Will Chiang Mai Ever Have Good Public Transportation?


Part of the problem

There are several images that come to mind when one mentions Chaing Mai—Wat Doi Suthep temple, Thaphae Gate, the panda bears at the zoo, and khao-soi noodles. Another symbol of the city is the รถแดง rot-daeng, or “Red Truck”. You can’t miss them. The red trucks are what is called a song-thaew in Thai, that is a pickup truck with covering in the back and two bench seats for passengers. The rot-daeng are the main form of public transportation in Chiang Mai, and they are also the cause of much of the city’s traffic problems.

What’s wrong with the rot-daeng you ask? Aren’t they convenient and cheap? Well, sure. For those of you who don’t know how they work, the rot-daeng function like shared ride taxis. They drive around and around looking for passengers. To get a ride you just flag one down with a wave of your hand (palm downward) and they’ll pull over to the curb. You tell the driver where you want to go, and if he’s heading in that direction or willing to take you, then he’ll say OK. You hop in the back and ring the buzzer to signal when you want to get out. For trips within the central city it is 20 baht, and the fare goes higher if you are going further.


Now here’s what’s wrong with this. This is your only real choice to get around. Chiang Mai is the 2nd largest city in Thailand, but it has no real mass transit system of any kind. There are no city buses, no trains or subways. Besides the rot-daeng there are tuk-tuks and a few metered taxis. That’s it. Why is there no city bus service? It’s because the rot-daeng drivers fought against it. There has been much discussion and many meetings and studies, lots of money wasted supposedly exploring solutions to Chiang Mai’s traffic problems. Finally, about 6 years ago they decided to get a fleet of new air-conditioned buses and run them on 5 routes. This sounded like a great start. The new buses were supposed to cost 10 baht and run every 15 minutes, delivering you to your destination in the city in air-conditioned comfort.

But the rot-daeng drivers didn’t like that. Their work collective has sometimes been described as a mafia. They bullied their way onto the bus plan and ultimately ruined it. Two of the planned bus routes were given to the rot-daeng drivers to drive their hot, polluting pickup trucks and charge 15 baht per passenger. Yes, that’s correct. They were allowed to charge 50% more to drive people in hot, open-air pickup trucks instead of comfy, new AC buses. The buses were only given 3 routes and doomed to failure. Nobody seemed to know where they ran to or when they were running. They were never given a chance to prove themselves a better alternative.

Now what else is wrong with the red trucks besides the drivers sabotaging other mass transit plans? They exacerbate the traffic problems by their very presence on the road. At any one time there are hundreds of rot-daeng driving around the city, and half of them are empty. They drive around slowly looking for passengers, they stop on the side of the road absolutely anywhere they wish to, and they’ll park in a driving lane, all of which ruin the flow of traffic. You could easily replace every 10 red trucks with one bus and improve traffic flow vastly. And then there is the pollution. The city’s fleet of red trucks contain some of the worst air pollution offenders around. It is more often that you can see a visible cloud of blue-black smoke spewing from the back of a rot-daeng than you find one with anything resembling clean emissions.


Could this be the answer?

So then, what is the solution for Chiang Mai’s traffic woes? Would some type of rail service be the answer? An elevated train would be expensive and ugly. It would totally ruin any old charm that the city still retains. A subway system might actually work well if they planned the routes out and coordinated it with a system of park-and-rides for people in the suburbs. There was an idea for a while to install some tram lines. Streetcars are quite successful in many Japanese cities. They have the advantage of being cheaper than a subway to set up, but the big disadvantage is they have to compete with surface traffic. People would have to be convinced the tram was better than their car or motorbike to use it. And the only way that would happen is if it were faster. So what they’d have to do is give the streetcars green light priority, or in other words coordinate the traffic lights so that the streetcars never got stuck at red lights. If everyone knew they could get across town 20 minutes faster in an air-conditioned streetcar they may have a chance.

What are the other options? Well they could always try a real bus service—With many lines serving all parts of the city, running at regular intervals, and well publicized routes and timetables to actually encourage people to use them. If given the choice of riding an air-con bus or in the back of a songthaew, I think 9 out of 10 people would pick the bus, especially if it was the same price or cheaper. Ultimately Chiang Mai’s traffic problems come down to a lack of leadership from the politicians. Until they come up with something new, the best way to get around town is with your own private motorbike.

Which reminds me of one more important point. A good public transportation system would save lives. Drinking is by far the favorite pastime for Thai people. The majority of people who go out drinking at night go to and from the bar, pub, or nightclub with their own car or motorbike. The percentage of intoxicated drivers after midnight must be frightening. A good public transport system that ran at least until bar closing time would decrease the number of drunk driving accidents and save many lives each year.


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