Are Bangkokians ditching the car for the bicycle?
In Bangkok, a city known for its poor air quality and traffic congestion, a steady demand for alternative transportation systems is emerging. Spurred by a growing public awareness on environmental and health issues, this gradual shift away from the use of private cars to public transportation, and increasingly the bicycle, requires structural infrastructure adjustments. In the Thai city’s tropical climate, private cars have historically been prized both as a status symbol and as the most comfortable means of transportation. However, as their costs continue to outweigh their benefits for many residents, the time may have come for alternative models to grow and flourish.
Two years ago, the Bangkok city government initiated a series of awareness projects on the effects of car emissions on the city’s air quality. A complementary initiative launched in 2013, Project Pun Pun, a bicycle sharing system, has since been operational in the central and business districts of Bangkok. For a one-year registration fee of 320 baht ($10), users can rent a Pun Pun bicycle for a period of time, benefit from a medical expenses cover to the tune of 5,000 baht ($155) and are covered by an individual insurance policy worth 50,000 baht ($1,550).
Despite its obvious benefits, the scheme’s popularity has not kept apace with its predecessors’ such as Copenhagen’s ByCyklen – introduced in 1995. Since, cycling cannot compare to the comfort and convenience of a car in the tropical and very humid climate of Bangkok, city hall is enticing Bangkokians to use bicycles for their speed, health credentials and ease of use. The limited availability of complementary infrastructure such as cycle lanes has to date made Pun Pun relatively impractical for most residents. The Pun Pun bike rental does not cover protection materials such as integrated locking systems or a helmets. Cyclists also complain about unequal distances between Pun Pun stations: “some stations are separated by a mere 300m, where other larger roads only have 3 stations in total“.
A full year and a half after the inception of Pun Pun, Bangkok’s residents are slowly changing their attitudes and making more active contributions toward the reduction of car emissions in the city. The recent policy shifts at the gubernatorial and grassroots levels are evidence of changing times. Since 2007, Bangkok’s Metropolitan Administration has hosted an annual ‘Car Free Day’ where around 22,000 cyclists, gathered to raise awareness about cycling in the city. On Valentine’s Day 2012, grassroots activists spray-painted bicycles in pink off Sukhumvit road, a main artery of central Bangkok. Participants were asking for a better cycling infrastructure on the city’s many congested roads. Volunteer cyclists from the Thailand Cycling Club have taken further action, by creating a Bangkok Bike Map. The map is an extensive compilation of the city’s arteries with specific directions on how to connect with the existing mass transit systems as well as tips on how cyclists can stay safe and avoid obstacles.