Ever since the majority party in Thailand’s national government attempted to pass a blanket amnesty bill in November, Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, has limped through weeks of street protests that have lengthened commutes, weakened the economy and even resulted in violence, injury, and more than 20 deaths. In January the protesters showed their anger towards the democratically-elected ruling party through a “Shutdown” of the city. Elections were held in February, however the protesters were able to block many polling locations and thus the results are still disputed at the time of publishing. Many protest sites were kept full of people and thus crippled the city’s already overloaded transportation infrastructure for eight weeks. Finally on March 1st, the PDRC consolidated its protest sites into one in Lumpini Park and thus effectively ended its Bangkok Shutdown. A summary of the politics surrounding the Bangkok protests can be found here.

As the protesters challenged Thailand’s federal government, they also significantly, albeit temporarily, could have jolted the metropolitan government’s sustainable transport efforts years ahead of schedule. While their main goal was to bring the city, its residents, businesses, and most importantly, its government offices to a standstill, the irony is that their actions took cars off the streets and opened them up for people to use, thus enlivening urban life rather than shutting it down. BK Magazine sarcastically described the shut down as “the boldest and biggest urbanization pilot scheme to be undertaken in a major world capital…” Many of the seven intersections closed during the shutdown were not just protest sites, but also impromptu pedestrian malls with food vendors and sellers hawking miscellaneous consumer goods.

Protestors fill Ratchadamnoen Avenue in Bangkok. Photo by tonoman on Flickr.

Protestors fill Ratchadamnoen Avenue in Bangkok. Photo by tonoman on Flickr.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the blocked intersections created bottlenecks that lengthened driven commutes so fewer people chose to commute by car and more were taking public transit or cycling to get to work and travel around town. The protests essentially turned formerly traffic-clogged intersections into pedestrian malls and reduced car use in this city infamous for its traffic. As cars return to the intersections many in the Bangkok community wish the new “walking street markets” were here to stay and hope the protests may have the unintended consequence of spurring a shift away from car-oriented transportation in Bangkok.

Since the first day of the shutdown Bangkok’s BK Magazine has satirically compared  the protesters’ street blocking efforts to the city’s underwhelming official Car Free day in September. The city government arranged the event for September 22, 2013 and according to its estimates 20,000 residents participated. This is not a bad turnout, but likely not large enough to create significant change in this city of twelve million people. Having protesters effectively block major traffic junctions in inner Bangkok for two months however, may have done just that. The unplanned reduction in the number of drivers in Bangkok during the protests’ is not a sustainable model, but what the eight week long shutdown did was remind Bangkokians that their streets do not have to be continually car-jammed if they do not want them to be.

No one actually is arguing for a continuation of the protests, which have become increasingly violent and are now restricted to one site at Lumpini Park, but the positive aspects of fewer cars on the street have not gone unnoticed. Usnisa Sukhsvasti, a Features Editor for the Bangkok Post wrote in her January 20th opinion piece for the paper  that

“Apart from long holiday weekends, hardly a day dawns when I don’t end up sitting frustrated behind the wheel at some road intersection watching the countdown on the traffic-light timer for a third or fourth time in succession… This (the lack of traffic)… is what Bangkok should be like all the time, not just during protests.”

She cites the increased presence of cyclists taking advantage of fewer competing cars in the streets as well as the increased usage of the Airport Rail Link, Bangkok’s often ignored third rail transit system as positive externalities of the city shutdown. It is ironic to think that a protest effort, which sought to shut Bangkok down could potentially spur a shift towards greener and more efficient transportation but that’s what Sukhsvasti and others hope will occur regardless of the political outcome.

If awareness-raising events such as the aforementioned Car Free Day and Critical Mass Cycling events  can have an impact on people’s long-term behavior, it seems plausible that a somewhat mandatory two month reduction in car travel could permanently alter commuting patterns too.

Two major challenges stand in the way of a long-lasting shift from traffic-clogged interchanges to pedestrian plazas in central Bangkok.

Bangkok's Metro Map.

Bangkok’s Metro Map.

First, the city’s formal mass transit infrastructure remains very limited and undersized for a metropolis of twelve million. The city has only four rail lines operated by three separate entities and just one bus rapid transit corridor. While the system is slowly expanding, the crush of new transit commuters added during the protests proved it can only handle so many more people in its current state. The city also features an extensive traditional bus system but many of these buses lack air-conditioning and get stuck in the city’s traffic, making them an unattractive alternative to personal cars. Until the city’s transit system can catch up to Bangkok’s rapid recent growth, it will be hard to convince the middle class to give up its cars without resorting to protest blockages.

The second challenge to reshaping Bangkok into a less car-oriented city is perhaps stickier because it is related to its lively street culture. I have written previously about the virtues of such street commerce, however I do acknowledge this liveliness has its faults. As the opinion staff at BK Magazine wrote, “For a few short hours, Silom Road was a wide, clean pedestrian-friendly boulevard. But soon enough it was crammed with rugs selling secondhand-shoes, pop-up somtam restaurants, and piles of explosive iPhone accessories.” Bangkok’s dynamic street culture creates energy, serves commercial demand, and allows small-time entrepreneurs to thrive, but too much of a good thing can be suffocating. Dodging motorcycle taxis on the sidewalk, smelling the meals cooking at competing stalls, and weaving through persistent hawkers can be draining and exhausting on a daily basis. The sensory assault from Bangkok’s sidewalks and streets will need to be tamed to get more people walking and cycling rather than hiding behind the sealed windows of their cars.

Many Western cities continue to taking steps to become more pedestrian friendly and less auto-centric. Expensively burying urban expressways and retrofitting intersections for pedestrian safety are the orders of the day in cities in the US and Europe. However many cities in the developing world have been moving in the opposite direction building expressways and auto infrastructure at a rapid clip. Calcutta, India for example built three elevated highways in just three years and currently has six more under construction. It is a common fear among planners that these developing world cities are repeating Western mistakes of the past that they will come to regret.

Bangkok has followed a similar pattern to reach its current car-addicted state having developed.

Living in or visiting Bangkok it’s easy to believe its car addiction is deep-seated but Thai motorway network is a relatively recent phenomenon. The political outcome of the Bangkok shutdown protest remains unclear as it drags on from the last remaining stage at Lumpini Park. Both sides still seem unwilling to compromise and both sides have strong bases of people and power from which to draw. Many locals hope that this year’s damaging protests could have a silver lining; a chance for their city to avoid further expensive and ultimately regrettable retrofitting of their dense urban fabric for cars.

The protests proved this city’s resilient population can get around without cars, now it is up to its leaders to decide if this Thailand has a future with this new way of thinking.