In Chiang Mai, while canvassing for votes I heard the locals wanted a walkable city. When this month the Chiang Mai local municipality experimented with a one-way lane on Ratchadamnoen Road, just like the Los Angelinos, the locals were against it. Locals like the Sunday Walking Street, but they dislike making that street walkable every day. That’s why talk is cheap. And behaviour is the real McCoy.
If the government can be accused of inaction, then I would say that the locals are biased toward complaining. No one likes change. Just as we dislike inconvenient truths, we also dislike inconvenience. Since we cannot have it all: two-car lanes, a bike lane, a walking curb, underground electrical lines, and spotless streets with lush trees, there is always going to be a trade-off. Of all the complaints I heard from the many store owners and staff I spoke to, the biggest ones were inconvenience and fear of sales revenue decline. Let’s explore both.
The drop in sales revenue cannot be accurately assessed now because of covid-19 and lack of tourists. To find out, we need to wait until the high season and after the covid-19 recovery, with the reopening of the tourism industry. But from looking at other cities around the world where streets are turned into walking zones, sales actually increased. Tourists love walking about, taking pictures and sightseeing, renting a bicycle. You cannot look around at every shop while driving. But you can when walking, giving sales opportunities for local shops.
On inconvenience Chiang Mai locals (and expats) need to realise, is that if they truly desire change, they must be willing to adapt themselves and change their behaviours. Try walking around at 6pm near the Three Kings Monument. There you will see people riding bikes, kids skateboarding, people exercising, and local families strolling or expats walking their dog around the canal. It takes time for new habits to set in, but grow it will. One-way streets mean fewer cars, which make the road more bike-friendly and walkable. To be sure, planting more trees, putting electrical wires underground, upgrading walking pavements and getting buses in operation will help nudge locals to walk more. And I hope these are on the Chiang Mai city mayor’s project list.
Granted, it would have been more tactful had the local Chiang Mai city council made the one-way lane announcement 10-20 days beforehand to keep the locals from feeling excluded, to have a say and to be taken a little less by surprise.
This reminds me of the ban (or the extra charge) of plastic bags at 7-Eleven and other stores, which I fully supported. Initially, consumers complained. But with time they started changing their behaviours. I now carry a tote bag with me to the store. Even when I forget, I don’t mind carrying groceries back to my car by hand or using the leftover boxes/cartons provided by many supermarkets to put groceries in. It is not that big a deal. Having city congestion charges like London is a big deal, by contrast.
In the social media age, as a rule of thumb, people who dissatisfied with something (say, a product) are the loudest voices. The majority of people who are either neutral or like the product tend not to raise their voices. So you get this lopsided impression that the majority of people are against it.
The bottom-line is there is no free lunch. You want to be fit? Exercise. Want Chiang Mai to be a walkable city? Put on the pair of sneakers you have bought but hardly use. Get a bicycle. Give the city a chance for change it deserves.