Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Non-Developing Country

This is Bangkok, the capital city of a developing country. In this snapshot are at least six forms of public transportation, the (stairs of) the Skytrain that lead to the subway system, buses, passenger vans, taxis, and motorcycle taxis. Oh--and many, many private automobiles.

I now live in Seattle, a burgeoning city of a developed country. Outside my window blares the construction noise that will eventually become a streetcar that will extend for not much more than a mile through the city. It is in proximity to a lightrail system that runs from the airport to downtown, with stops along the way. For years there has been construction that will become a lightrail spur that will extend the line by another three miles at best. The city at present depends on a bus system which faces extreme cutbacks due to budgetary shortfalls. This is not a matter of concern to many of the city's residents--they have private automobiles.

Bangkok has a love affair with private automobiles that arguably exceeds that held by Seattle. A middle-class family in Bangkok frequently has a car for each member old enough to drive, and a car and driver for those who can't yet reach the steering wheel. In spite of the notorious traffic jams that bring the city to a standstill, people cling to the comfort and privacy of a car. Even so, Bangkok has spent years and a lot of money on public transit.

At first the passengers on the Skytrain were mostly tourists. Bangkok residents who used public transit stuck to the buses, which carried passengers at a fraction of the Skytrain's cost. The subway, except for commuter rush hours, was almost empty. But not any more--and the people who crowd into these conveyances are local, covering a wide gamut of income brackets. 

The cliche "If you build it, they will come," proved true in a city that at first was lukewarm toward high-speed mass transit. In the U.S. only Los Angeles seems truly committed to providing an alternative to the automobile--imagine, the city with the most highly developed car culture is working full-tilt on a regional subway system.

Meanwhile in Seattle, I spend hours every week waiting for a bus. Often I discover that the bus I'm waiting for now longer exists. The ones that are still in the system hold no allegiance to any sort of schedule. As I used to in Bangkok years ago, I now figure two hours to go anywhere by bus in Seattle. If I'm early, good--I'll relax over coffee and a paper. However, I always am accompanied by a strong sense of irony, realizing that as Thailand becomes more of a developing country, the United States is achieving the status of a non-developing one.