Against all odds, a small community of cycling enthusiasts is attempting to turn Bangkok into a biking city. Words by Gaby Doman. Photos by Nick McGrath.

Bangkok is notorious for its horrendous traffic problems and high levels of pollution. Its huge motorways and heavy congestion may make it an unlikely spot for a bicycle revolution, but a small community of cycling enthusiasts are working hard to make that happen.

Dr Saranarat Oy Kanjanavanit, secretary general at The Green World Foundation, is one of the driving forces behind the movement. The foundation’s pro-cycling campaign began when an investigation into the air quality in Bangkok found that over half of the city has poor to very poor air quality.“The city is a human habitat, and it makes sense that we should develop it for humans,” says Kanjanavanit. “A campaign for cycling, which is a very simple human technology, will help to solve this air quality problem.”

In a forum held by the foundation in Bangkok last December, Koy Thomson, the former chief executive of the UK’s London Cycling Campaign, said that Bangkok had a great potential for bicycle friendly measures such as bicycle lanes, but first there needed to be an attitudinal shift.

“The important thing is that we need to change people’s way of thinking,” he said. “Roads are public places which should not be reserved for cars only. They should be designed for other purposes, including for bicycles.”

Bangkok could certainly benefit from London’s lessons, where many years of campaigning have led to an increase in the use of bicycles in the city, both as a means of travelling to work and for leisure.

According to Thomson, the number of daily journeys by cyclists has increased from 400,000 in 2007 to 900,000 in 2012. High profile support from leading figures such as the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has helped to promote the cause. In contrast, Bangkok’s cycling enthusiasts appear hampered by a lack of political support.

“Things are changing very slowly, but politicians are scared they’ll lose votes if they do anything that makes it harder for car drivers,” claims Kanjanavanit.

At the moment, Kanjanavanit believes Bangkok to be decades behind other cities in the region.

“There are lots of projects for bigger roads and it’s still very car-focused in its development,” she says. “Jakarta, which is a similarly huge city with lots of people and traffic problems, is very good at promoting the road as a public space, and every Sunday they hold a ‘car free Sunday’ which helps encourage a major perception change when it comes to who uses the road.”

In comparison, Bangkok’s Car Free Day is an annual event.

There is also a distinct absence of amenities for cyclists. With a lack of bike lanes and ramps leading to overpasses, as well as numerous potholes and open rain covers even on major streets, it seems the task of making Bangkok bike-friendly is hopeless, but Kanjanavanit says the new generation of cyclists are prepared to take up the challenge.

Currently the foundation together with partners is drafting Bangkok’s first cycling map. It welcomes the input of cyclists to the project as well as volunteers to test out safe routes. Kanjanavanit says that 90 percent of those interviewed in a survey of 4,000 conducted by the foundation wanted to ride a bike. The factor most of them cited for not regularly cycling was safety.

It’s is a classic Catch 22 situation, says Kanjanavanit. More cyclists are needed in order for other road users to become more aware of them, while awareness of cyclists needs to improve in order to tempt more cyclists onto the road.

While also campaigning for major changes to Bangkok’s road network, Nonlany Ung, or Nan, from Bangkok Bicycle Campaign has a more practical approach towards getting more cyclists onto the street. She runs Café Velodome, a bike-themed café on Sanam Luang square, were she rents out bikes, offers advice on anything bike related and, as part of her enthusiasm for getting more people – especially women – on two wheels, runs free bike rides every weekend, supplying the bike, helmets and advice for safe riding.

Nan’s mini tours take cyclists through small back sois and paths in the old town, near the river. Her knowledge of the city’s tiny sois allows those joining her tours to see the quirky side of the city they’d miss if travelling by car or train. Keen to keep recruiting more and more to this snowballing movement, she can even arrange a cycling buddy for those too scared to cycle in Bangkok alone.

For her, cycling is not just a good form of exercise, it’s also a way to keep Bangkok life vital.

“Before I started cycling, I was getting bored of Bangkok,” she says. “Now I love it again.”

How successful Bangkok’s cycling enthusiasts are in creating a bike-friendly city only time will tell. But one thing is for sure unless something is done to tackle Bangkok’s increasing gridlocked road network, things will only get worse. Perversely this provides Kanjanavanit with hope.

“Gas prices are getting higher, climate change is an issue that’s high on the political agenda, so people are less likely to think of a concept, such as cycling in Bangkok, as being impossible,” she says. “People want to make a difference and they want to make their life meaningful. That’s why we need to highlight the ecological advantages of cycling.”