When I was asked to produce a video about the Chiang Mai Sustainable Urban Transport Project, I thought it would be really interesting for me to see how Thailand’s second largest city had changed. The last time I visited Chiang Mai before this was 15 years ago, in the 1990s.
Chiang Mai is now very vibrant and full of potential. There is an energetic, creative buzz about it and yet it still manages to hold on to its unique heritage and identity.
It is also attracting people. Migrant workers from the Greater Mekong Subregion, expatriates, and tourists around the world are visiting. I know several business owners from Bangkok and overseas who choose to be based here. There are also many foreign tourists. China’s biggest box-office movie, Lost in Thailand, was filmed in the city and boosted tourism significantly.
Consider Chiang Mai’s infrastructure, which has to accommodate everyone. The basics are there- water supply, electricity, and telecommunication coverage. But one issue that jumps out at me is transportation. It is almost the same as it was 15 years ago. The 700-year-old city center is surrounded by a square-shape moat, with and the Ping River to its east and Doi Sutep Mountain to the west. Streets in this old city center cannot be expanded any more.
For a visitor like me, the main options to get around are mainly through songtheaws (red trucks that serve as public transportation) and tuk-tuks. I used both the last time I was there. Hiring a rental car is also an option. For the locals, the solution is to use a car or a motorcycle.
There’s a price that comes with a city’s growth. Since there are more cars on the street the traffic is getting worse. The vibration that comes from the noise emanating from large vehicles can damage the walls of precious religious and historical sites. Car fumes and exhaust can cause a deterioration of health and contribute to the green-house effect.
Are there solutions? I look at the city center’s square-shape moat and realize that people could easily walk if they want to. I notice that bicycle rental shops are everywhere.
I try riding a bicycle. It’s thrilling but not in a good way- anxiety kicks in when I’m surrounded by speeding vehicles. I’ve mastered the stationary bike at the gym but nothing more. The ride would also have been more pleasant if there were more greenery around to absorb the heat.
Some Chiang Mai residents are of the same opinion as me. Please have a look at the video above.
An iconic image representing Chiang Mai in the minds of Thais is that of a lady in a traditional dress, riding a bicycle while holding up an umbrella. I’d like to imagine that this old image of Chiang Mai can once again be revived in the consciousness of its people. People can ride a bicycle to work or school instead of taking cars or motorcycles that emit fumes.
One can say that Chiang Mai’s progress is typical of what happens in secondary cities in Thailand and in the developing world. Motor vehicles flood the streets as these cities grow. But they can also go for green alternatives. As I produced my video and interviewed people, I clearly saw that people cared about Chiang Mai and their communities. That’s a good place to start.
What are the modes of transport in your city? What are good, green alternative ways to get around?