For one brief shining moment: Bangkok bus lanes

For one brief shining moment... Bangkok bus lanes - August 16, 2001

I used to take the bus. Late at night, tearing across the city on a bus with all the windows open and a bracing breeze from a storm blowing through, they were great fun.

But usually, like the hoards of workers forced to take the ill-equipped buses, I was resigned to sullenly and compliantly cursing my fate as one of the unfortunates without a car, slowly breathing the still, still air of the hot city.

One morning in 1996, the bus lanes on Phahonyothin Road and a few other major thoroughfares were marked out with cones. The bus lanes had always been there, but no effort was made to keep cars out. This time, buses were actually the only vehicles permitted in the lanes.

It was part of then-Deputy Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's drive to solve Bangkok's traffic problem in six months. It was clear there were dozens of areas around town where it would never be possible to strictly close off bus lanes. There were too many roads with oddly configured lanes, weird u-turns, and buildings with no drop-off zones. However, on major roads such as Phahonyothin and Silom, bus lanes seemed to benefit the majority of commuters.

For the first time, riding the bus did not seem like a penalty for not having a car. I remember seeing the spoiled-brat kids in their giant Mercedes stopped in traffic. Their swarthy drivers scowled as I zoomed by and I was happy I rode the bus.

It was a heady time and people swapped pet theories on how to improve traffic--ban cars from the inner city (a la Singapore), crack down on reckless motorcycles, expand the bus routes, stagger work times, etc. New carpool lanes were discussed and people wondered whether unemployed men would gather at the start of these lanes, like they do in Jakarta, offering to ride in a car for a small fee to enable the driver to use the lanes.

I cannot recall exactly when the bus lanes disappeared. Like many optimistic schemes in Thailand, they were gradually forgotten and everything returned to normal. I know the lanes did not last very long. Two weeks? Three? It seemed to fall apart when cars with four or more persons were allowed in the lanes along with the buses. Apparently there were too many cars with dark tinted windows and "military or police caps on the rear ledge" (Bangkok Post editorial, June 26, 1996) that used the lanes, daring the authorities to stop them. Pretty soon everyone flooded back into the bus lanes. Eventually, Thaksin gave up on his traffic pledge.

Five years later, Thaksin is back, this time as Prime Minister and head of the first party ever to win an absolute majority of seats in parliament. Pledges to solve traffic problems have been forgotten, but the city is very different than it was in 1996.

Within a year of the bus-lane experiment, disaster struck the Thai economy and the marketplace removed cars from Bangkok streets. Fixed mass transit systems finally arrived and although the road system remains an unsightly, inconsistent tangle, many improvements were made. Nevertheless, given another bubble economy, the streets will surely swell up with the cars of the newly rich once again.

Today I am part of the problem. I drive--one man, one car. On my way to work I can still sympathize with the young men and women dangling from handrails outside the doors of overstuffed buses, each person knowing it is their punishment for not having a car. I turn up my ac and zoom by.

I wish had a photo of the bus lanes from that time. The open bus lanes marked off with cones are a vivid memory. If you know of a photo of this, let me know.

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