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Moving Bangkok Forwards: the new BRT

07/06/2010


Bangkokians could really use some good news. Here’s a moving start to the healing process that’s literally going places.

By Joel Quenby


Until recently, asking Bangkok’s residents what they disliked about home generally produced the same clichéd response…
 
A few hints: the accused is a smelly, belching, honking beast usually found queuing or crawling around the Thai capital—reportedly costing more than US$1 billion in lost productivity every year. Lonely Planet Bangkok said it was “rather confronting.” The Hong Kong Standard called it “definitely one of the wonders of the modern world.”
 
No prizes for guessing that traffic is Thailand’s capital culprit.
 
Congestion in the otherwise-vibrant city has been Bangkok’s backed-up bugbear for decades. It commonly features on lists of the world’s most clogged cities. In 2008, a Time report entitled “The Capital of Gridlock” detailed how women often give birth in vehicles in Bangkok.
 
This apparently happens so frequently local traffic cops—who only deem traffic “bad” when a car’s stationary for at least an hour, according to the story by Hannah Beech—are issued with umbilical-cord clamps and trained in basic midwifery. Seriously.
 
Why did things grind to a standstill? Though police files from 1972 recorded just 243,000 cars in the city, a 1971 World Bank “Bangkok Transportation Study” stressed an urgent need for mass transit. Planners instead paved over the city’s canal system, creating a haphazard road network prone to flooding in the rainy season.
 
By 1994, the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) reaffirmed the need for transport capable of carrying up to 50,000 people an hour. “It should be faster and at least as comfortable as traveling by private vehicle,” added the TDRI Quarterly Review.
 
It arrived in 1999. Perhaps urbanites were belatedly expressing their gratitude by flocking to a film called BTS: Bangkok Traffic (Love) Story released on the tenth anniversary of the slick civic monorail. The movie prominently featured the BTS “Skytrain” (giving the film a contemporary feel, noted critics). It was the most successful Thai release of 2009.

But transit has improved. In 2004 the MRT, or “Bangkok Metro” subway, opened, and in 2009, the BTS extended its reach over the Chao Praya River. Further extensions to both are “planned”…
Bangkok BRT
 
Last year, however, a study by human resources consultancy ORC Worldwide revealed Bangkok’s expats still regard traffic as their biggest problem. (So do their counterparts in Bangalore, Delhi, Istanbul, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei and Tokyo, by the way.)
 
So the city’s first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) opening for fluid commuter business at the tend of May was a welcome development. The first Bangkok route forms a 15.9-kilometer, river-crossing loop, and it averages 30 minutes to negotiate 12 stations between the Ratchapruek and Chong Nonsi terminals.
 
Passengers ride for a free until mid September, and from then Bt10 fares apply until January 2011, when official fares of Bt12–24 kick in. These air-conditioned BRT editions have striking yellow and green-swoosh color schemes. They can carry up to 80 passengers in Skytrain-style comfort at a fraction of the price.
 
Volvo claims it co-developed the world’s first BRT system in 1975 in Curitiba, Brazil. Regionally, China, Indonesia and India subsequently launched versions. Really, though, how does yet another bus service help improve matters?
 
The BRT concept incorporates the benefits of a subway system to make a more efficient bus network. Dedicated right-of-way lanes produce journeys averaging 35 kilometers per hour, the speed of a light railway (such as the BTS). Freed from stop-and-go traffic with longer gaps between stops, the BRT also offers passengers a smoother ride.
 
Instead of the rickety on-board payment shuffle, passengers conveniently pay and swipe their tickets at modern, weatherproof stations. Like the BTS and MRT, there is at-level boarding, meaning no steps onto the bus—although the system currently lacks access for the disabled.
 
During its opening days, Bangkok’s BRT served about 10,000 commuters daily from 6am until midnight. Twenty buses service the 6am–9am and 4pm–8pm rush hours, deployed every five minutes, while 10 buses run at 9.30am–4pm at 10-minute intervals.
 
Naturally, there are teething problems. Traffic opportunistically cuts into the dedicated BRT lane though gaps in the concrete divider (a Bt200 fine will soon apply for the offense). BRT drivers initially over-lingered at stations, and tickets initially won’t be cross-compatible with the BTS/MRT.
 
There are some lengthy connections to alternative mass transit also. Notably a 5–10-minute walk on a pedestrian bridge from BRT Sathorn to BTS Chong Nonsi. A longer gap necessitated park-and-ride facilities to ferry commuters from Ratchaphruek-Ratchadapisek intersection and BTS Wong Wian Yai.
 
Some of these issues will be quickly resolved, while others will not. Bangkok Metropolitan Authority says creating an interconnected network partly depends on the uptake of this first line. However, four new routes will reportedly start with a Mo Chit–Nonthaburi line, due in 2012.
 
Whether the system eventually inspires a hit movie is, of course, another matter entirely!
 
Footnote: The Clean Technology Fund supports the construction of a whopping 14 routes covering 250 kilometers. This would reduce Bangkok’s CO2 emissions by 15 percent, cutting 50 million tons by 2012.

 

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