As part of my exciting rock’n’roll lifestyle, I will a couple of days a week walk from the office here to the Carrefour supermarket on Ladprao Road. The other day I was doing just that very thing but a little later than usual and I noticed that more roadside space had been opened up for street vending.
(I also noted how many people park their cars on Ladprao in the evening, thereby causing unnecessary hold-ups: punishment for first offence, impaling.)
The new spaces were used by a woman with a stall and a few tables and chairs selling various meals, including what looked like grilled pork neck. Some other entrepreneurs seem to have branched out into grilled Thai sausage and popcorn – not very money-spinning operations in themselves but offering a few extra baht per day which might make a difference in someone’s life – the people in the soi next to ours who so diligently cook chicken and prepared somtam pretty much everyday have been able to buy a car for their family, for example. That might not sound so earth-shattering but it represents I should think quite a big improvement in their lives. So, it is possible for work on the streets to offer a way out of poverty at least under some circumstances.
Of course, the increasing use of space for street vending has other effects, as well – more pressure is placed on public services (relating to hygiene in particular) and pollution (noise, smell, waste) is increased. Increased commercialization of public space is also not to everyone’s taste and, as more vendors have joined that stretch of road adjoining Union Mall, I find I have to walk in the street because the pavements are so crowded and, given the way that some people drive, that is not something I am entirely happy to do.
Still, as Schumpeter observed: capitalism is an endless process of creative destruction and these streets of Bangkok represent capitalism in action.
Genius Traffic System – yes, really – has produced the snappily titled Smart Sign Area Traffic Control System, which it believes can solve Bangkok’s traffic problems. The system will use censors to determine how many cars (or vehicles as a whole) are waiting at a junction, how many are queueing behind them and so forth and then will send the information via optical cable to the nerve centre. This system is said to be only half as expensive as foreign competitors and to be very efficient.
The problem seems to be what people are going to do with the information when they get it – I spend a lot of time stuck at the Lad Prao-Ratchada junction – a lot of time. So much that I could quite easily walk up and down the road not just counting all the cars but stopping for a chat with the drivers. What would the controller in the nerve centre do with that information? It is clear already from painful experience that much more time is given to Ratchada vehicles turning left onto Lad Prao or those coming the wrong way down the road (i.e. not the way I am going) turning right onto Ratchada than is given to good, honest, hardworking people who just want to go down the road to Ladprao 62. The controllers currently have set up the system this way and have no reason to change just because it would help more people get home earlier.
There are, after all, numerous rumours concerning payments to police officers to allow more time for people in certain sois extra time to turn onto the main road – travel the roads around New Year and the police are out on the streets in force to collect presents from grateful punters. There are other rumours that the police prefer to turn off the computer systems that already exist to provide themselves with more opportunities for revenue-earning. How and why, Genius Traffic System, will that change?
According to the CEO, “… administrators will be able to monitor and control traffic lights from the computer centre.” Obviously they would never fall asleep or get drunk and have a few laughs – although I imagine I would be tempted to do so, given the chance.