One night in Bangkok traffic jam

Traffic jam by Phloen Chit, at some exceptional occasions, like in the picture, person transports are done by truck.

In rapidly growing cities the infra structure for transportation of people and goods needs to be developed in parallel to the growing municipality. The transportation of people can be done by walking or with two or three wheelers, cars, buses, trains or metro. The local conditions to some extent influence the preferred traffic solution, with respect to economical and environmental cost. The cost for the transports is both for infrastructure (such as roads, rails, bridges), vehicles (for example motorcycles, cars, buses, trains) but also for the time that people spend during travel and for most transports there is an environmental cost associated with the chosen mix.

In a highly unscientific study during my recent stay in Bangkok I found that Bangkok has lots of traffic jams. Not only during rush hours. There is a blend of all sorts of means for transports. The metro and the so called “sky train” are covering a part of the city centre. The bulk amount of public transports are done by buses. However, it seems that most people goes by car. With some exceptions the buses run under the same traffic conditions as cars.
Once I went with a Tuc Tuc, 5 km in 25 minutes and I took the taxi twice (12 km taking 30 and 45 minutes) each. In a flowing traffic it would have been faster to go by bike. Some times $1 is used as a key number for cost of travel time (measured as loss of working hours or what we are prepared to pay for shorter travel time). If the average person in Bangkok use 15 minutes extra per day due to traffic congestion problems the cost for the congestion time corresponds to about 450 million dollars a year. The fuel saving for less stops and less idling of cars and buses will be about 20% if the pace can be increased by 30%. I very roughly estimate this to give 1.5 billon dollars value of fuel, a year.
Together with the fuel saving, assuming that the persons still travel by the same transports as today, about two billion dollars can be saved each year if the traffic congestion can be improved. In addition, our experience from Bogota and Mexico city is that there is a behaviour change that goes along with increased availability of public transports. Mainly people chose to leave the car at home. Such a change also generates money.
In addition the environmental cost is substantially higher. We know from statistics that the average speed in cities like Bangkok, with some prioritisation for public transports, is about 15 km/h (all traffic included, all time of day). We also know that it is possible to double the speed on “trunk bus lines” and that the speed can be increased by 30% by traffic prioritisation. The decreased environmental cost for emissions of nitrogen oxides, particulates and carbon dioxide ads up to an additional 10% savings.

Stand still in traffic at Mo Chit
There is a natural organisation of the taxis, minibuses and buses at the market at Mo Chit. The traffic moves very slowly, if it moves at all. In the picture above only the lane to the left moves. There is a new fleet generation of minibuses that, from my perspective, ads little to the capacity but brings a lot of disturbance to the traffic pattern. To the left in the picture from Mo Chit, the concrete building of the sky train is visible.
Motorcycle drivers with helmets in Bangkok
The two wheelers make a story of their own. The motorbikes float between the cars and trucks, as the sand trickles between the pebbles at the beach. They end-up ahead of the four wheelers at the traffic lights and get a considerably higher speed than other vehicles. It is thus the preferred way to catch up some time if your taxi gets stuck in the traffic. I saw two traffic accidents with motorbikes involved. It seems that motor bikers lives on the edge, in another way than we usually mean back home.
Bangkok, like most growing cities, seems to have multiple questions to solve, if I may focus on the transports of persons:
-Offer more public transport to the same cost (increased cost efficiency).
 –> By providing BRT (bus rapid transit) to the suburbs.
-Decrease congestion “losses” and improve the efficiency of the transports:
 –> By providing much more separate lanes for buses. And, daring to remove lanes for other transports.
 –> By giving priority at traffic lights in order of capacity.
-Decrease the environmental impact
 –> Decrease number of two wheelers, three-wheelers and cars.
 –> Provide clean public transports
A well developed BRT system, similar to the one in Bogota, requires some political guts but also the total cost for the person transports for society and for the people will be decreased. The environmental impact of energy, use, carbon dioxide emissions and hazardous emissions of NOx and particulates will decrease by at least 30% (change in travel behaviour not included). The available bus fleet will provide a base for feeder lines.
With those measures, the public transports will become much faster and preferred by most citizens, because of the reduced travel time. It will be positive also for the car users in the end, even if it will be slower to go by car as compared to the bus, still it will be faster than today.

About volvobuses

Adjunct Professor of Catalysis at Chalmers University of Technology. Lives in Gothenburg, Sweden, with my wife and three daughters born in 1991, 1994 and 1997. Is a passionate runner.
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