Bangkok has changed a lot since I got here in 2001. Back then the skytrain wasn’t yet 2 years old, and the city’s first subway line was still 3 years off. The capital was littered with rusty remains of office towers, remnants of the 1997 financial crash, and international food options were basically pizza and a few British pubs.
It was a simpler time.
Since then, Bangkok has become an incredibly cosmopolitan city. The dining scene is scattered with Michelin stars, the rusty towers have been reanimated into gleaming skyscrapers, and hundreds of kilometers of new rail routes will be coming online over the next few years. And don’t even get me started on the malls.
But with all that growth, there’s still room for improvement. As someone who loves exploring Bangkok on bike and on foot (you can check out my walking tours here), I’ve seen most of the city from ground level and behind the scenes. I really do love it in all its awful, grimy glory – and I have some ideas.
Here are a few ways that I think Bangkok could be improved. None of them are perfect, but any one of them would be a good start.
Connect the dead-end roads
As Bangkok grew from a fishing village to a metropolis, its expanding road network was built around the many khlongs (canals) that veined the city. For various reasons (lack of planning, private land, etc), many of these roads dead-end when they meet a khlong, restricting the options drivers have and gumming up the works.
One study found that 37.2% of roads in Bangkok are dead ends, compared to 7% in Singapore and Tokyo, and 3.6% in New York. Add to this the fact that only around 10% of Bangkok’s land area is devoted to roads (compared to 23% for Tokyo and 38% for New York), and you have a perfect storm of inertia.
Tl;dr (too long, didn’t read): Build bridges over khlongs to connect roads and increase traffic flow.
Get rid of no-sell Mondays
Since 2010 or so, Bangkok’s sidewalks have been mostly clear of hawkers on Mondays. No food, no clothes, no knick-knacks, nothing (at least in most places – you’ll still find the odd rebel grandma frying noodles on a corner sometimes, the absolute badass). The rule was ostensibly put in place to give city workers the time and space to clean the sidewalks properly after years of vendors getting increasingly saucy with how much sidewalk real estate they claimed.
I guess it worked, but it took money out of pockets, and made my Monday morning bowl of jok (rice porridge) on the way to work a thing of the past. But a few years ago, the government finally cracked down on vendors, and now hawking is controlled much more tightly than ever (some say too tightly). I can’t help but think that no-sell Mondays are kind of a moot point now.
Tl;dr: Mondays are no-hawking days, but recent laws have made that rule mostly irrelevant. Let ‘em sell!
Build a sidewalk that lasts
Look, I’m not saying building a sidewalk is easy, but in my home country of Canada, we get temperatures from to -40ºC to 35ºC, heavy summer rainstorms, and lots of foot, bike, and skateboard traffic, and the sidewalks last for yearrrrrs. Why does seemingly every stretch of sidewalk in Bangkok need to be replaced every six months? Is it because they use sand as a base for the tiles, which eventually gets washed away, leading to sinkholes and unpleasant squirts of black gutter water up your leg if you step wrong after a rainstorm? Maybe the guy in charge of assigning construction contracts is the brother of the boss of Big Sidewalk, I just don’t know.
Tl;dr: Bangkok sidewalks fall apart after 6 months. Build better.
Bring disabled facilities up to par with other big cities
[You have two choices – stairs, or stairs.]
There is no other way to say it – Bangkok’s infrastructure for the disabled is a mark of ignominy that should stain the city’s name for years to come. Walking with two feet is hard enough on the previously mentioned cracked and uneven sidewalks – try doing it in a wheelchair! Ramps, lifts, and escalator access are inconsistent at best, and even after losing (multiple) high profile lawsuits brought by disabled rights groups (though the suit was recently dismissed), the city government is still dragging its feet on installing even the most basic of services. It’s a goddamn disgrace, and even when a place does have facilities for the disabled, they’re often locked, blocked, or ignored, so it’s no surprise when stuff like this happens.
[Handy escalator…if you can get up the stairs.]
C’mon Bangkok, you can do better than this. For some great insight into the issue, listen to the interview I did with disabled rights activist Sawang Srisom on the Bangkok Podcast.
Tl;dr: Bangkok’s lack of facilities for the disabled makes moving around here nearly impossible. They deserve better.
Start putting all the wires underground
When Bill Gates tweets a photo of how insane your electrical cable situation is, you know you need to start sorting it out (even if his context was wrong, the picture speaks for itself).
Last year the city started moving the unsightly wires underground in some of the more tourist-y areas, and has plans to do about 125km more in the next five years. The project was a success, and literally everyone thought it was a huge improvement, so it’s time to step it up a notch – do the same thing on all roads, as well as every new house/building/neighborhood that starts to get built. Bangkok isn’t a particularly beautiful city, but this would sure help.
Tl;dr: Huge knots of telephone cables are ugly and should be moved underground.
Start charging for plastic bags
When I was in high school in Canada, one of the biggest grocery store chains in the country started charging $0.05 for a plastic bag. At first people were outraged, but after a few months, everyone came around to the idea, and now plastic bags are basically banned in most big stores. Bangkokians are starting to come around to this idea as well, but it’s almost a cliché that your purchase will be put in a plastic bag, be it a cup of yogurt, a bag of chips, a hot cup of coffee (really), or even a plastic bag of plastic bags.
Several high-profile campaigns have kept the topic in play, and some stores are making well-intentioned efforts that will likely be forgotten about soon. One only needs to see how a street drain can be completely blocked by a single bag during one of Bangkok’s intense rainy season downpours to understand the damage a few million of the things can do. A coordinated push by all convenience stores would be a huge step, but…people love their plastic bags.
Tl;dr: Convenience is great, but if stores started charging for plastic bags, the city, we (and our children) would all be better off.
Increase fines for safety violations
Bangkok can be a bit of a lawless place when it comes to speeding, double parking, dumping of trash, low-quality construction, and other cost-cutting measures. People have been injured or killed in accidents that could have been avoided if someone had just followed the rules, and much of the time this stems from the fact that even if the laws are consistently enforced (that’s a whole other can of worms), you can often get out of it by paying a minimal fine.
A few thousand bucks isn’t a huge deal, and many consider it just the cost of shortcuts. But if, say, fines for egregious offences started at $500,000 (and were enforced, no matter who is fined), people might start taking safety more seriously.
Tl;dr: Bangkokians love cutting corners, but it can be dangerous. Make the fines for doing so huge to discourage it.
Make the taxi system a bit more robust
Bangkok’s taxis are notoriously fickle – if a driver deigns to accept you as his passenger (oh, thank you sooooo much, Mr. Taxi Driver) they often drive like morons. We went into detail on this on another episode of the Bangkok Podcast, but a few suggestions are:
1) Give each passenger a receipt with a ‘good service’ QR code and a ‘bad service’ QR code, and let them rate the ride, with fines for too many ‘bad service’ reports.
2) Use different colored ‘available’ lights to indicate if taxis will accept all rides, or only short rides.
3) Designate some taxis – say, blue ones with a yellow stripe – as ones that will never refuse a fare (I’m sure many commuters would happily pay a bit extra for this – I know I would).
Tl;dr: Increase the options that commuters have when taking taxis.
Improve the logistics of Taksin Pier
With the recent announcement that the powers that be will increase the daily traffic on the Chao Phraya River from 40,000 to 200,000 people (!), something needs to be done at Central Pier, aka, Taksin Pier. This is where almost all boats that use the river stop at some point, as well as a major train and traffic interchange, and it’s a mess. Poor signage, a confusing layout, and too many people yelling too many things (often into blaring speakers) make it a stressful, confusing experience, even if you know where you’re going.
I use this pier several times a week and see groups of lost, confused tourists almost every time. If you want to ramp up river traffic, you have to have the infrastructure to support it.
Tl;dr: As river traffic increases, Taksin Pier needs an upgrade to handle it properly.
Turn the Makkasan rail yard into a public park
Bangkok has one of the lowest per-capita green space ratios in the world, at 3.3sq.m, compared to 23.1sq.m in New York and 66sq.m in Singapore. The one big, central city park, Lumpini, is lovely, but hardly enough for a city of ~10 million. Enter the old Makkasan rail yard. Owned by the cash-strapped State Railway, the park-vs-condo-vs-mall debate around the area has been going to-and-fro for years, but it’s time to give the people what they want. Its vintage warehouses could be renovated and turned into restaurants, stores, or cafes (à la Lhong 1919), its lush, natural landscapes would make for excellent family space, and its connection to Bangkok’s history could be explored with a nice little train museum. It’s a win-win!
Tl;dr: There’s a huge, unused chunk of land right in the middle of the city that would make a great park. Too bad it’s worth so much money
Did I miss anything obvious? Let me know!