Mickey Sheehan

On yer bike!

Is Bangkok's new rent-a-bike scheme doomed to failure?

A story caught my eye very recently on the excellent Richard Barrow in Thailand website. On the 1st May, Bangkok introduced a bicycle rental scheme, presumably in an effort to encourage more people to go green and to go some way towards reducing the awful traffic jams that have become part and parcel of our daily lives in this city. A brave move destined for failure? You be the judge.

Similar schemes have already been implemented in several major European cities. On a recent trip to France, where I spent a couple of days in Paris, the distinctive grey rented commuter bikes are a common sight everywhere. I asked the elderly lady whose home I was staying at about the early days of the Paris rent-a-bike system.

She told me that the scheme had been around for a couple of years but initially it was met with great skepticism. One night the population of Paris went to bed and the next morning, they woke up to ‘bike stations' all over the city and at each station, a whole row of gleaming new bicycles just waiting for someone to ride them.

"During the first days of the scheme, Parisians just stood around shaking their heads and not really knowing what to do" my friend told me "There were so many questions that seemed to be going unanswered. How long can one rent the bike for? How do I pay for the bike? What if I want to ride the bike from station A to station B and there are no parking slots there?"

But what was truly amazing was that while the Parisians stood around shrugging their shoulders and pointing at bicycles, the tourists - and Paris gets plenty of those - took to the rent-a-bike scheme like hunchbacks to Notre Dame. All you could see for weeks on the roads of Paris were tourists and sightseers zipping along The River Seine from the Arc De Triomphe to The Pompidou Center - all for just a few euros a day. And it sure beat taking the crowded, stuffy and sometimes dangerous metro system.

Eventually though, the people of Paris, not to be outdone by a bunch of camera-wielding tourists, took to the saddle themselves and from that moment on, the scheme became a runaway success, especially for vehicle-owners tired of forking out a fortune for car-parking spaces in a city that is allegedly the most expensive in the world to park a car.

But let's go back to the scheme in Bangkok. As I understand it - and many thanks to Richard Barrow for providing the info - there are around a dozen bicycle stations, all unfortunately in the same area of the city. And you have to pay in the region of 300 baht a year for a card that enables you to access the machine and ‘unlock' the bikes. The rental fees themselves are ludicrously cheap - and it will only set you back a hundred baht if you keep the bike all day.

There is also a website run by the company managing the rent-a-bike scheme but none of the information is in English. Is someone trying to tell us something?

The big question of course is will the scheme work in Bangkok? I told ten Thai friends about the project - none of them knew or had read about the scheme - and every single one of those friends looked at me quizzically and then got me to repeat the story.

What? Bicycles? In Bangkok?

And then they all collapsed in a giggling fit.

Sorry but you can add my name to that list of doubters as well. "It's too hot" are nearly always the first words to come out of a Thai person's mouth when discussing all things bicycle and Bangkok roads - and I'll go along with that.

I have other issues too. The bike rental company has promised that the hire comes with full insurance. So if a truck driver, perhaps in Bangkok for the day from the rural North-east, accidentally runs you over, rest assured he'll stand over you and make sure you're OK while you both wait for a representative from the insurance company to arrive. Oh yes, and you know those gifts that you get on Christmas morning. Well, they're all made by elves in Santa's workshop.

The whole scheme is a step - or at least a couple of pedals - in the right direction. But Bangkok isn't ready for this - just like Bangkok isn't ready for so many other things. This city will never be a cyclist's utopia or a two-wheeled commuter paradise where everyone is suddenly rushing to the store to buy padlocks and bicycle clips. Thais are simply too in love with their cars. And that's such a shame because I was a fanatical cyclist in my youth and I can't tell you how much I miss being in the saddle.

I'll leave the last word on cycling in Bangkok to a teaching colleague I once worked with. He had decided to get fit and so bought himself a top-of-the-range mountain bike to cycle the six miles to work each morning and home again at night. To cut a long story short, he was hit by a car twice in the first four days. Not the same car mind - different cars on different days. The second time he was hit by a middle-aged woman driving an old Mercedes Benz. He managed to catch a glimpse of her through the rear windscreen as she sped away from the scene of the crime.

Our friend then wheeled his buckled bike the rest of the way to school, gave it a good kick and never put his ass on the saddle again.

And that's pretty much how I feel about cycling in Bangkok thank you very much.


Agree with Gino, the author has clearly not had too much exposure to the huge, vibrant and enthusiastic biking culture in Bangkok. Not that I blame him - he hit the nail on the head when he said most Thais think biking is insane. The problem is that most people think biking = riding a bike down Rama IV Road, when in fact there are hundreds and hundreds of little roads and sois to use. I know many - many, many - who ONLY ride their bikes - to work, to dates, to eat...it's a subculture that's growing fast.

Unfortunately I have to agree - the plan won't work. Publicity is awful, Thais love cars too much, it's too hot for most people, and enforcement of laws, bike lanes, insurance, etc, will happen when the Red Shirts learn to love Abhisit. This touches on a much larger issue in Thailand actually - it's not the implementation of laws or new ideas that's lacking, it's enforcement by the police, who are useless. But I digress.

Anyway, I ride in Bangkok as often as I can, usually on weekends. I use Google Maps to plan some pretty amazing routes way out into the neighboring provinces and have very rarely had any problems. If you're patient, ride safely, and understand how traffic works, it's not a bad place to ride at all. I would never say its safe...but what city is?

By Greg, Bangkok (9th August 2013)

Yes, there are many good bike shops in Bangkok, and all top makes can be bought. I bought my 70000 baht racing bike there, but that apart, Bangkok is the only area of Thailand that I would not consider riding my bike in. In my opinion it really is not safe. And then there is the awful pollution. Bangkok has the most selfish road users in Thailand, and the bus drivers are all maniacs. I rode in London for 8 years without incident, and now train 200km's a week all around the northeast. Fine roads and clean air. OK, make your own decision, but sorry,as a lifelong cyclist I would just say don't!

By Rory, Nongbulamphu (4th May 2013)

Cycling is much more popular in Bangkok than you seem to realize. There are possibly a dozen high-end bicycle shops in the city, including a shop in Nonthaburi that displays numerous models in the ฿240,000 range. The folding commuter models are also popular. I’ve seen about a dozen different makes and models on the streets. I frequently see small groups of guys and occasionally a girl riding racing models together. And I see quite a few riders on very basic models, occasionally attached to a street vendor cart.

I’ve been riding for nearly three years. Last year I commuted twenty-six kilometers a day, weather permitting and occasionally when it didn’t but looked like it might. The year before I commuted by bus but took a folding bicycle for the final three kilometers, saving ฿200/week which would pay for the bike in about three years.

It’s great fun and good cardiovascular exercise, despite the heat. It does help to carry fresh clothes and take a college shower in the restroom before reporting for duty. It’s a bit of a conversation starter and a fun activity for dates.

There have been unfortunate incidents. The first bike I bought in Thailand was stolen right outside of Century Mall. I had chained it to a post for surveillance cameras only to discover that they weren’t yet in operation. One lady, whose behavior hardly qualifies for such a respectful term as she wouldn’t pay for it, drove over my front wheel. I had to replace the spokes on both wheels so they would match. I was sideswiped by a taxi, which threw me over the handlebars. I scraped my knee and elbow and ruined my slacks. By the time I retrieved my bicycle, which somehow wound up about four meters behind me, and got the chain back on the sprockets, the taxi driver was long gone. I hit a pothole that was obscured by a puddle of dirty rainwater and came off the saddle. I braked abruptly to avoid a car, came off the saddle and punctured my palm on a nail protruding from a planter. And I managed to crash while engaging in a running water pistol battle during Songkran a year ago.

There have been a few inconveniences. Some bus drivers went out of their way to avoid picking me up when I had my commuter bicycle, even though it was in its cover. Century Mall is somewhat hostile to cyclists, so I rarely shop there.

Yes, there are some negative aspects to cycling in Bangkok, but it’s nice to have the option. Taxi drivers often refuse you, charge you an exorbitant flat rate or take the scenic route to run up the meter. Tuk-tuks are overpriced. Motorcycle taxis sometimes charge more than taxis and only take short runs. Buses are slow and overcrowded. Last year my thirteen kilometer commute took about fifty minutes by bicycle, but eighty minutes by bus not counting waiting at the bus stop.

By Gino, Bangkok (2nd May 2013)

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