Think New York and London Are Tough on Two Wheels? Try Bangkok
June 3, 2013, 10:31 p.m. ET
Think New York and London Are Tough on Two Wheels? Try Bangkok
Traffic, Monsoons, Stray Dogs Conspire Against Bike Riders; Mr. Rushta's Trance
Cycling through one of Asia's most chaotic cities isn't exactly a walk in the park. But that will change, the 37-year-old Mr. Rushta says, as bikers get more respect here. Automobile traffic is getting so bad that "everyone will just stop driving cars" and go back to two wheels, he says.
Urban biking has taken off across Europe and the Americas in recent years, led by the popularity of the Vélib bike-sharing system in Paris, which has added 1,800 bike stations and 20,000 bikes since its launch in 2007. Last week, New York became the latest city to launch a program letting urban dwellers rent bikes for short trips. Washington, London and Barcelona had already done the same. An estimated 300-plus bike-rental programs world-wide offer at least 250,000 bikes, according to Fodor's, the global travel company.
But only now is the trend picking up speed in Asia's megacities, where decades of breakneck economic development have turned many into urban-planning nightmares. In Beijing—a two-wheeler's paradise before its economic boom—a local bike-sharing program has expanded to include 14,000 bikes. Hangzhou has nearly 70,000 bikes in its sharing plan, while Bangalore, Taipei and Jakarta have been rolling out their own rental schemes or are working on bike lanes.
Then there's Bangkok, a city renowned for having some of the most crowded, pungent and treacherous roadways in the world. City leaders recently inaugurated the first of 50 Vélib-style bike-sharing centers to serve its 600 square miles, and bike clubs are proliferating.
Middle-class cyclists are venturing into the streets for the first time in decades after cars overwhelmed the city in the 1980s and 1990s, with some riders wearing face masks to filter the sometimes-noxious air.
"In the past, nobody cared about bicycles, but now everybody is interested," says Nonlany Ungwiwatkul, a local entrepreneur who recently opened a coffee shop, Café Velodome, near the city's royal Grand Palace where riders can meet and borrow bikes provided by the shop.
By her estimate, Bangkok now has as many as 30,000 serious riders, compared to almost none five years ago. "People are just bored with the traffic," she says.
The city affectionately known as "The Big Mango" is hardly a biker's delight, though. Once home to languid canals and trishaws, it now has more than 10 million people, with roads better described as obstacle courses filled with idling cars, street vendors and stray dogs.
Thailand's road-traffic death rate of 38 per 100,000 people is among the highest anywhere, versus slightly more than 11 in the U.S. and 3.7 in the United Kingdom, according to the World Health Organization.
Bangkok also has one of the highest average temperatures among major cities and punishing monsoon rains. Tangles of low-hanging power lines and unpredictable drainage covers add further hazards, as do rogue motorcycle drivers who sometimes ride against traffic to reach their destinations faster.
An elevated skytrain and subway launched over the past 15 years helped ease traffic some. But gridlock has worsened again after government stimulus programs last year gave tax rebates to first-time car buyers, juicing sales. Bangkok now has 7.5 million registered vehicles in a city designed for 1.6 million, government officials say.
A city effort to paint bicycle lanes onto sidewalks several years ago, meanwhile, was widely ignored by locals, who promptly set up fruit stalls, sausage stands and other impediments to block the bikeways.
"Streets here aren't meant for bicycles," says Nakul Kavinrat, a 27-year-old bakery owner who rides his bike to work every day. Last year, a drunk taxi driver ran into Mr. Nakul one morning, throwing him off his bike, though he escaped with little more than a big black eye. Some drivers, he says, "have never seen a bicycle rider before."
Surong Phophairoj, a 34-year-old television producer and another bike enthusiast, recalls getting into a fight with a motorcycle taxi when its driver barreled toward him, against traffic, forcing both men to abruptly dismount to avoid colliding head-on.
When Mr. Surong protested, the motorcycle driver got angry. "I heard his friends shout, 'punch him! punch him!'" Mr. Surong recalls. Then the man kicked his bike. Mr. Surong shouted "I will remember you," and rode off.
Many residents ridiculed Bangkok's bike-sharing plan, called Pun Pun Bike Share, when the city launched it late last year. "Do the bikes also come with a head to foot reinforced Kevlar suit?" wrote one reader on the popular Thai web forum Thaivisa.com. "And an oxygen tank," added another.
Despite the hazards, the back-to-two-wheels movement does appear to be slowly catching on. The 12 bike-sharing stations now running have reported solid interest, with about 1,000 regular members participating in the program, according to city officials. The rest of the stations are expected to open by the end of August. The bikes are free for 15 minutes; after that, users pay 35 cents per hour. Helmets aren't required.
"Yes, it's hot and dangerous," said Thammanoon Sungtong, an attendant at one of the stations, as he cooled off by an electric fan one afternoon. But the station gets popular in the evenings, he said.
Sure enough, several customers showed up over the next 20 minutes, checking out lime-green bikes before disappearing into traffic.
Then there are people like Mr. Rushta, who are taking their own bikes to the streets. A onetime pig-farm worker who loads water-delivery trucks near Bangkok's main port, he says he started riding when he was 9 years old. But he was nervous when he first started hitting Bangkok's main streets. "It takes physical strength" to avoid the dangers, he says.
He soon embraced the freedom of zigzagging his Fuji road bike through gridlocked cars. He began wearing a jumpsuit made with the same fabric used by firefighters that doesn't tear when he falls, and he carries a walkie-talkie and medical kit so he can help out at road accidents, which he comes across often.
He has learned to shut out distractions and achieve a Zen-like peace guiding his bike between honking cars. "I don't feel like it's packed—I feel all alone."
—Kersten Zhang contributed to this article.
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