Moving Cities: Bangkok

This is the first post of a series titled Moving Cities, which is dedicated to exploring the vast diversity of cities and how their transit systems shape them. It will examine the organizational structure of transit in relation to the city, the economics of the transit system and the role of the transit system in the economics of the city, and last, but certainly not least, the experience of the city from the perspective of the transit user. We hope to stimulate discussion of hot topics in the nexus of cities and transit in their infinite variety, highlighting recent research as well as experiences of the transit using city residents and visitors. Our interest is in how transit affects the experience of the city and how transit organization and economics shape that experience. 

Bangkok highways
Bangkok highways by David Yttervik Seetiangtham

In many respects cars rule in Bangkok. The Bangkok metropolitan area is spread over 4,823 square miles, following the pattern of highway investment. The city has both radial and ring highways, including a complex system of elevated highways through the city. Bangkok also has one of the highest auto ownership rates of any urban area in Asia, roughly one car owned for every two citizens in Bangkok. This high auto-ownership rate is, in part, a result of policies encouraging car ownership. In 2013, for example, the Thai government introduced an economic stimulus program that incentivized car ownership. The public and private investment in auto-oriented transportation is reflected in the auto-centric development of much of the region.

Despite heavy investment in cars and auto-oriented infrastructure, the city has an overall feeling of missing connections and leapfrogging development. Cervero describes Bangkok’s development as “piecemeal and minimally planned, resulting in a disconnected and seemingly random pattern of roadways.”

Congestion is legendary in Bangkok. It is so bad that there is a special unit in the Bangkok police force that has policemen and women trained in midwifery in case the baby can’t wait any longer. Although recently constructed tolled highways are less congested, even more traffic has shifted to unpriced arterial roads. Although there are extensive formal and informal transit networks, road-based transit services are severely hampered by congestion. And for pedestrians, it sometimes can be a daunting task just crossing the street.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Bangkok was considering its transportation future. Plans for significant new urban transit were on the drawing board, as was an ambitious program for highway development. One such multi-modal project was the Bangkok Elevated Road and Train System (BERTS), a project that would create an elevated highway from central Bangkok to the Don Mueang International Airport, which approved to undergo construction in 1990. Unfortunately, the giant project was never completed. Over 1,000 poured concrete structures stood as monuments to the failure for many years.

Generally, Bangkok took the auto route, trying to build its way out of congestion. While that highway investment has allowed development to decentralize, it has also come at a huge cost in terms of congestion. With decentralization, little planning, and increasing car ownership, congestion only worsened.

The City of Bangkok at dusk, by Prachanart Viriyaraks

While the highway focus continues in Bangkok, in 1999 the city did manage to open the BTS Skytrain, and then in 2004, it opened the Metropolitan Rapid Transit (MRT) system, a significant subway line. These investments, especially the Sky Train, have proven to be wildly popular and have resulted in reasonably pedestrian friendly mega commercial developments at many of its stations. While congestion is still the order of the day, the Sky Train has demonstrated the possibility — and the necessity — of an alternative to the car in Bangkok.

The extreme overreliance on the auto has resulted in several unique transportation outcomes in Bangkok. The most interesting and most unusual outcome is that it appears that the Sky Train is the mode of choice for people who use origins and destinations served by the system. Over 650,000 trips are made on a system covering only 34 stations and 22.65 route miles. For comparison, the Washington Metro has over 700,000 trips but with 91 stations and 117 route miles.

The Sky Train carries this huge volume of people despite being very expensive by Bangkok standards— costing about $1.20 for most trips (compared to about $0.20-$0.45 for a bus trip depending on whether there is air conditioning and sometimes on the length of trip.) The MRT subway line charges similar prices to those of the Sky Train and also carries a many commuters looking to avoid the slow-moving buses and taxis. For two people travelling, the Sky Train is even more expensive than even a taxi. I am unaware of any place where cab fare for two is less than transit. Yet many people still prefer to pay the extra money to board the sky train in order to avoid the extreme congestion that buses and taxis run into on the streets. It appears that in Bangkok, efforts to build its way out of congestion has failed so badly that the rail transit system is the preferred alternative even at very high prices.

Water Taxi Bangkok
Water Taxi at Dock Downtown Bangkok Thailand, via photopin

Congestion has also spawned the use of other transport options, including Bangkok’s river and canal boats, moped taxis, licensed jitney type buses, in addition to the metered taxi option. The moped taxis are an intriguing form of transportation. They are the riskiest way to travel in Bangkok; many riders weave in and out of lanes at high speeds and swerve past buses and trucks. Despite this risk, the riders command higher prices than even the BTS Sky Train and the MRT subway because they are by far the fastest mode of transportation in Bangkok.

Bus transit is very slow although heavily patronized presumably because of the very low fares and extensive coverage. Jitney type buses (really modified trucks) fill in gaps in public services. Highways, which are generally tolled, are relatively uncongested, but competing free arterials are extremely congested as price sensitive consumers avoid the tolls. The high volume of traffic coupled with auto centric development often creates nightmares for pedestrians.

Still, Bangkok is a lively, vital city that appears to have had a resurgence in transit use and in transit oriented development around the rail transit system. The extensive bus system provides great coverage for much of the city for the adventurous and cost conscious, at least if you can tolerate the uncertainty resulting from congestion. And many streets are teeming with pedestrians and Bangkok is famous for its “street food.”

Bangkok Highway
Congestion on Bangkok highway, via Andrew Hux

Overall, the experience of transportation in Bangkok is one of contrasts. The tolled highways are relatively uncongested but the arterial roads are near parking lots. Rail transit is very high quality, if over-crowded, while bus transit is utilitarian (and over-crowded) at best. Airport access Suvarnabhumi airport via high speed rail is excellent, while access to Don Muang Airport is requires either a taxi or a bus connection. There is significant market segmentation with many different price points in public and private transit. Finally, there are varying degrees of riskiness in travel, from motor cycle taxes, to canal boats, where you literally have to jump on the boat with 20-50 other passengers to modern controlled access rail transit systems.

There is is an overall feeling of disjointedness—in development patterns and transportation options. This is also apparent in sale and organization of transit services. In addition to private provider, there are multiple organizations providing public transit services. Fares across buses, subways, Sky Train, and airport train are not integrated.

Interestingly, the systems remain easy to use. Buses, for example, use cash fares and make change so there is no question of how to pay the fare. Buses also have two people working each bus — one collecting fares and one driving. And though the bus system is decidedly low tech, the public bus system has a terrific app (Bangkok Buses) that lets you see all of the bus routes and check you location on the route so that you actually know where you are going.

Bangkok is truly moving city that provides a plethora of perspectives on the urban condition.


Richard VoithRichard Voith is a President and Principal at Econsult Solutions, and is the current Chair of the Delware Valley Chapter of the Counselors of Real Estate. He is a well-known expert in transportation and applied economics. He is also a board member of PENTRANS and Philadelphia Youth Basketball.

Share This