Sharing the Road in Bangkok25 Oct 2014
Besides a city bus, taking a taxi or driving a car can be the most inefficient form of transportation in Bangkok. Traffic is terrible on some streets for more than 16 hours each day. Yesterday, I took a taxi a distance of 8km (5mi) and it took 1 hour with 38 minutes at a dead stop. It was torture. I almost could’ve walked.
The alternatives: there is one subway line, two above-ground skytrain lines, one commuter rail line, and public water transport on the major river in town. All of these could be faster than a car or taxi if they go where you need to go. In reality they don’t have anywhere near the coverage of a full public transit network, so many people use them for part of their commute and then switch to another form of transportation.
The best alternative and the most efficient way to get around is with a motorcycle or by hiring a motorcycle taxis. A typical commute usually involves several stops on the subway/skytrain followed by a motorcyle taxi ride. Motorcycle taxis are readily available, have fixed fares to the places they’ll go, and are usually quite friendly. But most importantly, motorcyles don’t have the footprint of a car or bus, so motorcycle taxi drivers can weave in and out of traffic, go the wrong way down a one-way street, cut through a parking lot, or even jump up onto the sidewalk to get you where you’re going as fast as you can.
In this way, motorcycles and cars ‘share the road’ very differently from cities with more developed, organized highway systems. I think sharing the road in Bangkok is emphasized and practiced both out of self interest and probably because it creates slightly less chaos for everyone.
First example: I stayed at my friends’ apartment in a northern suburb of Bangkok over the weekend. I needed to get back into the city before they were ready, so we took a scooter to the end of their lane, parked it, walked across a foodbridge over (and under) a massive double-decker highway:
And waited at the bottom of the footbridge for a private van (like the white Toyotas in the photo). Vans crawled by in the traffic with signs indicating where they were headed, and once my friends found one that would take me to a subway stop, I jumped in and got the last seat next to the driver. Ninety minutes of crawling traffic later, I got to the subway stop. During those ninety minutes, I saw hundreds of scooters and motorcycles zoom right past our van, and saw this warning on the dashboard (the top one):
I have no idea what it really says, but I am pretty sure it says something like “look out the window and check the side-view mirror before you open the door so you don’t kill a motorcyclist and rip this van’s door off its hinges in the process.” This is second-nature to everyone who lives in Bangkok (though everyone’s careless at times, hence the warning sign). And it’s a form of sharing the road. The exercise of caution can also be seen when people exit a city bus; they always first peek their head out to make sure they’re not jumping straight into the path of a racing motorbike.
Second example: here is some 2:30PM gridlock traffic at a major intersection in a central area of the city:
From an American perspective, I was surprised to see so many pickup trucks in Thailand the first time I came here, so that might stand out. Also, there’s a red large-bed truck in the lane on the left with probably two-dozen workers piled in the back. Because this is such a major street, there aren’t any food carts or people taking up parts of the lanes, which would be common in many places in the city.
But in respect to how people are ‘sharing the road’, look at how most of the cars in the innermost lanes, in both directions, are pulled over as close to the concrete shoulder as possible. They’re making the space on their passenger side as large as possible to allow safe passage for motorcycles. This seems to be common practice when people have the time and space to do so. When these inter-lane corridors are blocked, motorcyles will more dangerously make 90-degree turns using the space from bumper-to-bumper of two cars to switch to another empty corridor (see the Instagram video from earlier. Or in the case of this road, just before the photo was taken I saw several motorcycles riding on the concrete shoulder in the middle, dancing around the lightposts). So it serves both cars and motorcyclists’ interests to ‘share the road’ by making extra space like this.