The Adventures of Tom: February 2015
It’s 2015 and at long last it looks like our great city could be about to get a proper cycling infrastructure. Sections of road will be set aside for the humble bicycler to move around Chiang Mai with the confidence that they will not run up the arse of a motorbike or be mangled under a sport utility vehicle. Tracts of traffic-free tarmac will open up to velocipedes wending their way around the moat and through the cobbled nooks and crannies of the ancient city.
And it’s not just the powers in Chiang Mai that appear to be determined to crack the dismal traffic problem and improve the health of the inhabitants. At the end of last year the General Prime Minister himself declared improving bike routes across the country to be urgent national policy. These are indeed exciting times for those of us who picture congestion free cycling trails, not just snaking through the old city but out to Wiang Kum Kam, the Temple of the Golden Mountain and beyond. Sounds marvellous.
Only one eensie-weensie little side note to make. Where will the cars go? Thing is, Thailand, and the north of Thailand especially, has absolutely no plans whatsoever to give up the combustion engine in favour of a two-wheeled peddle-operated metal frame.
It may be a fact that there are now more bikes on the Chiang Mai roads than ever. But there are also more cars and motorcycles trying to push their way through the ever lengthening traffic jams of the city. And this is a problem. I drive what could loosely be described as a motorbike, and although I am all for more cyclists, these are still some of the most dangerous roads on the planet. They are not at all equipped to cater to a gaggle of tourists stopping in the middle of a u-turn on the moat to chat about where they are on their smartphone GPS. I would love to see a dedicated cycling route introduced to Chiang Mai, but where the bikes go, the motorbikes and cars will surely simply follow. As it stands, the rule of the road is the biggest has the right of way. It will take some remarkable policing to ensure that a cycle route doesn’t become a motorcycle route around seven-and-a-half seconds after it is opened. Six seconds later, the cars arrive.
The last time the city authorities introduced a cycling lane around the inside of the moat, just a few short years ago, it looked lovely. The cat’s eyes twinkled in the headlights and for a couple of days it actually felt safe push-biking it into the city at night. A couple of weeks later though, the reflectors had been pulled out of the road by the tyres of SUVs and the bike lane had reverted to what every bit of pavement or thoroughfare reverts to – a motorcycle lane, a parking spot, a place to set up a food stall, and a niche in which to put up an ad for the ATV Centre or a monkey jail in Mai Rim.
But let’s not despair. It’s 2015.
It’s 2015, and I’m probably stretching plausibility here, but I still believe in the Chiang Mai Monorail. Over eight billion baht was reportedly approved by the government for the project in mid-2013. Each car will supposedly be able to transport as many as 40 passengers at a hair-raising 28 kilometres per hour all over the city. I’m still excited about the scheme because I think the similar monorail experience at the zoo is just terrific.
It’s 2015, and at long last it looks like this glorious country could be about to get an amazing new railway network. With China, South Korea and Japan all champing at the bit to help Thailand create this network, the country really does look like it is steaming into the transport future. However, the problem with rail projects is this – because they are such long-term plans, the discussions about important factors such as routes and the gauge of the tracks (standard 1.435-metre dual-track is currently being favoured by Thailand and its Asian chums) can be somewhat protracted and governments need to be consistent. And unfortunately, consistency is not something the powers that be have a great track record in, not even a 1.435-metre standard dual track record. Ahem.
If investment is found, governments avoid falling out with each other, and agreements are signed, then within the next decade travellers could be zipping around the country at speeds up to 180 kilometres per hour. Unfortunately, at the time of writing South Korea and Japan are a little miffed that Thai transport ministers are playing them off against China for the contracts, but that’s politics.
The Bangkok to Chiang Mai route is the most likely to be bagsied by the Japanese government, which is good news because Japan does build some marvellous high speed trains. It is also rumoured that the UK is interested in investing. And this is even better news because as well as transport innovations like black cabs and bright red double-decker buses, Great Britain is probably best known for its world-famous railway solutions.
That said, my history is a tad sketchy, but I seem to recall the last time the Japanese and the Brits “collaborated” on improving the railways in Thailand the relationship was a bit fraught. But this is the 21st century, the war is but a fading memory and I’m sure the PR people will come up with something better than The Death Railway for any new projects.
It’s 2015, and at long last it looks like airlines in Asia will stop losing planes. Too soon? Perhaps.
I think it is tremendous this year has kicked off with announcements that the transport issues across Thailand are to be met with positive action. The government has promised trillions of baht for investment in the overhaul of the roads, railways, airports and seaports over the next decade. And although nobody has actually said what exactly this money will be spent on, it is 2015 and I want to raise a toast to the end of Chiang Mai’s traffic congestion, say cheers to safer cycling and smash an imaginary bottle of champagne on the engine of the new Chiang Mai to Bangkok high speed train.
It’s 2015, and I just know that something might, possibly, perhaps happen.