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.