The extent to which a population cycles depends on what infrastructure is available to them. Striped bike lanes? That will encourage some people to venture out on bicycles. Dedicated lanes that are physically separate from traffic? That move makes bicycling even more appealing, especially to new cyclists. The Netherlands takes the proverbial cake for bicycle friendly infrastructure, though, especially with the recent opening of a dedicated bicycle roundabout that “floats” above a busy vehicular intersection.
The roundabout is located in Eindhoven, a suburban setting that would look familiar in many parts of the United States. Large streets carrying lots of fast moving vehicles meet at a traffic circle (okay, not so typical in the US!), something that could be tricky for cyclists to safely navigate.
The original design of the roundabout already had bicycle paths that were physically separate from the road, although cyclists still had to cross the roads at traffic signals. This design vastly improves on standard practice in most countries, but for the Dutch, it was not safe enough.
The new bicycle and pedestrian roundabout is suspended from cables as it floats above the motorized vehicles below. It creates a safe path as well as an aesthetically pleasing gateway announcing your entry into the community. Interestingly, you’ll notice that the roundabout for the motorized vehicles has been removed in favor of a typical right-angle intersection.
It seems to me that these type of infrastructure investments are very beneficial to society. They encourage more people to travel under their own power and increase transportation safety at the same time. This reduces traffic congestion and energy consumption, both worthy results. Plus, the roundabout’s design is elegant.
Walking along New Phetchaburi Road the other day, my eye was caught by this “man versus nature” image: the thick tangle of electric and telephone wirtes being taken over by blooming vines. Both amaze me.
In early November, a new mall opened in Bangkok. Terminal 21, located adjacent to the Asoke Skytrain station along Sukhumvit Road, is a 9-story mall with 20 stories of serviced apartments and office space above the mall. What sets this mall apart is that it is themed as an airport.
By an “airport theme” I mean that there are many airport motifs throughout the complex. These range from information boards that looks like the digital “arrivals” and “departures” flight information displays you see at an airport, to the escalator signage looking like they indicate the directions to different gates, to each floor being themed after a different international city.
“Departure for Level 3” reads the sign above the long escalator that ascends from the mezzanine floor to a point halfway up the mall. Given its fantastic location, the mall has been crowded since its opening several weeks ago, filled mostly with local sightseers, much like the international airport was when it first opened.
Floors include Tokyo (left), Istanbul, Rome, and Paris (right) with each floor decorated in a manner meant to evoke the feel of the city. Lots of visitors are stopping to take pictures with these decorative items, leading to the likely chance that you will walk through the frame of someone’s picture at some point or another. Even the mall security and cleaning staff are uniformed appropriately for the floor on which they work. Yes, that means that on the Paris floors the staff cleaning the toilets are dressed like French maids.
The San Francisco floor has a miniature Golden Gate bridge spanning an atrium. The only shops on this floor are restaurants, which seems appropriate for a city well-known for its food. I’m not sure that the selection of restaurants would necessarily do the City by the Bay proud, though.
With its location adjacent to both the Skytrain and subway stations, Terminal 21 is positioned at a literal crossroads of Bangkok, accessible to customers from many corners of the city. The mall looks like it has targeted the middle of the market: there are many popular stores but no high-end ones and there are also a large number of smaller boutiques featuring local independent businesses. Compared to other malls in the city, it is not nearly as fancy as Central Childlom or Siam Paragon but is much nicer than Platinum or MBK. I suspect it will be a winning formula.
The thing that I find terribly ironic, though, is that in a city with an airport that has been criticized for being too much of a mall (the picture above is of the actual airport, not Terminal 21), we end up having a new mall that has an airport theme. To compare the two:
Terminal 21 Mall
High end shopping
Took 4 years after opening to get rail service, which is expensive and inconvenient
Served by rail service from the first day on both the Skytrain and Subway lines
Easily mispronounced Sanskrit name
Easily pronounced English name
Confusing signage and endless moving sidewalks
Clear signage and quick escalators
Intolerable waits at immigration
Breeze through metal detector at entrance
Insufficient toilets, often dirty
Plentiful toilets cleaned by women in French maid outfits
Quick (and hopefully final) update to the flooding situation here in Bangkok:
While the waters have started to slowly recede, many areas on the northern, western, and eastern edges of the city continue to be under a meter or more of water. This water has been there for, in some cases, nearly a month and has stagnated. Needless to say, residents of these areas are furious and have taken to tearing openings in some of the sandbag barriers to enable some of the water to more rapidly drain away.
In the past few weeks, what had just been piles of sandbags in the Sukhumvit area (where I live) has turned into more extreme defenses against the likelihood of flooding, a vote of no-confidence in a government that has continued to be incapable of communicating useful information in a timely manner. Thankfully, by this point it seems unlikely that we will see any water but nobody is removing the defenses yet.
Outside an office building in the Ploenchit area, two rows of sandbags with a wall of boards sealed at its base with silicone or tar to hold back water. Of course, vehicles are unable to enter or exit this building so, like many buildings around the city, business is being impacted.
Along the road leading up to the international airport, mega-sandbags were laid out and pumps installed in case the road itself needed to be turned into a canal to channel the water out of the city. The airport’s retaining wall was increased to 2.5 meters (almost 9 feet) and, despite having been built in the midst of a natural flood plain, the airport has thus far remained dry.
Photo courtesy Bangkok Post
Not so the old airport, Don Meuang, which before the flood was being used as an air force base and for limited domestic service. It is still closed with more than a meter of water covering the entire airfield. It will cost millions of dollars and take at least two months to bring this airport back into service.
As of last week, walls and other barriers were still being constructed. Here, a view from the inside of the Villa Supermarket near Sukhumvit Soi 33, looking outside to the street. A wall of concrete blocks and sandbags was built, necessitating a climb over the wall with your groceries.
The subway stations, exits at a few of which were closed because of the flooding, had flood barriers installed. These were new additions but were added very quickly that I imagine they must have been prepared in advance and stored for such an event. I’m unclear why there’s a gap at the corner but I guess they would close it with sandbags?
Finally, while at Bangkok Hospital this past week, off Phetchaburi Road, I noticed the wide range of flood protection they had put into place, including concrete walls around the base of escalators so water wouldn’t damage the machinery. Kind of awkward to climb the wobbly wooden steps to get over the wall. Perhaps it is part of their plan to treat more slip-and-fall patients!
Here is a short video showing some of the other flood preparations at Bangkok Hospital.
As mentioned above, I’m hoping this is the last entry I write on this subject. The amount of damage and suffering in Thailand has been immense – 594 deaths as of this morning – and yet I’m not sure that there’s anything more I can add to the subject after this point. I’ll return to other subjects from this point onwards including an update on my attempts at container gardening.
Sunday morning, the city quiet as many residents have fled the flooding, I rode my bicycle for a first-hand look at the situation in the old city and along the river. What I found was not as bad as flooding further north, but it left me with the realization that our relative dryness is a tentative state, one that could easily change.
My ride took me west into the old city, around the Grand Palace, and then north along Sam Sen Road to the Rama VII Bridge. Most of the way, I was on the road closest to the river, giving me a chance to evaluate the neighborhoods. Like a checkerboard, some neighborhoods had water while adjacent neighborhoods were still dry. The dry neighborhoods were taking no chances, though, with walls of sandbags or brick and cement erected in front of shops, buildings, and homes.
Location 1: The Emporium
These photos were actually taken Friday night, when Tawn and I drove to the Emporium shopping center at Sukhumvit Soi 24 to watch a film. Both parking structures were packed, not with shoppers’ cars but with cars that had been parked there for safekeeping. Cars were double parked, left in neutral gear so they could be pushed out of the way. To park in the only available space, we had to push six other cars out of the way. I can tell you from this experience that classic Mercedes are very heavy and do not roll easily.
We noticed that someone had parked a pale yellow Rolls Royce Phantom with an auspicious license plate with the numbers 9999 on it. (The current king is Rama IX, so nine is considered a lucky number.) Inquiring with the guard, I understand that the car’s owner is someone very high up in one of the government’s ministries. The guard also shared that this person has parked 26 cars in the lot. Perhaps the government’s scheme to encourage car ownership is working too well?
All of these cars had a notice placed on them (after they were not moved at the end of the night) asking the owners to contact the management office before leaving the car park. Presumably, there will be some sort of a fine for unauthorized long-term parking. I would guess some people probably won’t have to pay that fine.
Location 2: Phra Nakhon District
The ride to Phra Nakon, the oldest district of Bangkok, was smooth as so few cars were on the road. Along the way, streets were dry and canals were at close to their normal level. When I came up to Khlong (canal) Khu Meuang Derm near the back side of the Ministry of Defence, I encountered the first flooding. While not deep – about 10 cm (4 inches), it covered most of the blocks adjacent to the canal.
I rode around the north side of the Grand Palace where the street had moderate flooding (the far two lanes in this picture) in some areas. The entire road around Sanam Luang, the large field to the north of the Grand Palace, was flooded a bit more, with the entire road under about 15 cm (6 inches) of water.
The Grand Palace was open for business (tourists note: the Grand Palace is open every day, no matter what any scam artists may try to tell you) but there were few visitors. The entry gate, pictured here, was under about 30 cm (1 foot) of water, requiring visitors to balance on sand bags as they made their way inside.
Around the corner from the Grand Palace, closer to the river, is Maharat Road leading to Thammasat University. Flooding was more severe in this neighborhood and a barrier had been built in the street to contain the water. Vendors were still working on the sidewalks and residents (and monks from the adjacent Wat Mahathat) were coming and going as best they could. One vendor explained that the area had been flooded for the past four days. When asked whether the water was still rising or was falling, he replied that it depended on the tides.
One block away from the river, Na Phrathat Road runs along the west edge of Sanam Luang, passing the National Theatre and National Museum. It was closed to through traffic and has about 15 cm (6 inches) of standing water.
Location 3: Sam Sen Road, Dusit District
Heading north from Phra Nakhon, I rode along Sam Sen Road through the Dusit District. There, I found the same checkerboard pattern of flooding. Some stretches I rode through the water that reached the bottom of my pedals, about 15 cm (6 inches) high, although waves caused by passing vehicles left me with wet shoes. There were points where the roads were impassable, so I cut east one block, rode a few blocks north, and then returned to Sam Sen Road to find it dry again.
The dry areas looked like they might not be dry much longer. Here, I passed through an otherwise dry neighborhood and found water bubbling up through the manhole cover. Passing motorbike riders gazed warily at the water, which ran across the road and into the storm drains.
Location 4: Bang Sue District
Underneath two railway bridges just south of the Rama VII automobile bridge in the Bang Sue district, the river threatens to spill over its banks and an extra layer of sandbags marks a last line of defence. The bridge belongs to the State Railways of Thailand. Just to the right of the frame is a second bridge (to the right of the crane) for the under-construction pink rail transit line.
To the left of the previous picture (of the bridge), the road comes immediately adjacent to the brimming river, right at the entrance to Khlong (canal) Sung. The water gate for the canal is shut in order to protect the district from flooding. Soldiers from the army were on hand monitoring the situation and adding sandbags as necessary.
Just a short distance north, I rode across the Rama VIII Bridge and stopped to take pictures. There were several people fishing from the bridge, but I noticed this man who was fishing from the waterfront park underneath the bridge. Because of the flooding, it is hard to tell where the river ends and the park begins.
In the same waterfront park, a boy ran through the water as buses passed on a moderately flooded frontage road. After having pedaled about 30 km, I headed inland past the closed and sandbagged Chatuchak Weekend Market (which I’ve never seen closed on a weekend!), taking the Skytrain home from the Mo Chit station.
While I didn’t travel further north into the more severely affected areas of the city, what I saw was enough to make me realize that even though we’ve passed this week without flooding in many of the central parts of the city, those areas that are still dry, remain so only because of luck and limited rainfall. Water is bubbling up through the drains and seeping through the sandbags and dikes; it seems inevitable that some of those defenses will fail before the excess water is moved safely to the Gulf of Thailand.
I suspect that the risk to the area I live in is relatively minimal, but I think we have another week or two before the city as a whole is out of the gravest danger.
Updated – Third video added. This is the last time I’ll time stamp this! Tawn shared this very cute and informative 4-minute video clip with me, which explains what is happening with the flooding and why the risk to Bangkok is severe. It is done with clever animation and is actually quite useful… which leads me to believe that the Thai government had absolutely nothing to do with it.
The best part is how they compare the flood waters with blue whales, which makes the whole thing much more comprehensible. There are English subtitles, so please enjoy.
A second video was released Thursday, which further explains the situation and gives suggestions about how to assess the actual risk your home is at for flooding.
The government has announced that the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok will peak around 6 pm Saturday, so that is expected to be the point at which flooding, which has now spread into 5 districts in the city, will explan further.
The third video is out, this one listing the three steps you should take to prepare for the flood. It really is so simple, right?
For more than a week, residents of Bangkok have been bracing for the floodwaters, stacking sandbags and stocking supplies. With the exception of a few districts which have been hit, most of the city waits in a sort of suspended animation, frustrated by a lack of information and an abundance of government incompetence.
To be certain, Thailand’s worst flooding in fifty years has affected parts of the city, especially in the north and northeast near Rangsit, Don Meuang, Sai Mai, and Minburi districts. But the majority of the city is still dry. We are told every day that the next few days will be critical. Each day, the anxiety increases.
Throughout the city, flyovers and expressways became car parks as clever residents decided to park their cars on the only high ground they could find. The effect, predictably, was that traffic came to a standstill and the movement of emergency vehicles and supplies was hampered. In the picture above, two of the three lanes on the left are actually parked cars. Yes, I know it looks like a normal traffic jam but in this case the cars are empty. The government has been pleading with people not to park on the roads, but for some unknown reason has been slow to actually tow the cars.
Each morning I trade text messages with a friend who lives in the Sathorn district. “You have any water yet?” “No, not yet. You?” Our messages are a microcosm of the confusion that is frustrating residents across the city. While the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has done an admirable job and has communicated effectively with residents, the national government led by Yingluck Shinawatra, who wants to be in charge of the flood response, has been a disaster.
The FROC (Flood Relief Operations Command – they even chose an English name for it!) is accurately depicted in this cartoon. Different people are working at cross-pusposes and the announcements from different department and ministerial heads contradict and confuse. A Tweet that has spread like wildfire reads, “The intellectuals fill sandbags while the buffaloes make the plan.” As you might imagine, the government is seen as the buffaloes, and the comparison is very unfair to buffaloes.
Sunday afternoon I explored my neighborhood, to see how people are preparing. The number of sandbags have increased markedly since Friday. I would estimate that about 80% of shops and buildings have built some sort of barriers. Others (like the one with the blue doors) have not, but that may be because the doors are either watertight or the goods inside are raised off the floor.
Grocery and convenience stores are out of many supplies, including bottled water. The only bottled water on sale at the local market was Evian, as everything else was sold out.
I also noticed several buildings taking even more extreme measures, building temporary walls of brick and mortar. This picture is along Sukhumvit Road between Ekamai and Thong Lor, not an area that I thought was particularly prone to flooding. I like that they have added steps. Interestingly, they did not build steps on the other side. Presumably, once the threat of flooding subsides, they will remove the wall.
Sunday afternoon, I heard that the water gates for Saen Saeb canal, a major east-west artery that is near our condo, had been opened to help ease the flooding in the river and move the water towards the Gulf of Thailand. Curious, I rode to the canal, only to find the water at its usual level, or perhaps even a little lower than normal. Canal boat service, which a few days ago had been reported suspended because of high water levels, was running. Again, another example of lack of clear information. And this is happening in both English and Thai, mind you.
Back at our condo, a sandbag barrier has been in place for the past ten days. Our soi (alley) is prone to moderate flooding when there are heavy rains, so the chance of flooding seems higher just by virtue of that fact. Thankfully, we’ve had four consecutive days of dry weather, but the water elsewhere in Bangkok is presumably still a risk for us.
A view from the inside of the car park, showing how the street is about two feet (70 cm) higher than the car park floor. Actually, more accurately, the street is only about one foot higher. The driveway is built to provide a natural barrier, rising a foot from the street before descending two feet into the car park.
Inside the car park, the elevator and electrical room are barricaded with sandbags. The maintenance team built a brick wall about 40 cm high just inside the electrical room. I’ve observed that people keep adding to the defenses already in place, leading me to conclude that they know something I don’t. When I ask them, though, they explain that they don’t know if or when the water is coming, but assume that since there has been no good news (“Water recedes!”), this must be the calm before the storm.
Another piece of Bangkok’s transit network puzzle fell into place on August 12, as the 5-station extension to the BTS Skytrain Sukhumvit line opened. After more than a year’s delay caused by a problem ordering track switching mechanisms on time, passengers can now travel all the way to Soi Bearing (Sukhumvit 107). This extension gives access to the Bang Na district, a very congested area of the city that has long been in need of additional mass transit.
Updated map on the ticketing machine obscured the day before opening.
The BTS Skytrain, the first of Bangkok’s three rail transit systems, opened in December 1999 and currently operates a 55-km network composed of two lines and 32 stations. An average of about 472,000 trips are made on the system each day, with many days exceeding the half-million mark.
The five new stations all have the same design with the the tracks running through the center of the station and two platforms on the outside of the tracks. An improvement in these news stations, along with two stations on the Silom line that opened last year, is that the roof covers the entire space. The original stations have an opening in the area over the tracks, resulting in passengers being partially exposed to the elements, especially the when the sun is lower in the sky.
One improvement – all the new stations have elevators. Most of the stations in the system do not have elevators, making travel by train inconvenient for people in wheelchairs (who would have a hard time with most of Bangkok’s sidewalks, too) and parents with strollers. In front of the elevator doors are three safety posts, the purpose of which is not clear. Perhaps they are meant to keep someone from rolling out of the elevator and onto the tracks. I guess if someone was backing out they may not see where the edge of the tracks is, although they would have to travel a couple of meters before reaching it.
One challenge to mobility is that the stretch of Sukhumvit Road on which these new stations are built, has narrow sidewalks. The placement of station stairs and escalators essentially blacks the sidewalks, leaving no room for wheelchairs or strollers or even for two people to pass each other. This seems like a problem that could have been overcome, although I have noticed that the traffic lanes actually narrow as they pass beneath the stations, so perhaps squeezing out more space was impossible.
Fortunately, there are signs of some amount of foresight in the construction of the track viaduct and support structure. At the point between Udom Suk and Bang Na stations, the track viaduct is wide enough for two pairs of tracks. In the picture above, just above the pedestrian bridge, you can see the end caps for two additional tracks.
Turning 180 degrees and looking southeast along the tracks, the left side of the next support beam has a pad on which one of the track viaducts could rest. The train track passes between two levels of the expressway at Bang Na. One of the planned future extensions, although there is no specific timeframe in which it will be built, is to have a spur line branch off from the main Sukhumvit line and head northeast along the expressway. This extension would include a stop at the BITEC convention center. Currently, the closest station (Bang Na) is about a kilometer away, although an indoor walkway is being constructed to connect the station and the convention center and looks set to open in a few months.
The problem with the new five-station extension is that it is projected to add some 100,000 additional trips to the system each day, but during rush hour the system is already at peak capacity. This view of Asoke station, taken at 6:30 pm on a weekday, is too typical.
The layout of station entrances, something that would be difficult to change significantly, is narrow and results in ticket machine lines running into the fare gate lines running into still other lines. The entrance areas at the new stations seem to be wider, which will hopefully help. Another thing that would help at existing stations is to remove small retail kiosks adjacent to the fare gates. These consume real estate that could ease the congestion of foot traffic.
The capacity problem is less about station entrance design, though. It is primarily an issue of not enough train cars. There are 35, three-car Siemens trains on the system. Last year, following the opening of two new stations on the Silom line, 12, four-car Bombardier trains were added, running exclusively on the Silom line. This additional capacity was immediately swallowed up. In October 2010, the operator of the Skytrain ordered an additional car for each of the three-car trains, although it seems these will not arrive until at least next year. Also next year, an additional four-station extension will open on the Silom line. Dr. Pichet Kunadhamraks of the Ministry of Transport’s Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning, indicated by email that he thinks these additional train cars will satisfy demand.
Earlier this year, the Transport Minister asked for residents’ patience until 2015, by which point some 60-plus kilometers of additional rail lines will have opened, adding to the approximately 103 kilometers currently operating. It will be interesting to see whether these new lines and extensions open on time and, if they do, what impact they have on the city’s traffic. Bangkok is a city that would be well-served if it had a comprehensive network of rail transit. It would also be well-served by a bus network that feeds into that network, rather than largely duplicating it. That, however, is a topic for another day.
A story on Talk of the Nation earlier this month piqued the interest of my inner urban planner and transportation geek. It was about the efforts of traffic engineers to design intersections that minimize potential points of conflict and maximize the flow of vehicles. Particularly, they talked about something called a “Diverging Diamond Interchange” or DDI.
The classic diamond interchange is very inefficient and results in nearly two dozen points of potential conflict between cars going different directions. Every left turn, whether to enter or exit the freeway, results in the rest of the traffic having to stop.
One solution known as the “Michigan Left” (because it is used mostly in Michigan, I suppose) is a relatively dangerous solution that has drivers making a u-turn about 200 meters after the intersection, then making a right-hand turn at the intersection. The disadvantage of these uncontrolled u-turns is that one thing drivers don’t do particularly well is judge the speed and distance of oncoming vehicles.
Another solution is the SPUI – Single Point Urban Interchange. This design has all traffic coming together at a single intersection controlled by a single set of lights. I’m familiar with this as it is the new design that was built near where I used to live in suburban Kansas City. It is an elegant design but still has some problems, not the least of which is that the space in the middle of the intersection is very large and people can get lost. I’ve observed this on several occasions, where cars have drifted into the wrong direction, especially at night when traffic is light and visual cues (like the headlines of oncoming cars) not so available.
If you have never had the pleasure of driving through an SPUI and are curious how they work, here’s a nice short video that shows an animation of traffic going through the intersection.
The latest innovation, which so far has only been built a few places in the United States, is something called the Diverging Diamond Interchange, or DDI. Somewhat counterintuitively, the DDI involves the lanes of traffic switching sides on each end of the interchange. The result is that there are only two controlled intersections and drastically fewer potential points of conflicts. All left turns follow the natural, uninterrupted flow of traffic. (Thanks to NPR for the graphics.)
Here is how it works:
As you approach the traffic signal, the lanes of traffic curve slightly to the left, passing oncoming traffic (which waits at the light) at a 25-degree angle.
As you travel through the signal, you are on the left hand side of the road.
If you are turning left onto the freeway, you simply make a left-hand turn without waiting for a light. Through traffic keeps on moving, not having to stop for cars waiting to make left-hand turns.
After passing through the second intersection, traffic crosses back over to the right-hand side of the road.
Exiting from the freeway to go left onto the arterial road, you merge and do not have to go through an intersection.
Entering the freeway with a right hand turn is also a merge and does not require you to go through an intersection. In all, the traffic flows much more smoothly.
Here’s a short animation that shows the traffic flow.
There are multiple safety benefits. Traffic keeps moving, reducing standstill time and the risk of rear-end crashes. Right-angle crashes are eliminated for drivers turning left onto the freeway, as they no longer cross oncoming traffic. Finally, fewer intersections and independent directions to cross those intersections means fewer collisions caused by people running lights.
All told, I’m sold on the Diverging Diamond Interchange. Looks like a great way to improve traffic flow and reduce the risks of accidents.
One other option that is interesting is something called the Pinavia interchange, which I guess has been built in Europe. It is an elaborate interchange that requires no intersections and is aesthetically pleasing, too. Above is a brief animation to give you an idea of how it works.
Anyhow, that’s enough urban planning/transportation geekiness for today. But isn’t it fantastic, the things you can learn on NPR?
Last June I wrote about the opening of Bangkok’s Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, line. This new bit of mass transit is basically a light rail line but without the infrastructure costs of adding rails. In a bid to connect a growing corner of the city that has never had significant mass transit to the existing rail network, BRT extends from the Chong Nonsi Skytrain station to the south side of the city along Rama III Road.
Of course, for the system to effectively feed passengers onto the rail network, there had to be an easy connection, something that was missing at the half-way point of last year. Pictures at the BRT stations promised, though, that a grand, shaded walkway would link the BRT’s terminus with the Skytrain station.
I’m glad to report that just a couple of weeks ago, the arched section of the pedestrian bridge opened. There is still some additional work being done including the addition of additional, newer stairs to connect to the bridge from surrounding street corners. This work is proceeding rapidly, though, so I think in just a few short weeks we’ll have a finished product. Nice to see some bit of urban infrastructure actually come to fruition.
Looking from the BRT station side of the intersection north towards the Skytrain station.
While some finishing touches are being placed on the bridge, it is open and being used.
Lots of people were taking pictures of what is a dramatic addition to the skyline.