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Exotic Bangkok Groans Under Traffic Gridlock : Thailand: Most of the city’s canals have been paved over to make room for more than 3 million cars and almost as many motorcycles--quadruple the number 10 years ago.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

This noisy Southeast Asian capital used to be known as the “Venice of the East.” Its graceful canals were so colorful and exotic that foreign visitors called them an opium smoker’s vision of Asia.

But these days people spend so much time in their cars caught in gridlock traffic that one of the hottest-selling items in Bangkok department stores and automobile service stations is a portable urinal for the car. Marketed as the “Ezee-Pee” and “Comfort 100,” the devices come with female attachments and are becoming standard in taxis and many family cars.

“Our society is going mad,” said Thongchai Panswad, an engineering professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “Bangkok traffic reached a critical stage some five years ago, but no one took the problems seriously until recently.”

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Most of Bangkok’s the canals, or “klongs,” have been paved over to make room for more than 3 millions cars and almost as many motorcycles--quadruple the number of vehicles on city streets only 10 years ago.

A just-concluded United Nations conference confirms what most of the 8 million residents of this Southeast Asian capital have known for a long time: Two decades of skyrocketing economic growth have turned Bangkok into the gridlock capital of the world.

Today 12-minute waits for red lights are common, and so is traffic that snakes along at an average pace of 5 m.p.h. So much lead is dumped in the air from vehicle exhaust fumes that babies are routinely born with blood levels that exceed 20 micrograms of lead per deciliter--a threshold figure the United States and other Western governments label a “serious public health risk” because that much lead destroys nerve and brain cells.

And lead is only one of 18 toxic substances in Bangkok’s foul-smelling air that exceed maximum levels considered safe by international standards.

Restaurant owners say business is bad because traffic jams that continue past midnight keep Thais at home and foreign visitors in their hotels fearing for their health.

So severe are Bangkok’s problems that the United Nations has dubbed it the “most polluted megacity on Earth.”

Thailand’s economy is expected to grow 7.7% this year, a figure that would otherwise be the envy of most industrial countries, but traffic jams will shave 1% off the country’s surging economic expansion.

According to official estimates, in the last six months, 93,000 new cars have joined the vehicular fray. About 450 new motorcycles per day also appeared on streets.

Experts say not much can be done about traffic congestion anytime soon, besides tallying up the human and environmental costs.

According to the United Nations, Bangkok’s growing pains are part of an unprecedented demographic upheaval shared by a dozen other Asian cities with populations approaching 10 million.

While only one-third of all Asians live in cities today, U.N. forecasters say 55% of the region’s people will be urban dwellers by the year 2025--a population shift of about 1.5 billion persons, or more than the entire population of China.

Bangkok authorities have tried changing school and office hours, set up one-way bus lanes on major streets, and built scores of overpasses atop major intersections--all with no apparent effect on the gridlock.

Trips to and from the office now eat up an average of 40 working days a year.

The 15-mile trip from the city center to Don Muang Airport can take as long as three or four hours, prompting at least one luxury hotel to start a helicopter service. Hundreds of less well-heeled tourists check out of their Bangkok hotels a day ahead of their departure time and into lodgings closer to the airport, thus ensuring they will not miss early morning flights.

City planners say laying more asphalt is not the answer to Bangkok’s traffic jams--or those of other Asian capitals. Only a system of satellite cities and mass-transit railways can save Bangkok from the congestion and pollution that officials say they are powerless to stop, according to one authoritative report issued last year.

But several mass-transit schemes have been left in doubt by bureaucratic snarls and skeptical investors.

A recently opened $1.1-billion “second-stage expressway” has turned into a fiasco, in part because contractors and Thai bureaucrats could not agree on how to divide revenues from a hefty $1.20 toll charge that has outraged motorists using the new 12.5-mile-long road.

Proposed solutions to Bangkok’s problems include providing more buses and reducing the number of cars through higher taxes or production quotas.

The state-owned Bangkok Mass Transit Authority runs 10,000 regular buses, but the operation loses $80,000 a day due to low fares. A current plan calls for building two routes for extra-long buses in the downtown area that would include tracks, so other vehicles couldn’t use the lanes.

Some politicians want to adopt a system similar to neighboring Singapore, where motorists buy special permits to enter heavily traveled downtown streets.

But it seems hard to separate Thais from their automobiles at any price. A new study says that car sales are accelerating, especially luxury models.

As if Bangkok didn’t have enough problems, elephants are descending on the city in search of food, adding to the congestion.

Thailand banned commercial logging five years ago after a landslide buried two villages in the northwest, putting thousands of elephants out of their jobs hauling freshly cut timber from tropical hardwood forests. Their natural habitat now in shambles, some elephants have begun infiltrating large cities.

“Life is more than just money,” said Pisit Patalung, secretary general of the Wildlife Fund of Thailand. “We have got to protect our forgotten friends like the elephants, who end up going berserk in the Bangkok traffic because of the noise and fumes.”


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