffic accidents.

Pedestrians and motorcyclists on every street can be seen wearing breathing masks to reduce the risks of auto pollution, but a solution that tackles the actual problem would keep cars from idling in traffic—or reduce the total number of cars in the city. And although road congestion has been a constant talking point for both commuters and politicians over the past two decades, traffic and air pollution remain unsolved problems in Bangkok.

Perhaps the most ambitious solution proposal—the construction of an approximately $1.3 billion skytrain in 1999—has had less of an effect than hoped for. That's probably because the rail system is only comprised of two lines and one transfer station, despite serving as the mass transit system of one of the world's largest cities. High ticket prices (averaging around $1-2, compared to the 50-cent bus fare) have also been cited as a factor for the lower-than-expected ridership.

Additionally, regulations enacted by the Thai government are either largely ignored or inadequate. Although new cars must now undergo emissions tests, millions of old cars, motorcycles, and diesel trucks continue to contribute to the dangerously high levels of air pollution. And while a newly enacted car tax may move things in the right direction, it's too low to make a significant difference. Tax breaks for first time car owners are still there to lure Thais into dealerships.

The traffic issues Bangkok faces are not unique—several cities across Southeast Asia struggle with the same problems, and most are only just starting to make policy changes aimed at reducing air pollution. In Ho Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam, 7 million people get around without a rapid transit system—mostly relying on motorcycles.

Although Ho Chi Minh City is constructing a metro system, the two proposed lines only reach a fraction of the city. Like Bangkok's skytrains, people are already doubtful that the metro system will solve the traffic and air problems. "[The proposed metro lines] don't lead to my home or school, I don't think I'll ever use it," said Hang Nguyen, a student in Ho Chi Minh City.

While the Thai government insists new programs will ameliorate Bangkok's traffic problems, it's hard to think anything will be a quick fix. For instance, although the skytrain is undergoing extensions that would reach larger parts of the city, a recent scandal has revealed government corruption over the skytrain's contracts. Combined with construction delays, it's not clear if the city's investment in rapid transit will pay off anytime soon.

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