The only travelling I have been doing lately is of the armchair variety. I've been reading up on Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. It's a sprawling city of eight million people and is chock full of stunningly ornate Thai architecture and Buddhas ensconced in gilded monasteries.
Bangkok is also "choke" full of cars. With at least ten times the density of Edmonton and barely a quarter the street capacity, the roads that do exist resemble giant parking lots. Three-hour traffic jams are not unusual, and much of the time a person on foot could move faster than the paralyzed traffic.
Not that walking is pleasant. A parking lot may be ugly to the eyes, but Bangkok's streets assault the nose and lungs. The motor vehicles are idling, and idly going nowhere. Small three wheeled tuk-tuks, motorcycle taxis, spew black smoke into the hot humid air. The use of leaded gasoline adds to the toxic cocktail; lead levels often soar to three times what is considered safe in the United States.
More than a third of the traffic police have lung ailments, and the fumes sometimes lead to strange behavior. Subject to growing abuse from frustrated drivers, a few traffic cops have begun dancing in the streets to liven things up. Needless to say their popularity has grown with these new antics.
It hasn't always been so polluted and gridlocked. Within memory, everyone could travel around Bangkok quickly and in comfort. Bangkok was called the Venice of the East due to the criss-crossing network of klongs, or canals.
Ivan Illich, the great thinker and social critic, wrote about Bangkok's wrong turn in his fascinating book "Tools for Conviviality". He explained how Thailand has been known throughout history for its klongs, which easily moved people and rice. During the 1960's, with the support of the government and the financial aid of the World Bank, the klongs were filled in to build roads.
Now, not only are the roads jammed, but the city is sinking at a rate of four inches per year due to improper drainage since most of the canals were filled in. Some of the roads are partly underwater when the annual monsoon rains come.
The impacts on tourism and business are disastrous. The congestion costs the city over $2 billion annually in lost productivity, health problems, and wasted fuel. Tourists and investors alike are being scared away by perhaps the world's worst traffic.
Attempts have been made over the years to try to ease the congestion by building more roads. Overpasses were built at busy intersections, and elevated roads constructed, but to no avail. Traffic expanded to fill the available space and, before they knew it, the gridlock was back.
It seems the picture of absurdity. In Edmonton, the one thing that cars have going for them is that they can get you around rather quickly. But in Bangkok there is no such advantage. Viable alternative transportation choices do not currently exist, since buses are also caught in the traffic jams. River taxis along the Chau Phrya River are quick, but much of the city is not easily accessible from the river. And with cars filling up all the road space, there is little room for bicycles.
Today, globally, twice as many people get around by bicycle as by car, with most of them in Asia. But with rising affluence, more and more people are yearning to drive.
A friend of mine recently remarked that once someone climbs out from poverty a car is desired as a strong symbol of having arrived. One of the toughest things, he said, must be to try to convince them that they don't want or need that car.
The big car makers are lining up to build new factories in Asia, and are actively stoking that desire. And with 500 more cars hitting the streets of Bangkok daily, the problem is growing more urgent.
Can Bangkok resolve its deepening traffic problems? Can the people of Thailand (literally meaning "land of the free") be free to breath clean air? Can global climate change be averted and worldwide consumption of energy and resources brought to a sustainable level?
To be continued...