Public transportation — a route to escape dirty air

On average, you take 16 breaths each minute, 960 an hour, 23,040 a day, and 8,409,600 a year. Whether you’re driving to work, biking from school, or sitting at home, each inhale you take brings not only oxygen into your body, but also a number other substances. Hydrocarbons (HC), nitrogen oxide (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter (PM) are just a few named toxics that goes into your lungs each day.

But do we have a choice but to breathe the toxic air our city provides? While Thailand’s capital has been busy building more condominiums, many cities around the world have found and implemented solutions that have proved to be successful. Perhaps Bangkok, too, could take a hint from these metropolises and improve air and life quality for all its residents.

That is not to say that Bangkok hasn’t tried. It has put forward various campaigns and projects — all of which have failed miserably. This includes its effort to encourage bicycling through rental schemes like PunPun. However, it remains almost completely unused simply because the city does not come equipped with an environment safe enough for bikers, regardless of the few bike lanes that it provides. The first word uttered to any Bangkokian who says they bike to work is “dangerous”.

But even a city built for cars like Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, has managed to create its own crowd-sourced bicycle map, starting with one young cyclist who designed a blank map which was later filled by a number of volunteers. From an individual initiative, the act pushed the city council to build its first 5 km cycling corridor and approve a total budget of over 765,000 Pounds (33 million Baht) to build two more.

Meanwhile in Bogotà, Colombia, the mayor wasn’t so willing to build a new bike lane — and so a group of urbanists called La Ciudad Verde (The Green City) painted one themselves. By identifying places where cycle and pedestrian crossings don’t join up and painting a connection themselves, they have given life to urban cycling out from what was traffic and smog.

In Tel Aviv, Israel, when living standards went up, the car became the dominant mode of transport. Then finally, a group of bicycle activists began organizing mass rides every month, until the group grew bigger and bigger. Today, bike use among Tel Avivians has gone up 54%, along with a bike sharing system, and almost 137 km of cycle lanes. Despite its success, the city is still far behind cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen but still works towards learning from its mistakes.

According to a study by researchers at the University of Toronto, 25% of cars cause about 90% of all the pollution emitted from vehicles. What this means is that targeting just a minority of cars, we could make a significant impact on the majority of the problem. hence the increasing popularity for car bans across the world.

While major cities including Paris, Madrid, Athens, and Mexico City are to ban diesel vehicles from their centers by 2025. Similarly, Netherlands and Norway will ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars beginning the same year, while France plans to achieve that by 2040. In Spain, Madrid has banned 50% of cars each day by shifting between even and odd-numbered license plates, and Barcelona will start banning cars older than 20 years in 2019. Beijing now disallows vehicles with emissions above limits to enter its main districts, and Oslo is to turn all its parking lots into recreational spaces by the end of this year. As for Jakarta, efforts have been made to make every Sunday a car-free day. Although these new policies are still in experiment, they act as a great beginning to the reduction of pollution of emissions from transportation.

While the widespread use of electric cars has been a promising solution to gas emissions throughout the US, Europe, and even China, Thailand is still far away from a power supply grid that would be able to support its widespread use. Nonetheless, another feasible solution is installing more sensors, like in Zurich where air quality sensors have been installed on buses for mobile monitoring.

Hamburg, Germany, though, has put its focus on the big picture, with plans for a “green network” that will cover 40% of the city. This means a connected array of parks, recreational areas, playgrounds, gardens and more that will prioritize walking and biking for all. Similarly, Helsinki now aims for “mobility on demand” by 2025. To create a sustainable solution to air pollution and reduce private car ownership, the Finnish capital plans to utilize a smartphone application that will integrate a variety of cheap, flexible and well-coordinated options in the place of the car, such as public transportation and carpool, for convenient use through one payment.

In order to reach its maximum efficiency, cities like Bangkok will have to introduce changes to its entire organization as a whole and address the root of the problem with sustainable strategies, rather than concentrating on small areas with short-term projects. It is no surprise that many of Thailand’s incentives to improve air quality has failed — improving measures like air quality requires revamps of the whole management and organization method. While building safe cycling infrastructures, implementing car bans, and enforcing other new policies may require a large sum of money, if successful, its investment returns can be rewarding economically, politically, socially, and ecologically not only in terms of air quality, but overall life quality. Although solutions like bicycling may not be most accommodating in Thailand’s heat, there are always other ways in which the country can change to address current environmental problems.

While setting new policies and changing existing rules are part of the answer to the problem, actually achieving planned goals is most crucial in determining the success of the implementation. To do so, Thailand’s usual habits of starting projects without completing them should no longer persist.

People adapt to the environment they are provided. If gas is cheaper, people will drive more. But if there are more cycling lanes, people will bike more. If more roads are built, people will buy more cars. But if parking is more expensive, people will take public transportation. The more feasible alternatives to high-emission transportation becomes, the more people are likely to engage in taking them in order to better the quality of air around them — and the more people engage in taking those alternatives, the better air quality there will be. To create change, individual action is crucial, but more importantly, system overhauls can only be pushed forward with support and commitment from governments and corporations.