Photo essay: How do people use public transport to get around Bangkok?
Bangkok, referred to by locals as Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, is home to around 14 million people, and 3.5 million of them rely on public transport to get where they need to go. It’s a tropical metropolis, an amalgam of traditional temples and lofty skyscrapers, and MasterCard’s Global Destinations Cities Index repeatedly ranks Bangkok as one of the most visited cities in the world.
The World Bank has referred to Thailand as a “development success story, with sustained strong growth and impressive poverty reduction”, and with the Thailand 4.0 transformation model in place, the country — and its capital city — are destined to grow even further.
One of the downsides of this growth is the impact on an already overflowing public transport network, and Bangkok’s frequently gridlocked traffic can make for variable commuter times.
Nonetheless, Bangkok offers choice. Whether that’s choice regarding street food, cultural activities, or ways of navigating the city, Thailand’s capital is a vibrant hub that offers an abundance of it.
If you’re interested in how people travel on the city’s canals and rivers, download our white paper: Understanding the mobility ground truth in Bangkok.
Land-based public transport
For commuters that are in a hurry and don’t mind spending a little extra cash, the Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS or Skytrain) is a popular option, with 750,000 daily passengers. Travel by BTS can cost from 16–59 Baht (0.47 USD-1.72 USD) per trip.
Some BTS and MRT journeys cost more than some journeys on the London Underground. Buses, on the other hand, are more affordable.
When it comes to the type of public transport commuters use, a social divide is evident. Users of formal modes (think government-run transport) are regarded as a higher class than those who use the bus and informal modes. In Bangkok, cars also remain a key status symbol — something that’s reflected in the growing number of private vehicles in the central business district.
Other than the BTS and MRT, other more formal modes include minibuses, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, and the Airport Rail Link (ARL).
Bangkok’s famous tuk-tuks are also considered informal, as well as songthaews, kapors, public vans, and mototaxis.
Choosing public transport in Bangkok
With so many public transport options, how do people in Bangkok decide which one to choose?
For lower-income commuters, their main consideration is price. To save money, they can use buses or vans for the majority of their journey, and songthaews or kapors for their first and last mile.
Price plays such a big role for low-income commuters that, unless their employer provides a travel card for their journeys — the BTS allows payment using a stored value card known as a Rabbit Card — or if they are running really late due to traffic congestion or a road accident, lower-income passengers will generally avoid the MRT, BTS or Skytrain as they are more expensive. However, despite saving money by using vans and buses, half of a low-income commuter’s salary can still be spent on commuting.
For middle and higher-income users, their main concern when choosing public transport is efficiency and reliability.
When it comes to price, Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA) buses are recognised as the most affordable method of transport in Bangkok. Some routes will have different coloured buses on the same paths, so commuters tend to wait for orange buses if they have the extra time. The colours also indicate the fare structure.
Another reason many people opt for BMTA buses is that they have the widest coverage, and they’re cheaper than the BTS and MRT. They also offer air-conditioned buses which, on particularly humid days, is a must.
Commuters in Bangkok can gain an idea of a bus’s condition simply by looking at it.
Those okay with travelling without air conditioning can opt for a red bus.
Yellow stripes or a yellow sign in the front lets commuters know that these buses take an express route. Orange and blue buses are newer, and have air conditioning, which is a draw for those keen to escape Bangkok’s air pollution. Many blue buses are also designed to accommodate wheelchairs.
Still, some commuters do choose the red bus. These are older and don’t have air-conditioning, but they offer a fixed fare. In fact, this is true for most buses without air conditioning in Bangkok, whereas the air-conditioned buses charge depending on how far you chose to go.
First and last mile options
Of all Bangkok’s public transport options on land, songthaews tend to run the shortest routes with the most stops. Passengers can hail vehicles off the street and, while routes tend to be fixed, drivers also operate on demand, giving passengers the flexibility to negotiate detours or extra stops for an additional fee.
This mode of transport primarily acts as a first and last mile connection to the longer public van routes, and is mostly found on the outskirts of the city. A typical trip on a songthaew costs between 0.15–0.89 USD.
“A joke about songthaews is that if you ask in a northern accent you will be charged the fare of 10 Baht, if you ask in a Bangkok accent you will be charged 20 Baht, and in an English accent 100 Baht.” — Interview participant, November 2020
Considerations when using public transport
Safety can also influence a passenger’s transport choice — particularly for women. Public vans are considered to be the most risky for sexual harrassment or invasive photo-taking, while MRT, Skytrain, and BTS are considered the safest for women.
Comfort is also part of the decision-making process. During the warmer months, and on days when air pollution levels are particularly high, passengers may choose an air-conditioned vehicle. On days when it is raining, commuters might opt for transport with a shelter, such as a formal bus stop.
While choice is abundant due to the many options available, not all of these options are available in every location. For example, in smaller alleyways, options are limited to mototaxis, songthaews, and kapors, which, unlike buses, can easily weave through narrower areas.
All of these factors influence how people travel in the Thai capital.
Traffic congestion in Bangkok
Pre-pandemic, Bangkok was frequently in TomTom’s list of most congested cities. Crawling traffic meant commuters spent hours on the move (or rather, barely on the move) each day, and there was an obvious negative impact on air quality. What causes this congestion? The answer is the combination of a high number of privately owned vehicles, and the lack of integration of traffic agencies — there are over 20 different traffic agencies for traffic management, planning, and infrastructure in the city.
Rush hour is at its worst on Fridays from 6–7pm in Bangkok. If they can, people avoid travelling during this time. Those who can’t can expect much longer journeys.
“With the traffic in Bangkok you really have no idea what time you should leave, what time you will get there. If the destination you’re going to only has one vehicle you have no choice, you have to wait.” — WhereIsMyTransport workshop participant, December 2020
Because of this congestion, as many as 94% of people living in Thailand factor this into their journey-planning. They do this by adding ‘buffer’ time to their daily commute. That buffer time typically sits at between 15 and 30 minutes. In a recent survey undertaken by WhereIsMyTransport, Bangkok commuters reported their vehicle being delayed several times a week — most often due to traffic congestion, crowdedness, and road accidents.
How does a complete understanding of mobility benefit public transport users and organisations?
For our Rumbo users in Bangkok, it means an improved public transport experience. Before WhereIsMyTransport, there was no single-source of data in Bangkok, and no public transport app that featured reliable data for every different type of public transport. Because of this, when people planned their journeys, they relied mostly on local knowledge and experience of the city. If they were travelling to an area they didn’t know, they would ask a friend or a local there.
For organisations looking to harness the growth opportunities that exist in the region, this can mean using our data to enrich the user experience of their own consumer applications, accurately understand economic impact and opportunity, or delivering data-driven projects at speed, and with impact.
Book a meeting with one of our experts to discover how our data offering can help grow your business in Bangkok.