One Step (Fewer) towards Accessible Public Transport in Bangkok?
by Lauren Avery
As the first non-Thai winner of an Anglo-Thai Society Education Award, I was delighted to be able to return to Thailand to follow up on my Master of Arts by Research project. I had initially imagined any research follow-up and dissemination to be done virtually but thanks to Thai Airways sponsorship of a return flight I was provided with a unique opportunity to increase the impact of my research and get some much-needed publicity for the topic. Plus, it’s always an exciting prospect to return to the country that I, like many others, feel is a second home.
My master’s thesis, a one-year research project, focussed on the campaign to improve public transport accessibility for the disabled population in Thailand’s chaotic capital. The campaign, which has gone on for over two decades, started when disabled residents of the city realised that the plans to build the Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS) included no lifts. Fast forward to 2019 and the otherwise contrastingly modern system remains inaccessible to those with impairments, including passengers who rely on step-free access.
The accessibility campaign, led by the group ‘Transportation for All’ plus other groups and individuals, has finally seen traction in the last few years. Increase in media coverage since 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled that all BTS stations must comply with accessibility law and install step-free access has really helped the public and authorities to start taking the demands of activists more seriously. Unfortunately, despite the ruling, the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA), responsible for the BTS system have failed to comply. Many stations still only have lifts on one side of the road, meaning that some physically disabled people have to go sometimes up to 1km out of their way or risk their lives crossing at street level to get to their destination.
Not only this, but systems which make lifts accessible only by calling for a staff member to operate them as well as other policies that leave passengers waiting up to half an hour before they are provided with assistance from station staff. In some cases, this ‘help’ is an unnecessary and unwanted requirement for travel imposed by the service providers and not agreed in consultation with the experts: disabled people themselves. Furthermore, negative attitudes of staff and other passengers towards disabled people travelling can act as an additional barrier and cause of stress for passengers. Earlier in 2019 a photo of a man in a wheelchair waiting to use a lift in a station whilst non-disabled passengers filled up the lift in front of him went viral.
It’s not all so sigh-inducing, though. There have been some improvements. Part of my project looked at the delay in the updating of the public buses and so I was delighted to finally be able to ride on a new, wheelchair accessible vehicle, part of a new fleet which has finally started to arrive after years of hard campaigning by local disability rights activists. It will take a while for the whole bus system to be replaced by accessible buses of course, but it’s a huge step forward, particularly for wheelchair users.
A new physically accessible bus in central Bangkok – including ramps and wheelchair spaces During my visit I returned to Rachasuda College, Mahidol University, where academics are producing some of the leading disability research in Thailand. During my five-month period of data collection I worked with Ajarn Tam Jatunam, a blind academic who is involved with the campaign to improve accessibility to public transport systems and training service providers in how to assist blind and visually-impaired passengers. The research staff there were thrilled to hear about the award and research findings and assisted me in correctly translating a summary of the research into Thai for wider dissemination. I hope to return to collaborate with them again in the future and we also discussed publishing opportunities in the college’s journal, which I will work towards. I am extremely grateful for their support, without which I could not have completed the project.