I emerge from home on a Monday morning, bright-eyed and bushy tailed after the weekend. By the time I reach the end of the street, I’ve come close to being mown down by a handful of motorbikes – and I haven’t even stepped off the pavement.
It’s a common experience for anyone who’s travelled through, let alone lived in, Bangkok – and it must rank highly on the list of pet peeves of the dwellers of this fine city.
Hell, sometimes you even come across a full-sized car whose driver has decided the sidewalk is as good as another lane.
Why are pavement-intruding motorists just so widespread here?
Driving a motorbike on the pavement is, of course, illegal – no prizes for guessing that. It’s an offence that is covered by the Land Traffic Act 1979, which provides for fines of between ฿400 and ฿1,000.
But like so many laws in Thailand, it’s rarely – and certainly inconsistently – enforced.
In the months after 2014’s military coup, there was much talk of a police crackdown on offenders as part of the not-so-sound-bite-friendly “returning foot traffic safety to pedestrians” campaign. It made something of a difference in the downtown areas where it was focused, at least while it lasted – but of course that wasn’t very long.
I spend my life cursing motorbikes – both taxis and individual vehicles – that come at me down the footpath, and I’ve taken to deliberately ignoring those I can hear approaching from behind, or which I can see in my peripheral vision.
I’m waiting for the day when one of them decides to have a go at me for not getting out of their god-given way; at the same time, I’m hoping not to see the day that one of them actually collides with me.
Motorbike taxi drivers are among the biggest perpetrators of this practice – though they’re far from being the only ones. That means the whole situation leaves me feeling something of a hypocrite when I hop on the back of a motorbike taxi, only for it to mount the pavement or go the wrong way down the street in an effort to beat the traffic.
Doing so isn’t my choice, of course, so perhaps I should go easy on myself – but, given that I’m usually in a rush, I can’t say I’m not grateful to be able to get to my destination a little quicker, and without having to weave in and out of the traffic jam.
If nothing else, while I don’t for a minute condone those who ride their motorbike on the pavement, I can at least begin to get into their heads and understand why they do it in the first place.
And that starts with nightmarish traffic and roads that simply aren’t fit for purpose.
I don’t drive – not here and not elsewhere – but even I can tell that Bangkok’s choice of huge dual carriageways makes a U-turn a difficult option.
While major highways in other countries might have the imposing central reservations between carriageways that we see here, in Bangkok even roads like Sukhumvit – large, yes, but still not supersize – are designed in that way, and simply not made for turning.
It’s often a long drive out of your way, and a challenging jump across several lanes, before you come across a junction that will allow you to safely and legally make a turn back in the direction you’ve just come from.
So what do opportunistic drivers do, particularly those on nimble little motorbikes?
It’s obvious – they’re going to mount the pavement and head back the way they want to go, particularly if they know they’re not likely to be pulled over for it.
A quick tangent: that understanding brings into focus the kind of pavement-infringing motorcyclists I absolutely loathe most. They’re thankfully not all that common in my experience, but every so often you’ll come across some idiot who’s not even going in the opposite direction to the traffic on the main road – they’re going the same way!
Occasionally they’re pulling into the front of a house or shop, or sometimes they’ll decide to park up right on the pavement – and in the process block my way just a little more – but every so often it’s just an idiot who either wants to jump ahead of the traffic or who genuinely appears to think the pavement is just another part of the road that’s fair game.
What’s the solution to the bigger problem?
It’s unlikely that the city’s road structure is about to be changed overnight, so perhaps a few more legal U-turn points is the answer.
However, I have a somewhat more radical approach: what if we built a reverse-direction motorbike-only lane at the edges of major roads?
It could run just between the main road and the footpath, separated from both yet with regular entry points from the road itself. It would allow motorcyclists to go back in the direction they have just come, and to go as far as they like without needing to mount the pavement and put us pedestrians in danger.
Some will take a less sympathetic line than me, arguing that the law is the law and that drivers should either accept the need to wait for the next exit or find another way to travel.
Among the best arguments I’ve heard for this way of thinking is to consider how motorists would like it if we pedestrians began walking down the middle of the road because the pavement was a bit crowded for our liking.
It’s a fair point – and it’s not as though cars (well, the non-pavement-mounting majority anyway) have much option but to wait for the next turn-off, so why should motorbikes get special treatment?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from advocating the behaviour – but as well as looking at short-term fixes, perhaps by looking at solutions to the core problem we stand more of a chance of overcoming the issue in the long run.
Oh, and perhaps the police should actually enforce the Land Traffic Act (and not just every few years when it feels like a good time for a photo-shoot-happy ‘crackdown’).
Maybe then, with a good dose of the rule of law, motorcyclists will begin to understand that the footpath belongs to pedestrians, and that invading our space has consequences.
What’s your view – would a reverse-direction motorbike lane work? If not, what would?
Image credit: 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com