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Floating a new idea, an article in Bangkok Trader

An article by Mr. Ridwan Quaium, Research Associate, AIT's School of Engineering and Technology (SET) has been published in the Bangkok Trader.

Floating a new idea, an article in Bangkok Trader

Screenshot of the article

The article can be read at this link: http://issuu.com/mangomangomedia/docs/bt_feb2013/18

The article is also reproduced here:
Floating an Old Idea
By Ridwan Quaium

The World Resource Institute (WRI) estimates that Bangkok loses about US$250 million each year due to wasted time in traffic congestion, as the average vehicle speed during peak hours in Bangkok is only about 12 km/h. Despite this, the vehicle growth in the country is 6%, which is quite high. So is there any solution to this notorious traffic in Bangkok? We might find the answer if we briefly re¬visit the history of Bangkok.

Bangkok at its inception as the capital of Siam in 1782 was a water-based city with floating houses and houses on stilts forming a canal-based ur¬ban form based on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. The rivers and the canals in the city served both as distribution and communication routes, as trade and investment was done mainly within the canals. These canals were both natural and artificial. The artificial canals were dug in 1522, dur¬ing the reign of King Chairachathirat of Ayutthaya, to shorten the distances that foreign merchants had to travel to get to their desired destinations in the city. The water-based developments and the intricate network of canals helped Bangkok to earn the title of the ‘Venice of the East’.

The influence of European colonial power in the 1850s encouraged the shift of the water-based developments and activities to land, which per¬manently transformed the urban fabric of Bangkok. Many canals were filled in to facilitate this change, and the ‘Venice of the East’ moniker started to lose its significance. Due to its poor service and poor con¬nections with other land transports, only a small fraction of the daily commuters use the remaining canals, or ‘khlongs’, for their journey to and from work. The dependency on vehicular transportation has turned Bangkok into one of the most traffic-congested cities in the world. Rapid and unplanned growth of the city; an inadequate capacity of the road¬ways; a poor and slowly developing public transit system; and a general lack of management, analysis, and planning of transportation can be blamed for the notorious traffic congestion in the city.

Bangkok to this date has a relatively diverse public transport system comprised of an overhead mass transit system, the underground rapid transit, the Airport Rail Link, as well as a bus rapid transit (BRT) system. In addition, Bangkok announced plans to construct a 50-kilometer-long covered, elevated skywalk (the ‘Super Skywalk System’). However, the is¬sue is that these mass transit systems have the capacity to serve only a small portion of the city. This is why traffic congestion in the streets of Bangkok still remains and would continue to do so.

Expanding the rail and bus rapid transit is a better option to tackle traffic congestion than building highways, but building the infrastructure for rail transits requires a huge amount of financial and time investment. The urban fabric of Bangkok is so dispersed and sprawled that the ‘Super Skywalk’ may hardly play any role in reducing the traffic congestion in the city. A cost ef¬fective approach to deal with the traffic congestion in Bangkok could very well be the khlong boat transportation. Although a fair amount of passen¬gers commute using the ferries and express boats along the Chao Phraya River, not many commute using the khlong boat service. The Chao Phraya boat service may not help in reducing the traffic congestion in inner Bang¬kok, as it is mainly for transporting people along or across the river. For com¬muting within Bangkok, the khlong boat service is needed. Currently, there are only two fixed khlong routes in Bangkok that serve as transportation.

When people think of Venice, they envision boats being rowed along ca¬nals lined with exotic cafés and restaurants alongside. If it can be done so nicely in Venice, and if it could be done in Bangkok three hundred years ago, there is no reason why it could not be done again here in Bangkok. Although only used for tourism, the canal boat service in the River Walk in San Antonio, Texas, in the U.S., is a good example that Bangkok may use to revitalize the khlong boat service to revive the title of the ‘Venice of the East’. Dinner cruises on the Chao Phraya River and floating markets are very popular tourist activities in Thailand. This means that boats remain a part of the rich heritage of Thailand. The city has to utilize this positive image of boats to enhance the khlong boat service.

To expand the network of the khlong boat service, some initiatives can be taken. The routes on which the khlong boats used to run before (10-15 years ago) could be revived. The canals would need to be expanded and maintained properly by dredging and restoring the quality of the water in the khlongs. The piers needs to be made safer and more passenger friendly for waiting and embarking/disembarking. The piers, as well as the canal cor¬ridor, should be given an overall makeover through landscape architecture. Currently, cafés and restaurants exist along some of the piers, but these could be extended throughout the entire length of the canals to enhance the social and economic activity and vibrancy of the canals and the city. The existing boats could be replaced with more energy-efficient, modern boats that offer more comfort to the riders. The boats should be equipped with adequate safety kits. Connectivity of the khlong boat network to other public transit in Bangkok should be enhanced. The supervising authority needs to market and promote the service through print, electronic, and so¬cial media to attract passengers.

There are many reasons why it is important to revive the ‘Venice of the East’ by improving the khlong boat service. It is the most cost-effective public transport system, as it does not require any expensive infrastructure like the BTS or MRT systems do. The basic infrastructure to run the service, the canals themselves, is already there. Since it runs through the city, it will pro¬vide an excellent alternative to the city commuters. If marketed properly, it has the potential to carry a large number of commuters. This will some¬what reduce the traffic congestion and air pollution. Dredging the canals and extending the network of the canals will provide extra space to store floodwaters during the rainy season. The khlong boat service will create many green jobs and enhance the businesses along the canals. The cafés and restaurants will serve as public spaces for the residents and tourists to socialize. Furthermore, khlong boats were the major mode of transporta¬tion in Bangkok around three hundred years ago. Thus, reviving the service will bring back the rich tradition and heritage of Thailand.

Overall, it will enhance the livability of the city. It’s an idea worth floating for consideration.