Curing Bangkok's travel sickness

opinion July 02, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

The NCPO should attempt to go far beyond the "inconveniences" it hears us complaining about and address safety, economic impact, and even the country's overseas reputation

No politician or party has yet lived up to campaign promises to resolve Bangkok’s traffic woes and improve mass transit. The litany of complaints is as long and loud as ever. That makes the issue impossible for the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to ignore and, sure enough, a month after the coup, the military has come up with an ambitious plan and a pledge to make things better – in just one more month.
The primary focus is on ridding the existing system of its dire inconveniences, but of course the issue is much more complicated than that. It involves taxis, motorcycle-taxis, transit vans, trucking firms and public bus lines as well as everyone behind the wheel of a private car. All work together to exacerbate traffic congestion and all might be putting their fellow citizens’ safety at risk.
Like any government administration, the NCPO has ample data in hand. It should first be weighing the complaint logs at the Department of Land Transportation from the past eight months. From October through April, 25,940 complaints were received via the 1584 hotline. Well over 18,465 of those calls were about taxi drivers, more than 500 were about public buses of all types, and 223 involved motorcycle-taxis. We all know from personal experience that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Most complaints don’t reach the bureaucracy’s ears. We grumble to friends and family about an insolent or incompetent taxi driver or a reckless bus driver or perhaps we add our lament to the continuous harangue found on any of the social networks. By comparison, the hotline calls seem like a faint echo of reality. 
Determining the nature and scope of the problem is one thing. Solving it is another matter entirely. Traffic gridlock and dangers on the road are chronic, deep-rooted issues. The military junta must realise it will have to deal with not just drivers but also the influential owners of the private firms that run the transit lines, the police who fail to enforce the law and even many of the passengers it’s attempting to help. Pedestrians who hail taxis from anywhere at the edge of the road or manage to get buses to stop for them wherever is handiest are creating unnecessary hazards and blockages too. 
However, as steep a mountain as this will be to climb, we are optimistic about the military junta’s chances. It is, after all, running an authoritarian administration and thus holds better odds of persuading, if not ordering, the concerned parties to mend their ways. Dampening any hope for the junta’s success, though, is the likelihood that the transportation system will slide back into the murk once Thailand returns to civilian rule. It would be heartening if the military could somehow instil a lasting sense of discipline in the public conscience. The NCPO should attempt to go far beyond the “inconveniences” it hears us complaining about and address safety, economic impact, and even the country’s overseas reputation. The public’s collective mentality must change, whether the individual rides a bus or runs a bus line. Behind the wheel or walking along a city sidewalk, we all share the responsibility of ensuring the safety of our fellow citizens and visiting guests. The law must be obeyed not out of fear of a fine or jail time but because ignoring it widens the irresponsibility gap.
Crackdowns on illegal motorcycle-taxi stands and regulating passenger vans are mere baby steps compared to what must eventually be accomplished. Strict measures might well be needed, but a military regime seems the apt authority to impose them, providing the tighter control is intended for the betterment of society.