By Pett Jarupaiboon
When I was a student growing up in the congested Bangkok, on average, I spent around 4-5 hours a day in our family car. At some point, waking up at 0430 a.m. became a routine. Apparently, I was not the only one.
Bangkok’s traffic is one of the worst in the world. An Uber report found that on average Bangkok drivers get stuck for a total of 96 minutes per day – 72 minutes in a traffic jam and a further 24 minutes finding a parking spot. Taken on an annual basis, vehicle owners spend around 24 days per year stuck in traffic. The 2021 TomTom Traffic Index revealed that the average time that drivers in Bangkok waste in traffic daily is approximately 106 minutes, which is the second-highest figure in the world after Mumbai, India. This means that on an average day, drivers in Bangkok spend over an hour and a half stuck in traffic, which is a significant amount of time that could be spent on other activities. Moreover, a 2023 survey by Numbeo, a website that collects user-contributed data on cities around the world, found that Bangkok ranked as the 12th most traffic-congested city. The economic loss is huge. A 2020 report by the World Bank found that the economic cost of traffic congestion in Bangkok was estimated to be around 3.5% of Thailand’s GDP. The report also noted that congestion was a major contributor to air pollution in the city. The congestion problem is not limited to Bangkok, as other major cities such as Chiang Mai and Phuket also suffer from similar issues. Despite efforts by the government to improve public transportation and reduce car usage, the congestion problem in Thailand remains a significant challenge that requires ongoing attention and action.
A smart city expert in Thailand told me that when he first joined the government, he knew that micromobility was important. But he only truly understood later that he still underestimated its fundamental role and that we actually cannot live without it. If there is no appropriate last-mile/first-mile connection, people take their cars out anyway. Micromobility has enormous potential for the world’s congested cities, and not just as a means of reducing traffic and greenhouse gas emissions. Micromobility vehicles connect the dots and fill in the first- and last-mile transportation gap.
Now comes the obvious question: why are there so limited numbers of micromobility users or service providers in major cities of Thailand? There might be a few issues involved here.
The lack of appropriate infrastructure, including the poor quality of roads and pavements, is one. The dominance and possible monopoly of traditional service providers also play a role. Motorcycle taxis in Bangkok are a good example. Here we are talking about 100,000 motorcycle taxis and on average, a stand can be found every 420 meters. In the CBD area, a stand is found every 114-170 meters. We cannot deny that it is simply the fastest and the most convenient means, but we also fully realize how dangerous motorcycle taxis can be. But the biggest blocker might actually be the legal framework. The 40-year-old Traffic bill is obviously anachronistic and does not anticipate the different types of micromobility vehicles, such as electric bicycles and scooters. The more recent Department of Land Transport Notifications does not provide further support here. New micromobility vehicles are left in grey areas.
It is time that we seriously explore our options. Electric bicycles and scooters are becoming more and more popular around the world as the solution to congested and polluted cities, among other benefits. There are many successful frameworks of micromobility around the world, for both personal and shared vehicles. Sharing a few examples here. Major carmaker countries like Germany introduced the Small Electric Vehicles Act (eKVF), which highlights the intent to integrate the use of e-scooters into the transportation fabric in a sustainable manner. E-scooters are required to travel on bicycle infrastructure whenever present – that includes a bike lane, shared bicycling and walking path, or a bicycle boulevard. If no bicycle infrastructure is present, then e-scooters must be used on traffic roads. In New Zealand, e-scooters can be used on the footpath or the road, except on designated roads. A helmet is not legally required to be worn when using an e-scooter but is recommended.
New types of micromobility vehicles in themselves are not a panacea, which will immediately solve all the ever-present mobility problems, without the improvement of infrastructure, greater education and awareness, as well as support from the government and local authorities. But it has great potential to revolutionize transportation in Thailand and provide a more sustainable mode of transportation for people living in urban areas. Taking a first small step to study it will not hurt any party, but holds great promise. A sandbox is needed to trial and fine-tune the best practices and policies to ensure the safe and effective use of micromobility. Additionally, a sandbox can encourage innovation in the micromobility industry and attract investment and talent to cities, further promoting sustainable urban mobility.