Jams everywhere but Thailand’s road network is anything but a picnic

Despite efforts to ease the problem, Thailand’s congested roads are still among the worst in the world. Is there any hope for a less gridlocked future?

By John Pennington

People spend more time in traffic jams in Thailand than anywhere else in the world. Bangkok is one of the most congested cities on the planet. Only war-torn Libya has a higher traffic death rate.

A new survey paints a depressingly familiar picture as out of 38 countries surveyed by global transport data analysis company INRIX, Thailand comes out on top with an average of 61 hours per person spent in peak congestion last year.

That figure is much higher than Colombia, Indonesia, Russia and United States, who are next on the list, while in Singapore, the figure was 10.5 hours. Furthermore, Bangkok was ranked as the 12th most congested city in the world with an average of 64.1 hours per person stuck in traffic during 2016.

Nobody wants to take responsibility for the causes of congestion

In 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra’s government introduced tax breaks for first-time car buyers, leading to an enormous increase in sales the following year and a surge in the number of cars on the roads, as the charts below show.

 

The number of registered vehicles in Thailand is 36.9 million. In Bangkok alone, five million cars are on the road every day, which is far too many for a system that can handle a maximum of two million.

Traffic officials blame accidents, floods and bad driving for the continued congestion. Car drivers blame buses. Bus drivers blame those driving too slowly. “Driving in Thailand is challenging and dangerous,” an Internations report stated. “Due to the mad volume of traffic and the fact that its roadways are not well maintained and rather confusing, many accidents occur.” The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported a road traffic death rate of 36.2 per 100,000 for 2013, second only to Libya, although this figure dropped from 38.1 in 2010.

The United Nations (UN) gave Thai police officers a mark of three out of ten for their enforcement of speed limits and six for enforcement of drink-driving and motorcycle helmet laws. The numbers of vehicles – both registered and unregistered – means the police force is as overloaded as the roads themselves. “If we strictly follow what the law says, and issue a ticket for people driving over the speed limit, then we will end up booking everyone,” Sergeant-Major Kanthachat Nua-on told the BBC.

Nevertheless, some claim that the survey does not reflect the reality of the situation and that the congestion is not as bad as it was. Dr Vallop Suwandee, chief advisor to the Bangkok governor, said, “The survey does not reflect the existing scenario. Based on my personal experience and opinions from overseas guests, Bangkok conditions are in fact getting better compared with five or ten years ago.”

Efforts to alleviate the problem have not been effective

The authorities have attempted “on numerous occasions” to launch projects to build new high-rise roads and highways. Governments have pledged investment in transport infrastructure, including expressways and motorways. Bt 2 trillion (US$68 billion) in 2013 was set aside for rail and motorway upgrades and Bt 1.8 trillion (US$50.8 billion) in 2016 for 20 transportation infrastructure projects.

Rules were tightened preventing tourists driving motorbikes and motorhomes into Thailand. Back in 2012, 25,000 handbooks were distributed to the police with new guidelines in a bid to reduce the problem. Oncoming traffic was allowed on roads opposite a royal convoy, traffic was to be halted for less time, and shopping malls were no longer obliged to close their doors if a royal family member was present.

Poor planning, financial issues and technical problems hindered the government

Little progress was made. The government continues to face technical issues, financing problems and protests. That much was predicted in 2013 and outlined in a Credit Suisse report. The report was published before the 2014 coup, after which High Speed Railway plans were postponed.

An extension of the Green Line on the Bangkok Mass Transit System was poorly planned, causing further closures and disruption. Further delays mean it is now scheduled to open in 2018.

Thailand’s bureaucracy is notoriously slow. The government’s campaign to root out corruption might have done some good but “usual incentives” for getting things done have, according to insiders, been removed, leading to more delays.

There are many plans but little certainty they will come to fruition

There appears to be no integrated strategy for the transport infrastructure in Thailand, a legacy of systematic failures to address congestion. In 2006-07, the World Economic Forum ranked Thailand’s infrastructure as the 38th best in the world. By 2015-2016, they had dropped to 44th. Construction projects to build up the transport network are all very well but without proper plans in place to handle the volume of cars in the city they will only exacerbate the problem.

However, the infrastructure projects laid out in the 2016 plans should soon start and limited development, even if it is disruptive in the short term, has to be weighed up against potential long-term benefits.

The police want to do more, and have stepped up their efforts by installing more cameras and towing away cars that are illegally parked. “We are taking the road traffic problem very seriously and hope everyone else does the same,” asserted Weerawit Wajjanapukka, chief of the Traffic Police Division’s ticket information.

Hope isn’t enough. Action is required to bring about a mentality shift among road users and to tackle Thailand’s appalling road safety record.

Traffic is a global problem. Nobody anticipated today’s volume of traffic when transport networks were first designed. However, while other countries have managed to upgrade their infrastructure accordingly to meet demand, Thailand have failed to do so.

In 2015, the military junta gave the Bangkok police a ridiculous deadline of three months to fix the city’s traffic problems. Doing anything about the problem requires a sensible long-term approach which marries meticulous planning with significant investment and considerable stability.