Cycling to work, Bangkok’s new transport pitch

Metropolitan authorities are showcasing the city's new bike lanes to lure daily commuters.

Beating Bangkok’s chaotic and notorious traffic has become easier with ‘Pun Pun’, the city’s public bike sharing programme and the Thai word for “pedal.” For less than USD 1 for the first three hours, renting a bike not only saves time but is also a small way Bangkokians can do their part in helping to reduce air pollution and make the City of Angels more sustainable.

The project began in 2012 under the initiative of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) and was one of the then-governor M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra’s pledges during his campaign for re-election for a second term. Many ‘bike lanes’ have been constructed to allow cyclists to navigate more conveniently through the city’s busy roads and sidewalks which are often filled with street vendors peddling goods, such as along Phra Artit Road around the Khao San area, popular among backpackers and visitors.

With stations located mainly in the downtown area, residents and tourists can rent bikes and ride around the city and conveniently return them at a station close to their destination. Popular stops include the trendy Siam Square and Zuillig House Stations in the city’s business district of Silom.

With non-stop development of new shopping centres and condominiums in the capital city, especially along Sukhumvit Road and along the Chao Phraya River, there is less and less green space and fewer trees that help to absorb the city’s polluted carbon emissions.

Vehicles are the main culprits

“When talking about air pollution in Thailand, there probably is no difference when we compare Bangkok with other large cities in developing countries which also face unavoidable problems with air pollutants resulting from nature as well as from human activities,” says Dr Sirimia Panyametheekul, an environmental engineer from the Chulalongkorn University.

Exhaust from vehicles is the main contributor to the capital’s polluted air. However, with the Thai government’s efforts through its Pollution Control Department (PCD) at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment the situation has considerably improved over the past decade. The PCD monitors round-the-clock the air quality index, based on four pollutants and provides details on its website, www.airforthai.pcd.go.th.

By far, the biggest culprit is diesel gas common among trucks and buses. Because of its importance to the country’s logistics and its close link with cost of living, successive Thai governments have had to subsidise the price of diesel, making it the cheapest among all types of fuel. What makes car exhaust dangerous to people’s health are the various chemical components that pose dangers to people’s health. Be it nox, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide or a host of other toxic chemicals harmful to our health. Nox and carbon monoxide can also be transferred and mixed with rain to produce acid rain.

Professor N. T. Kim Oanh from the School of Environment Resources and Development at Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) believes it is necessary to reduce black carbon, which is emitted from diesel vehicles because such substances absorb solar radiation that leads to a warming effect. Iyngararasan Mylvakanam, Programme Officer at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), an international organization that promotes collaboration among countries and supports capacity building to address air quality issues, explains carbon monoxide is toxic to humans while carbon dioxide is what warms the planet and what causes people to suffer from asthma.

According to Mylvakanam, the small particular matters, or dust, are the most harmful given that people breathe these in, causing allergies and other respiratory problems. Mylvakanam cautions that although there is exhaust from buses, this is deemed acceptable because of the lower per capita emission.  Mylvakanam compares how one bus full of passengers is equal to 50 cars driven by one person.

Introduction of alternative fuels

The successful introduction of plant-based gasohol using palm oil in 2001 was due to His Majesty King Bhumipol Adulyadej’s concern for the degrading environmental conditions in the Kingdom and His Majesty’s initiative to find sustainable alternatives for his subjects. With the introduction of lead-free gas and the promotion of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and natural gas vehicle (NGV) fuels as alternative sources of fuel, the city’s air has become increasingly better over the past few decades.

Many taxi drivers and motorists, for example, have modified their engines and installed LPG or NGV fuels, which are fuel efficient and environmentally friendly. Nevertheless, there is still some concern when it comes to particulate matter (PM-10) and tropospheric ozone along the roads, or ambient side, which still exceed the standard due to the heavy traffic found in Bangkok. However, Professor Kim states tests of air quality have shown sulfur dioxide and NoX 11 have decreased, which are good signs since more motorists use cleaner fuel.

How to resolve the problem?

“There is no single solution to this problem,” Panyametheekul explains, “the time it takes to address the issue also depends on the cause of air pollution, the concentration of the toxins in the air.” Pollution from one place can easily affect another area as the air is linked and cannot be physically separated.

Pochanart believes that the issue is a shared responsibility. Many Bangkokians prefer to drive their own cars because of the poor quality of the city’s public transport. Thus, if the mass transit system can be further expanded and cover more areas and the quality of city’s buses enhanced, more people would leave their cars at home, which would help reduce air pollution.

Tara Buakamsri, Campaign Director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, feels people are more conscious about climate change, but they are not sure where to start. Many start by changing small habits such as by using cloth bags. However, bigger changes are more challenging given the fact people cannot see or perceive possible impacts and consequences.

Another problem is many organizations launch their own campaign to address environmental issues, “but there is a lack of coordination,” Buakamsri explains. There has to be greater coordination among the different stakeholders. Buakamsri adds “we should raise awareness in the whole system and introduce plans to develop the whole city”.

Use of alternative forms of transportation

With the construction of the BTS skytrains and MRT subway trains, Bangkokians now have alternative choices to get around the city and avoid traffic. The government has also embarked on expanding the coverage of these trains to more parts of the city, and within the next two years many additional stations will be available connecting more residents in the suburbs with the downtown core.

“One solution is to raise people’s consciousness and allow the public to take part in solving the problem, such as by using mass transit, walking, and/or using bicycles,” suggests Panyametheekul. She also explains that by improving Bangkok’s public infrastructure such as sidewalks and mass transit system for citizens of all walks of life, these simple solutions are more sustainable rather than introducing new technology.

About Bruce Avasadanond

Bruce Avasadanond is a journalist for Radio Thailand English Language Service. He completed his Master of Arts in Journalism at the Konrad Adenauer Ceneter for Journalism at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. He is also a mentee of the World Federation of Science Journalism (WFSJ).

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