Chiang Mai presents a unique urban future with several geographical and historical advantages: the scale of lanes and Sois (streets) is intimate and inviting, mostly lined with single to double storey buildings; shop fronts are lively with displays and outdoor seating; warm climate encourages an active street scene; the city has conserved its original boundary lines defined by 13th Century moat and city wall; flat, walkable topography of the city is surrounded by rain forests and mountains nearby; and a number of Wats provide opportunities to step away from busy streets and rest.
While above conditions provide sporadic pockets of delight, walking around the city is often unpleasant and physically difficult. Continuous sidewalks, if any, are rare and zebra crossings are almost non-existent. In fact most pedestrians in the Old City are tourists- locals simply don’t choose to walk. They say motorcycles are affordable to buy and maintain. M is a 29-year-old Burmese who moved to Chiang Mai from Kachin 5 years ago in search of work. He is one of 100,000 refugees forced to seek homes elsewhere, mainly in China and Thailand, due to the ongoing civil conflict between the Kachin Independence Army and Burmese Army. M works as a waiter in the Old City and commutes on his motorbike, a 15-min ride each way. Petrol costs about 90-100 Bahts (US$3-3.30) per week, price that he says he can afford. Some of his Burmese friends though, who earn 5,000-6,000 Bahts a month (below minimum wage) have to cycle or walk- given the lack of sidewalks, absence of bike lanes and urban sprawl, both options seem unattractive and unsafe. Buses don’t run very often or on time. Taxis and Tuk Tuks are expensive (going across the Old City costs about 100-120 Bahts). K, who manages a massage shop in the city, says kids will start riding motorbikes in high school and own one as soon as possible. It is difficult to get around without one. Three giggly teenage girls in black and white school uniform make a quick snack stop at a gas station on Kotchasan Road- all of them on motorbikes and without helmets. Yet, they may be safer driving than to walk along that road that has no sidewalk.
Chiang Mai’s biggest urban planning challenge is sorting out vehicular traffic. At present, a motorbike is the most convenient, affordable and fast mode of transport. Without one, or the ability to drive one, accessing the city is limited. The city’s development priorities should include reducing vehicular traffic and providing different transport options; supporting infill projects within the Old City; continuous and safe sidewalks and crossings; active building frontages; provision of open/green space; and using existing Wats as public space anchors. Urban life in Chiang Mai without a motorbike per adult, can be possible.
(c) 2014 Julia Suh
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