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Jammin' about Jams

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By Andrew Biggs

It was a headline worthy of finding scissors, cutting it out, setting it in a mid-priced Big C frame then hanging it on my study wall.

“PM: VIPs must hurry through intersections” was the headline in question.

I wasn’t the only one to gasp. I attended a fashionable dinner party Wednesday night, the day it was published, and it was the talk of the table.

You see it’s a headline that’s open to at least two major interpretations. The prime minister is either defending the police action of blocking we, commoner motorists, whenever a cabinet minister feels the urge to be somewhere on the other side of town during peak hour. Or he is urging VIPs to get a move on when they journey forth across the clogged capital. Don’t dilly-dally at those four-ways, members of cabinet. This is, after all, the lead-up to an alleged election.

This column has tried its hardest to avoid the topic of traffic jams, not just because it is hackneyed, but because the problem is so ubiquitous it is futile to discuss it. In the ten years of this column’s existence, it has been the main topic a grand total of once.

Which is strange. Far be it from me to blow my own horn, but a long time ago I made a positive contribution to alleviating Bangkok’s traffic problem. The fact I have never revealed it in ten years is testament to my modesty or my growing problem of memory loss. So allow me to pick up that horn and take a deep breath.

Back in 2003 I was instrumental in getting two overpasses constructed on Srinakharin Road, thanks to a relentless campaign I mounted on live TV every Saturday and Sunday morning.

Back then I was hosting a news program. I was also living on Srinakharin Road, an arterial road so jammed, it took an hour from the Lasalle intersection to my leafy mansion two kilometres away.

Some of my more hardened critics will pounce on this, claiming I instigated this campaign as a means to get home sooner. To those critics I say you are way off the mark but yes, as usual, your slander contains a skerrick of truth.

There was one night, as I sat in that grid-locked traffic, when I turned my head to the next car. There inside was a father with his three children, all in school uniform, all ashen faced, trapped like I was. Imagine all the things they could be doing if it weren’t for having to sit amid petrol fumes and bumper to bumper cars.

And so I launched my little campaign. It became something of a running joke. Every time there was a news item about Theparak or Lasalle, I would slip in a question as to when the local MPs would build overpasses on both those intersections, freeing up the flow of traffic and making life for we east-siders so much more liveable.

Then I was invited to give a speech at party headquarters of the reigning government. The speech was about learning English and my audience was members of parliament. “Who are the representatives of Samut Prakan, and when are you going to build overpasses at Lasalle and Teparak?” I asked before anything else. Incredibly, at that very event, the MPs put their hands up and announced the budget had already been passed.

Did that make me feel happy? Powerful? Vindicated? None of the above. It took two long years for those two overpasses to be constructed. You thought the traffic was bad before? I looked back nostalgically on the days when it only took an hour to travel those last two kilometres home.

Good things come to those who wait. When the two overpasses finally opened, the difference was incredible. Suddenly those last two kilometres took me five minutes (and, sometimes late at night, just 60 seconds). I was lauded for my media campaign by fellow residents and for a brief moment I felt like a champion of human rights; a bit like the Mother Theresa of the eastern suburbs.

But this is Bangkok. There are no happy endings when it comes to traffic stories, including this one.

Within six months that road became as jammed as it was before the two bridges were installed. The volume of traffic just grew and grew. Such is the nature of the beast. Road space in the average Western city is 20 to 30 per cent. In Bangkok it is just eight.

And now we have promises of new subway, monorail and skytrain lines. They are all being built at the same time. We can only pray they all connect up, for history has shown that city planners here don’t just lack foresight, they lack any semblance of intelligence.

This is why the traffic has been particularly bad the last month. Construction has been compounded with heavy rain … and those infernal cavalcades for alleged political bigwigs.

It has always been the custom for traffic to be halted to ensure smooth travels for the royal family. This is known and accepted by the general populace, but some time not so long ago this courtesy extended to include the prime minister. Then his deputies. And now his cabinet ministers.

Cabinet ministers? Do you have any idea how many members of cabinet there are? The next time you’re at the supermarket, go down the aisle where the eggs are sold and have a glance at three packs of a dozen eggs. That’s how many cabinet ministers we have.

All these ministers are afforded the courtesy of road closures to ensure their smooth journey from parliament house to … where? Certainly not City Planning School.

The Bangkok Post published a story this week about the rising number of complaints from the general public about these cavalcades. Too many B-list cabinet ministers are demanding the police hold back the masses for them to sail through the intersections.

National police chief Chaktip Chaijinda was quoted as saying there would be harsh penalties for officers who complied with these requests. “We do not want to portray the idea that cabinet members are more important than the public,” he said, prompting me to make a mental note to buy Chaktip a drink if I ever see him out and about.

The prime minister was of the same mind. Reporters asked if he would be reducing the number of cavalcades for the cabinet mutton dressed as lamb. He replied that VIPs needed to hurry through intersections, as opposed to the rest of us, who are expected to remain in our vehicles sitting like lemmings lined up on a cliff.

He suggested a maximum of 30 seconds per cabinet minister. One can only pray they don’t decide to all go shopping at the same location at the same time, for that would mean a delay of exactly 18 minutes.

What a pity the cavalcades couldn’t be abolished for all except the royal family. That would mean every politician, cabinet or otherwise, would have to sit in the same infernal jams the rest of us encounter on a daily basis, experiencing that same listless, faraway, ashen-faced resigned look of those three children I saw in that car 15 years ago.

That is all I want to say on the topic. We’ll pick it up again in 2028, when I suspect things will be exactly the same, unless we can curb vehicle and cabinet minister numbers.




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