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Days gone by were not so crowded on the roads

Numbers Grow in 2007 as Vehicles Clog Phuket

Friday, January 25, 2008
THE Phuket Provincial Transport Office has been seeking a provider who will be prepared to run a local bus system in Patong.

But nobody has come forward to fill the vital role, Chatchawarn Ngarmtup, head of the office, told Phuketwan in an interview.

The need for an efficient, low-cost public transport system in Patong is obvious and high on most official lists of the island's pressing needs.

Phuket is rapidly plunging on into the 21st century but carrying 20th century baggage, the kind without wheels, especially when it comes to transport.

Tourists frequently complain about the high cost of tuk-tuks in the holiday resort town, and any business bold enough to start a local bus service in Patong would inevitably face opposition from tuk-tuk drivers.

But public transport in Patong is just one of a range of pressing needs for the island's road system.

The figures are alarming. It will come as no surprise that there are almost as many registered vehicles on the island as there are registered residents.

Latest figures for 2007 demonstrate the scale of the problem. Registered motorcycles total 213,075, plus 49,470 cars and 37,699 pickups. Including vehicles of other kinds, that's a total of 307,386.

Compare this to turn-of-the-century 2000, when there were 155,578 motorcycles, 19,090 cars and 19,625 pickups. That's a total of 197,226.

The real figure of vehicles on the roads would be augmented by many motorcycles, cars, pickups, trucks and buses that are actually registered in other provinces.

Two major factors are at work. The first is the wealth factor.

Because people on Phuket are growing more prosperous thanks to tourism, individuals and families are upgrading to motorcycles for every member of the family or to a family car or pickup, or maybe even two.

As large vehicles replace motorcycles, the narrow lanes or sois that were once adequate to allow a couple of buffaloes or bicycles to pass each other are now hopelessly congested.

The other factor is that while Phuket is generating tourist income that benefits the whole of Thailand - one in every three overseas visitor come to Phuket - the island does not get its fair share of money for infrastructure, including new roads.

Island income is based on the number of officially registered residents.

A campaign to increase this number is underway now, but conservative estimates put the real total number of Thais living on the island in high season at more than 500,000.

Combine that with the number of tourists in any high season month and Phuket's infrustrature, made to support 320,000 people, is actually having to cope with three times that number.

Concern about the future grows more urgent as Phuket's prosperity enables more people to upgrade to more expensive and larger forms of individual transport.

Although a bus system is clearly safer than risking accidents each day on a motorcycle, most people continue to take the motorcycle because the public system either just doesn't exist or isn't adequate.

The pressure of having larger numbers of individual travellers on the roads intensifies the case for broader, larger highways and freeways, just the kind of road system that is a turn-off for tourists.

What they want to find when they get here is an idyllic tropical island, not an urban sprawl of spaghetti junctions and flyovers of the kind they left behind in Sydney, Singapore, London or Hong Kong.

Pollution is another unwelcome side-effect.

While Phuket's air has to be considerably cleaner than, say, the air in Bangkok, that won't necessarily remain so if the number of vehicles continues to grow at extraordinary rates and the traffic on the island becomes more dense day by day.

Worse congestion may be on the way.

India has announced development of a small four-door car called the Tata Nano that is likely to be built and sold in Thailand. It will cost just 82,500 baht.

As the Independent newspaper in Britain reports: ''Many environmentalists believe the new vehicle, with a price tag half that of India's current cheapest car, will simply clog up already busy and broken roads and add pressure to an infrastructure that is badly buckling.''

The same could be said about Bangkok, or Phuket.

At the centre of plans for the future is Khun Chatchawarn. If there are no takers for provision of a Patong bus service, the authorities will just have to think again.

Khun Chatchawarn is keen to expand the existing public bus system beyond Phuket City. He has seven or eight new routes in mind.

A gradual expansion may be in order. But first, authorities need private operators to make it happen.

More one-way streets, beyond the Patong one-way system introduced in 2007 and the older one-ways in Phuket City, may come if traffic continues to grow as a problem.

It's already listed as No. 1 by many.


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