Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Notes on urban rail transit in Bangkok...

 
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Three weeks in Thailand--visiting with family living there and enjoying a bit of urban exploration mixed with episodes of trekking/eating/swimming/snorkeling/eating/ laying around on the beach/eating--ended this morning with this cold wintry slap in the face.

Bangkok is a city alive and bustling and full of immigrants. Three "Lonely Planet" guidebooks (dated '04, '05 and '06) serially estimated population 7.7 million, then 9 million and finally 10.5 million). The Thai and lots of immigrants all seem to be getting along quite peacefully. As you can see, even the immigrant redhead above has adopted a low-key approach to hustling burgers and fries.

And they have a marvelous, brand new, beautiful, air-conditioned subway. It needs 300,000 riders a day to cover costs, including amortization of construction debt. After three years the ridership is only at 190,000, barely covering operating costs.

What can they do about this horrific financial disaster? Why didn't they get some of the mass transit analysts of Milwaukee instead of "environmental goofs" to advise them against this yawning maw of tax-devouring stupidity?

They are in the process of doing what needs to be done:
1. Expand the existing routes.
2. Add new routes.

It is still a new and relatively small system, a work in progress. The trains were often full when we rode them, indicating that those who had access--that is, lived within a quick walk or cab ride--used it. Those in different regions of the sprawling (you ain't seen sprawl 'til you've seen Bangkok sprawl) city will use it when it arrives in their area. As it expands, every user will have a larger range of options on the list of destinations. That's the way mass transit works. It doesn't pay for itself on day one, or even in decade one.

The planners have done a good job of phasing construction and planning for the considerable capital expenditures. Thai people in Bangkok presently have a semi-functioning transportation system: almost two million motor scooters, thousands and thousands of cabs, Tuk-tuks (three wheeled, noisy, open-air vehicles, less costly than cabs, but useful for someone with a lot of groceries to carry home), buses and private cars.

And they are choking on the air pollution as they sit and wait in traffic.

They are also seeing an astonishing rise in the cost of fuel. Eighteen months ago diesel fuel and gasoline cost 7 Baht per liter; today it is 32 Baht per liter. That is about $4 per gallon when you do the currency exchange--thirty Thai Baht to the dollar.

Thai working people typically put in 11 hours a day and usually work a six- or seven-day week. Typical wages for a maintenance worker or cook is about 4,500 Baht/month; 12,500/month for a skilled office worker.

So there is not a lot of money for transportation. Yet, the Thai economy grows and grows. Political leadership and professional planners know that growth, control of pollution and congestion will be achieved only with good, fast, efficient and inexpensive transportation. (I never waited longer than four minutes for a subway train.

Will somebody please send Mark Belling and Scott Walker over there on a fact-finding mission. If they don't like what they see, maybe they'll take it as an opportunity and decide to stay there to fire up the Thai people (as well as all the refugees they seem to allow in) with some blasts of anti-mass transit rhetorical flame-throwing.

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Of the biblical allotment of three score and ten I have lived only three of them more than a bicycle ride from one of the Great Lakes. I grew up ten blocks from Lake Erie in the (once Irish/Italian ghetto, now newly-hip) "Near West Side" of Cleveland. I can still cycle to the Milwaukee lakefront in an hour and a half; but, a round-trip has always been more than I would (noror ever did) attempt. -0- I'm a "...somewhat combative pacifist and fairly cooperative anarchist," after the example of Grace Paley (1922-2007). -0- I'm always cheerful when I pay my taxes (having refused--when necessary--to pay that portion of them dedicated to war). -0- And I always, always vote.