The University of Arizona

An urban political ecology of Bangkok's awful traffic congestion

Danny Marks


Urban political ecology (UPE) can contribute important insights to examine traffic congestion, a significant social and environmental problem underexplored in UPE. Specifically, by attending to power relations, the production of urban space, and cultural practices, UPE can help explain why traffic congestions arises and persists but also creates inequalities in terms of environmental impacts and mobility.  Based on qualitative research conducted in 2018, the article applies a UPE framework to Bangkok, Thailand, which has some of the world's worst congestion in one of the world's most unequal countries. The city's largely unplanned and uneven development has made congestion worse in a number of ways. Further, the neglect of public transport, particularly the bus system, and the highest priority given to cars has exacerbated congestion but also reflects class interests as well as unequal power relations. Governance shortcomings, including fragmentation, institutional inertia, corruption, and frequent changes in leadership, have also severely hindered state actors to address congestion. However, due to the poor's limited power, solutions to congestion, are post-political and shaped by elite interests. Analyses of congestion need to consider how socio-political relations, discourses, and a city's materiality shape outcomes.

Key Words: urban transport governance, Bangkok traffic congestion, urban political ecology, Thailand political economy, Bangkok's bus system

Full Text:



AFP. 2017. Electric car-sharing is Singapore's latest measure to fight traffic. France 24. December 12. [accessed: June 18 2019].

Ali, G., N. Pumijumnong and S. Cui. 2018. Valuation and validation of carbon sources and sinks through land cover/use change analysis: the case of Bangkok Metropolitan Area. Land Use Policy 70: 471–478.

Askew, M. 2004. Bangkok: place, practice and representation. London: Routledge.

Bae, C.-H. C. and Y. Suthiranart. 2003. Policy options towards a sustainable urban transportation strategy for Bangkok. International Development Planning Review 25(1): 31–51.

Bangkok Mass Transit Authority. 2018. Annual Report 2017. [accessed: June 20 2019].

Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. 1992. Comprehensive plan for the Bangkok Metropolis. Bangkok: BMA.

Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. 2013. Executive summary: 20-year development plan for Bangkok Metropolis, Phase 1: 2013 – 2017. Bangkok: BMA.

Bangkok Post. 2018. Motor Expo bookings up 10%, orders worth B56bn. Bangkok Post December 11. [accessed: June 18 2019].

Bangkok Post. 2019a. Graft panel an oddity. Bangkok Post September 16. [accessed: July 3 2020].

Bangkok Post. 2019b. Single-ticket foot-dragging. Bangkok Post June 18. [accessed: June 19 2019].

Barter, P. 2011. Parking policy in Asian cities. Manila: Asian Development Bank. [accessed: June 18 2019].

Beck, U. 1992. Risk society: towards a new modernity. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Beevers, S.D. and D.C. Carslaw. 2005. The impact of congestion charging on vehicle emissions in London. Atmospheric Environment 39(1): 1–5.

Behrsin, I. and C. Benner. 2017. Contested spaces and subjectivities of transit: political ecology of a bus rapid transit development in Oakland, California. Journal of Transport Geography 61: 95–103.

Bharadwaj, S., S. Ballare and M.K. Chandel. 2017. Impact of congestion on greenhouse gas emissions for road transport in Mumbai metropolitan region. Transportation Research Procedia 25: 3538–3551.

Burton, J. 2020. Report claims air pollution "kills thousands", costs billions annually. The Thaiger July 12. [accessed: July 14 2020].

Chalermpong, S. 2018. Transportation development and urbanization in the Bangkok Metropolitan Region. In Padawangi, R. (ed.) Routledge handbook of urbanization in Southeast Asia. London: Routledge. Pp. 288–306.

Chalermpong, S. and A. Ratanawaraha, A. 2020. Bangkok, Thailand. In Pojani, D. et al. (eds.) Parking: an international perspective. Amsterdam: Elsevier. Pp. 207–227.

Chankaew, P. and C. Setboonsarng. 2020. Smog forces Bangkok schools to shut, but respite in doubt due to crop burning. Reuters. January 21. [accessed: July 14 2020].

Charoensin-o-larn, C. 2010. Thailand in 2009: unusual politics becomes usual. In Southeast Asian Affairs 2010. ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute. Pp. 303–331.

Collins, T.W. 2010. Marginalization, facilitation, and the production of unequal risk: the 2006 Paso del Norte floods. Antipode 42(2): 258–288.

Croci, E., S. Melandri and T. Molteni. 2011. Comparing mitigation policies in five large cities: London, New York City, Milan, Mexico City, and Bangkok. In Hoornweg, D., M. Freire, M.J. Lee, P. Bhada-Tata and B. Yuen (eds.). Cities and climate change: responding to an urgent agenda. Washington, DC: The World Bank. Pp. 55–85.

Daniere, A. 1995. Transportation planning and implementation in cities of the Third World: the case of Bangkok. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 13(1): 25–45.

Davivongs, V., M. Yokohari and Y. Hara. 2012. Neglected canals: deterioration of indigenous irrigation system by urbanization in the west peri-urban area of Bangkok Metropolitan Region. Water 4(1): 12–27.

De Souza, F. F., T. Ochi and A. Hosono. 2018. Land readjustment: solving urban problems through innovative approach. Tokyo: JICA Research Institute.

Farrelly, N. 2013. Why democracy struggles: Thailand's elite coup culture. Australian Journal of International Affairs 67(3): 281–296.

Ferrer, A.L.C., A.M.T. Thomé and A.J. Scavarda. 2018. Sustainable urban infrastructure: a review. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 128: 360–372.

Fickling, D. 2018. We're running out of road. November 8. [accessed: September 9 2019].

Graham, S. 2015. Life support: the political ecology of urban air. City 19(2–3): 192–215.

Graham, S. and S. Marvin. 2001. Splintering urbanism: networked infrastructures, technological mobilities and the urban condition. London: Routledge.

Harvey, D. 1973. Social justice and the city. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Heynen, N., M. Kaika and E. Swyngedouw. 2006. In the nature of cities: urban political ecology and the politics of urban metabolism. London: Routledge.

Hongtong, T. 2019. TDRI urges cheap fares for new rail routes. Bangkok Post June 10. [accessed: September 5 2019].

Jaensirisak, S., A. Sumalee, S. Ongkittikul, J.H.W. Ho and P. Luathep. 2010. Integrating congestion charging schemes and mass transit systems in Bangkok. Bangkok: Asian Transportation Research Society.

Janssen, P. 2018. Bangkok's bad air driven by car-making success. Asia Times April 21. [accessed: June 17 2019].

Jotikasthira, O. and M. Bangprapa. 2018. City to revive "Venice of the East" through new boat lines. Bangkok Post November 11. [accessed: June 24 2019].

Kakizaki, I. 2014. Trams, buses, and rails: the history of urban transport in Bangkok, 1886-2010. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

Kębłowski, W. and D. Bassens. 2018. "All transport problems are essentially mathematical": the uneven resonance of academic transport and mobility knowledge in Brussels. Urban Geography 39(3): 413–437.

Kębłowski, W., M. Van Criekingen and D. Bassens. 2019. Moving past the sustainable perspectives on transport: an attempt to mobilize critical urban transport studies with the right to the city. Transport Policy 81: 24-34.

Keil, R. 2003. Urban Political Ecology. Urban Geography 24(8): 723–738.

Khayesi, M., T. Litman, E. Vasconcellos, and W.V. Mitullah. 2017. Grounding urban walking and cycling research in a political economy framework. In Mitullah, W.V., M. Vanderschuren and M. Khayesi (eds.). Non-motorized transport integration into urban transport planning in Africa: London: Routledge. Pp. 224–235.

Kijmanawat, K. and P. Karoonkornsakul. 2016. Improving public bus service and non-motorized transport in Bangkok: a study for the Thailand Mobility NAMA. Bangkok: GIZ. [accessed: June 19 2019].

Klopp, J.M. 2012. Towards a political economy of transportation policy and practice in Nairobi. Urban Forum 23: 1–21.

Koglin, T. and T. Rye. 2014. The marginalization of bicycling in modernist urban transport planning. Journal of Transport and Health 1(4): 214–222.

Lefebvre, H. 1976(1973). The survival of capitalism: reproduction of the relations of production. New York: St Martin's Press.

Lefebvre, H. 1991(1974). The production of space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Legacy, C. 2016. Transforming transport planning in the postpolitical era. Urban Studies 53(14): 3108–3124.

Luathep, P., S. Jaensirisak, S. Ongkittikul and A. Sumalee. 2017. Planning for bus rerouting in Bangkok Metropolitan Region. Journal of the Eastern Asia Society for Transportation Studies 12: 2376–2391.

Macan-Markar, M. 2011. Environment-Thailand: "Bangkok ignored warnings". Inter Press Service November 3 November. [accessed: June 19 2019].

Marks, D. 2011. Climate change and Thailand: impact and response. Contemporary Southeast Asia 33(2): 229–258.

Marks, D. 2015. The urban political ecology of the 2011 floods in Bangkok: the creation of uneven vulnerabilities. Pacific Affairs 88(3): 623–651.

Marks, D. 2019. Assembling the 2011 Thailand floods: Protecting farmers and inundating high-value industrial estates in a fragmented hydro-social territory. Political Geography 68: 66-76.

Marks, D. and D. Brown. 2014. City needs urgent mass transportation expansion. Bangkok Post September. [accessed: June 24 2019].

Marks, D., J. Connell and F. Ferrara. 2020. Contested notions of disaster justice during the 2011 Bangkok Floods: unequal risk, unrest, and claims to the city. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 61(1): 19-36.

Marks, D. and L. Lebel. 2016. Disaster governance and the scalar politics of incomplete decentralization: fragmented and contested responses to the 2011 floods in Central Thailand. Habitat International 52: 57–66.

Marsden, G. and L. Reardon. 2017. Questions of governance: rethinking the study of transportation policy. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice. 101: 238–251.

Mattioli, G., C. Roberts, J. K. Steinberger and A. Brown. 2020. The political economy of car dependence: a systems of provision approach. Energy Research and Social Science. 66: 101486.

Monstadt, J. 2009. Conceptualizing the political ecology of urban infrastructures: insights from technology and urban studies. Environment and Planning A 41(8): 1924–1942.

Murray, M.J. 2009. Fire and ice: unnatural disasters and the disposable urban poor in post-apartheid Johannesburg. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 33(1): 165–192.

Narupiti, S., A. Tippichai, P. Nanthachatchavankul, M. Sutjaritthanarak and S. Bakker. 2014. Thailand stocktaking report on sustainable transport and climate change: data, policy and monitoring. Bangkok: GIZ. [accessed: June 26 2019].

Ouyyanont, P. 1998. Bangkok and Thai economic development: aspects of change, 1820-1970. Ph.D. dissertation. Armidale, Australia: University of New England.

Phongpaichit, P. and C. Baker. 2015. Unequal Thailand: aspects of income, wealth and power. Singapore: NUS Press.

Phulsarikij, P. 2018. Bangkok congestion worsens. The Nation August 31. [accessed: September 9 2019].

Plumb, C. 1999. Bangkok. In Berry, J. and S. McGreal (eds) Cities in the Pacific rim, planning systems and property markets. London: E. & F.N. Spon. Pp. 129–156.

Pujinda, P. 2016. Bangkok Metropolitan Region and its transportation system. Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University.

Pujinda, P. and S. Yupho. 2017. The paradoxical travel behavior of Bangkokians. Environment-Behaviour Proceedings Journal 2(5): 393–402.

Reynolds, C., Y. Nishizaki, J. Glassman, N. Farrelly, P. Busbarat, S. Lim, T. Haberkorn and P. Chachavalpongpun. 2012. Time's arrow and the burden of the past: a primer on the Thai un-state'. Sensate Journal.

Sabpaitoon, P. 2018. Groups seek to make Bangkok "walkable". Bangkok Post January 22. [accessed: 24 June 2019].

Schlosberg, D. 2007. Defining environmental justice: theories, movements, and nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schwanen, T. 2016. Geographies of transport I: reinventing a field? Progress in Human Geography 40(1): 126–137.

Scruggs, G. 2015. How much public space does a city need? [accessed: June 14 2019].

Setchell, C.A. 1995. The growing environmental crisis in the world's mega-cities. Third World Planning Review 17(1): 1–18.

Shatkin, G. 2004. Globalization and local leadership: growth, power and politics in Thailand's Eastern Seaboard. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 28(1): 11–26.

Siu, J. 2017. The most expensive city in the world to park is no surprise. May 20. [accessed: September 6 2019].

Swyngedouw, E. 2004. Social power and the urbanization of water: flows of power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swyngedouw, E. 2006. Circulations and metabolisms: (hybrid) natures and (cyborg) cities. Science as Culture 15(2): 105–121.

Swyngedouw, E. 2010. Apocalypse forever? Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3): 213–232.

Swyngedouw, E. and N. Heynen. 2003. Urban political ecology, justice and the politics of scale. Antipode 35(5): 898–918.

Thaitakoo, D. and B. McGrath. 2010. Bangkok liquid perception: waterscape urbanism in the Chao Phraya River Delta and implications to climate change adaptation. In Shaw, R. and D. Thaitakoo. (eds.). Water communities. Bingley, UK: Emerald. Pp. 35–50.

The Nation. 2019a. Air pollution soars in Bangkok. The Nation October 22. [accessed: July 23 2020].

The Nation. 2019b. Bangkok's era of open-air buses to end in 2022. The Nation March 17. [accessed: June 19 2019].

Thongphat, N. and P. Arporniem. 2017. Improving Bangkok's bus network. Bangkok Post September 13. [accessed: June 19 2019].

Véron, R. 2006. Remaking urban environments: the political ecology of air pollution in Delhi. Environment and Planning A 38(11): 2093–2109.

Wancharoen, S. 2019. Haze emphasizes need to fast-track train projects. Bangkok Post February 10. [accessed: 24 June 2019].

Wu, I. and D. Pojani. 2016. Obstacles to the creation of successful bus rapid transit systems: the case of Bangkok. Research in Transportation Economics 60: 44–53.

Zhang, J. 2019. Driving toward modernity: cars and the lives of the middle class in contemporary China. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.