Commute of Millions: The Reality of Bangkok’s Urban Gridlock

Oxfam Urbanization (Bangkok)

This post is also available in: Chinese (Traditional), French, Portuguese

“One of my friends practically lives in her car,” says Sue, a 30-year-old Bangkokian who works as a political analyst for a western embassy in the Thai capital. “The car has become an extension of her home. She has a wardrobe in the back seat with a change of clothes, a selection of shoes, whatever she might need throughout the day or night… She leaves home in the morning plain-faced and puts on her makeup as she travels to work. When she hits a red light, she does one eye. At the next red light, she does the other. By the time she gets to work she’s presentable!”

Strategies for dealing with traffic have been high on Sue’s agenda ever since she began her working career. Bangkok’s urban gridlock is among the worst in the world with commuters spending an average of two hours a day stuck in traffic. Some wake up before dawn skipping breakfast to make it to work ahead of rush hour. Others plot complicated journeys that combine bus, river ferry, long-tail canal boat, elevated train, underground railway, and/or a taxi or motorcycle taxi. Still others grit their teeth and just sit through it. Sue has tried them all.

Sue was born in Sampeng, in the heart of Bangkok’s Chinatown. In the densely packed alleyways and streets of Chinatown, there is precious little outdoor space. As Sue explains it, people live where they work and work where they live. When she was three years old her parents decided to move to a housing estate in the suburbs so that the family could have a better lifestyle.

During Sue’s childhood, it worked well; her mother discovered a new-found passion for gardening and the family was able to acquire a pet dog. But, by the time Sue started to work, the daily commute became a major challenge as she had to find ways to compete with the many millions of people trying to get into Bangkok’s central business district each morning.

Oxfam Urbanization (Bangkok)

The urban landscape of Bangkok has changed beyond recognition in just a generation. Sue’s father, a third-generation immigrant from China, was a gem dealer who specialized in the diamond trade and has fond memories of a very different kind of city. “He’s the kind of man who didn’t even trust banks,” says Sue. “People used to say his money was ‘sticky’ because he kept it around so long. He still remembers when Bangkok’s canals were clean and when you could get by on just one baht a day, with a few satang for food and a few satang for the tram [now obsolete]!”

Sue has two bachelor’s degrees from Bangkok’s top universities – one in political science and one in law – but many of her career choices have, by necessity, been dictated by the route she has to take to work.

One of her earlier jobs entailed a railway commute followed by an expensive taxi ride. For another job, she travelled by long-tailed boat on the Saen Saeb canal, which runs through the city centre. “When I was younger, I didn’t care so much about how much time I spent commuting,” she says “but as you get older you realize that you are wasting a significant part of your life just sitting in traffic.”

For one job she took on, the commute from their suburban home was so impossible she moved back into the family shop-house in Sampeng where her grandmother was still living. “It was just me and my grandmother who was very old then and being looked after by a nurse,” she says. “It felt very strange to be living in the old house, sleeping in my parent’s unused bedroom!”

Unable to accept a two-hour daily commute, Sue eventually decided to buy a condominium in Thonburi, on the other side of the river from Bangkok’s central business district. From there, she can walk easily to the Sky Train, Bangkok’s elevated rail system, and get to her latest job in just 30 minutes or so. For those who can afford it, having a small apartment in the city is becoming an increasingly popular option and has resulted in a proliferation of new condominiums around the city centre.

Oxfam Urbanization (Bangkok)

Among Thai families, children usually live at home until they are married but Sue’s parents have adapted well to her new living circumstances. “My parents understand that this is how people have to live now,” says Sue, who still goes back to her parent’s house every Friday evening and spends the weekend there. “The funny thing is that we Bangkokians have become rather lazy people when it comes to socializing. For me, I don’t want to go anywhere at the weekend. Unless it’s a wedding or a special event, I’d just rather be at home or eat out nearby.”

Much of Bangkok’s traffic woes are the result of lack of urban planning. As the city developed rapidly over the past few decades, the old canal routes were paved over and roads were created without a broader overview of the routes that might be required of an ever-growing city. In recent years, a government tax rebate for first-car owners has meant nearly two million new cars on the roads.

The city’s residents have developed various coping mechanisms to this never-ending congestion. There are numerous traffic radio stations reporting accidents and gridlocks, and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration recently launched a traffic app so commuters can interact through iPhones and iPads, viewing video footage of roads in real time.

For Sue, however, the future of the city lies in strengthening its mass transit system. In the many long hours of commuting she’s already done, she’s had plenty of time to imagine how she would fix things. “It could be so much better,” she says. “I’ve seen systems in Singapore and in China that actually work. For starters, the various methods of public transport – the boats, buses, trains – need to link up to each other in a more convenient manner. I’m a big fan of public transport and I use it all the time but, in this city, it just isn’t working properly yet.”

By Sarah Rooney. This post originally appeared on the Asia Development Dialogue blog.