Reining in Bangkok’s infamous motorbike taxies


April 8, Bangkok

Time is money and guess what? If you are ready to gamble a little, you can actually buy the very time for a few bhat in Bangkok. I’m talking about Bangkok’s infamous motorbike taxis. They are swift but scary and a little unruly too. They are unique alternative to reach your destinations on time when Bangkok traffic stands still, killing most part of your precious time. The taxis or even the famous Tuk-Tuk won’t be of any use. The Bangkok traffic really sucks.

A good relief, however is, these scrappy little two-wheeler taxis are all pervasive. You can find them waiting for passengers in almost all streets and roads around Bangkok. They are the ones with blue or orange shirts leaning over their parked scooters.

Just hop on one of them, they’ll give you a jig jag stunt ride through the standstill traffic, backward and forward, up and down, through the pavement, the road, narrow alleyways and streets. It seems the traffic rules don’t apply to them: they can keep going even against the flow of traffic. What matters for them is to drop you at your destination on time. If you are scared or uncomfortable at pillion riding a stranger, better avoid it and bear with the traffic. Oh, of course, you pay little higher to the motorbike taxis, for all the risky stunts they do to save your time.

These taxis are the byproduct of the growing traffic congestion in the capital city. With over 5% average growth rate and around 10 million population, the East Asian business hub Bangkok is bustling. If roads are expanding, the motors and the migrants are growing in double the rate. At the end of 2012, Bangkok had 6.8 million vehicles registered. Result: clogged traffic in peak hours. In the past decade, Bangkok has invested a huge amount in transport infrastructure: elevated and tolled motorways, elevated sky/metro train, underground metro train, on top of the existing multi-lane highways, Sois and secondary roads and a huge network of old style SRT (state railway of Thailand). But still, the pressure on the road is raising creating problems for Bangkok denizens to commute to their offices and shops.

The Norm
Some find the motorbike taxis as the solution. They can cut short your 1 hour-long train plus taxi drive to just 15 minutes or so. The fact that motorbikes are timesaving does not, however, only guarantee the success of a two-wheeler taxi business. It has to be backed up by a motorbike-friendly norm too.

Unlike in other Asian cities, there is a different norm around motorbike in Thailand. Though it may seem almost a taboo in India, Nepal or Pakistan for a woman to hitch a lift in any one else’s bike (of course excepting boyfriend, husband or a family member), a Thai woman, young or old, would love pillion riding a strangers’ motorbike to reach her destination – that too despite the risk and the seemingly uncomfortable riding when they are dressed up for office.
Young women straddling motorbike taxi is a common sight in Bangkok. In fact, the motorbike taxis say they get more women customers than men. “They [women passengers] prefer riding alone rather than taking a crowded bus,” says Hlek, a motorbike taxi rider in Phiya Thai, Bangkok. Indeed, had it not been the bike-friendly norms, the rickety business would have died out long ago.

Its scrappy side
With all its benefits and popularity, the motorbike taxis are sort of nuisance for the modern Bangkok urban planners. They have safety issues. The pillion riders are at a high risk, as most of them don’t wear safety helmet. If you ask for one, the orange-shirted rider would give you a worn out bucket-cut helmet, with no straps in it. These smelly buckets are better off your head. Sometimes, these bikers carry the whole family. They don’t mind driving with two or three passengers depending on the size of their clients. And at time they may be drunk driving. Bangkok’s leading paper the Nation reports: “most road fatalities involve motorcycle drivers and passengers who did not wear helmets.”  Reports show that in “suburbs outside Bangkok, revelers who get drunk ride motorcycles on secondary roads while going on errands to buy more booze have been causing many accidents”.

There have already been quite a few attempts to ban these biking taxis, but to no avail. The scrappy taxis have grown significantly in number:  the industry employs over one hundred thousand people and feeds their family members. So it’s an industry that keeps a huge population kicking. In July 2005, the metropolitan authority declared a ban on bike taxis. There was a huge outrage. The orange and blue-shirted bikers took to streets – yea, it’s always about shirts, or all sorts, yellow, red, blue, orange -- in hundreds in protest and the ban was soon lifted.

Now there is an adjustment or a sort of temporary solution. The government has jumped in to regulate this informal business to make it more formal, safe and less embarrassing. Only those with proper licenses can ride the motorbike taxi, they must wear special dress. They must make their pillion rider wear a helmet. They have queues and rates fixed and they can operate in certain areas only.

With the annual Songkran (new year festive season) approaching, the authorities are concerned with improving safety of one of the most popular transport systems in the city. Only recently, the Metropolitan Police Bureau launched a special road safety program to make motorcycle taxis safer. They handed over some 500,000 units of inner padding for helmets to motorcycle drivers and passengers in Bangkok to boost road safety during the upcoming Songkran celebration.

The better part though is: Despite all this, you can trust these taxis as they have quite a few benefits. They save time, space and energy. The less the fuel consumption the cleaner the air. They contribute to the public transport and generate employment without much investment. If regulated properly, these taxis could be an environment-friendly business model to replicate in other Asian cities with heavy traffic congestion. A 26-year old Harvard Business School scholar Nadiem Makarim in Jakarta has already proved it a successful model (see video). Know as Go-Jek, the industry employs thousands who are mobilized through software automated networking system linking customers and drivers at the right moment. Give it a try?

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