Complete Streets, SE Asia Edition

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I’m sure there have been many doctoral degrees granted on the study of transportation in developing countries but I have to add my observations and speculations without a shred of data but only observation. For those of you trained in planning, my apologies up front.

In the US, one of the movements gaining traction these last few years is ‘Complete Streets’. Basically the idea that streets have to be designed for ALL users, not just the automobile. Chicago gained some notoriety in the last year by mandating a change in approach such that street design would be done with consideration of the following priorities in descending order of importance: Pedestrians, transit, bicycles, and, at the bottom, cars. This simple statement has the potential to truly change how we get around cities and should make it safer for the must vulnerable users.

This is interesting to me as I travel around Cambodia and Laos these last few weeks as everywhere I travel I see the results of the rapid ascendance of scooters and cars. 20+ years ago when I traveled last in SE Asia scooters were mostly evident in the larger cities and wealthier countries but they are now commonplace just about everywhere. Cars are coming on strong but are still for the affluent it seems as they seem to make up only 5-10% of traffic (at least in Laos and Cambodia). As vehicle use changes in a generation or less, clearly the infrastructure hasn’t kept up. In many places scooters, cars and trucks are parked on sidewalks (if there are any) or completely blocking walking paths forcing pedestrians into traffic.

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Bigger, faster, more expensive makes the rules
As a pedestrian here you can’t help but feel that your job is to ‘Get Out of the Way!’ In most hierarchical societies I have visited, wealth ordains certain privileges and nowhere is it more apparent than on the street. In California there is still some modicum of respect for the pedestrian but here it feels like a battle. Most car drivers in California still give pedestrians right of way at crosswalks whereas in SE Asia, pedestrians seem to be expected to know their place. And that place is in the dirt and puddles weaving between cars, motos, construction, feral dogs and trash on the edge of the road.

So in a generation or less many developing countries have gone from relative walking and cycling paradise to the first world model of having to integrate disparate modes onto roads not designed to mix 60kg people and 2000kg machines.

Is this just the natural evolution of technology? That we implement ‘advancements’ before we know how to integrate them? Scooters are faster than bike or foot travel so it allows a villager to have a job in another location that pays better. How does one deny her that opportunity? Maybe that scooter allows a Mother to get her child in for more regular medical attention. If you have the resources why wouldn’t YOU buy one if it meant a better life for your family?

The traffic flow here is not quite lawless, but is mostly chaotic. Pedestrians know that nobody will stop for them, unless there is the rare traffic signal (and even then please be careful), so to cross a street you step into traffic and start, stop and weave until you get to the other side. Vehicles will mostly steer around you and it seems bad form to run across the street. If you’re in a vehicle (bikes included) and want to turn left across traffic you don’t stop at an intersection and wait for an opening, you continue on and cross to the side of opposing traffic and ride/drive on the far left until you get to your street then turn left (still opposing traffic) and eventually cross over to the other side of the street and merge with traffic. Chaotic for new arrivals like me, but totally expected by the locals so it (mostly) works. As a pedestrian it does mean that crossing the street is a bit harder (look 4 ways as they teach kids now) but I’m still uninjured.

Naturally, this all makes me wonder how the transportation infrastructure evolves. In an ideal (and likely more expensive world), the infrastructure would develop in anticipation of the needs of all the users. But the reality is that it’s easy to buy a car or scooter and start using it before society is ready for it but considerably harder to modify or create the infrastructure to allow all users to use the roads in relative comfort and safety.

So maybe the model that so frustrates cyclists and pedestrians in the US is just part of the natural evolution of transportation infrastructure. Regardless, it’s frustrating to watch the process occur everywhere as if we never learned anything.

Thankfully we’re trying to do a better job in the US than in the past. Do any of you know what is being done in the developing world to not repeat our mistakes? I would like to hear.

In the end it all comes down to the bathroom

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I’m lucky that my wife is pretty easy going while traveling. From early on in our relationship we enjoyed traveling fairly rough and searched out cultural experiences rather than luxury vacation spots. We have each other’s back while on the road and we both have a pretty good ‘manana’ attitude when things go wrong.

Before a trip we both research different aspects of our destination then develop a general route plan but for longer trips almost never book hotels ahead except the first night after flying in. Staying flexible allows us to adjust our plans on the fly. Thus we never stay longer than we want somewhere and can stay longer in the places we like.

Not booking hotels in advance hasn’t generally been an issue except in very busy times when we have had to accept our second or third choice. Given the number of fake reviews on travel websites and the ability of photographers to ‘put lipstick on the pig’ we’re not too surprised when we check into a hotel and find that the best part of our hotel was the pictures. In the particularly bad cases we get our money back and walk down the street to another hotel (one of the benefits of never carrying more than one light pack).

Winona usually rolls with these disappointments and if we’re really dissatisfied we move the next day or (very rarely) in the middle of the night. I still remember brushing up against a cockroach in bed in Mexico at 11 at night and agreeing to find another room NOW. We packed our backpacks and were out the door in 5 minutes without a word to the staff. I had no argument with this move and remember leading the charge out of the hotel.

Where we have the only significant disconnect is with respect to the bathroom. I just don’t see the dirt she sees. I can deal with the shower, toilet, sink combo where EVERYTHING gets wet when you shower (move the TP outside before you start the shower!) I can deal with the cold shower. I can deal with the squat toilet (must be tough on older people with bad knees). I can deal with the tiny towel that is always damp. Back in our Indonesian travel days we learned all about the ‘Mandi’ and I accepted that she just might drain and refill it when we moved in.

She hates all the above and probably a bunch of other things she has told me about that still haven’t registered in the tiny part of my male brain that is reserved for ‘wife’s concerns’.

So I have a strategy. Let her pick the room. That’s it. She researches online. If that doesn’t happen and we show up at a new place she walks in and checks it out alone with ZERO interference from me. Then I ask her if the bathroom was OK. Then I say ‘Want to check out another place?’ When she says she is happy I always ask ‘Are you sure?’ Then I ask again trying to discern if she really is OK with the room or just ready to drop her pack for the night.

This strategy mostly works but even if it the bathroom passes the initial review there is usually some grumbling.

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I look at the combo toilet/shower as above and think, ‘What a brilliant time saver’. She says ‘EVERYTHING gets wet’. Must be a Mars/Venus thing…

I have to admit that the only living being to ever get warm from the shower below is the size of a flea.

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My innocent comment that we don’t need a warm shower in a tropical climate is met with the kind of icy glare that makes me search for some hot water to thaw out.

Note to other men: Don’t EVER say, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. You’ll likely be getting stronger sleeping on the floor.

Re-purposing in SE Asia

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One aspect of life in developing countries that never ceases to amaze me is the inventiveness of the people in taking cast-off or under-utilized items and devising better ways to use them. From small to large you see it everywhere.

Plastic drink bottles turned into floats for fishing nets or liter petrol dispensers at roadside stands. At least this use is much better than the tons of plastic that seems to litter every town and village.

Add a bracket and hitch to a scooter, attach a 2-wheeled cart and you can haul supplies or swap out the cart for another and you can haul people.

Cargo hauling tuk-tuk

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The smaller tuk-tuks haul 4 people but in Phnom Penh they had lashed boards to the larger cargo carts and could haul up to 20 passengers as shown at the top of the page.
Standard tuk-tuk:

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What’s particularly cool is the materials used. Above is a 3 month old tuk-tuk built in Phnom Penh and selling for about $1500. Instead of reinforced bike wheels as I see often this one uses cast moto wheels and heavy duty tires so it should be durable. Interestingly the axles are almost always rebar and in this case more heavy duty than I usually see.

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The thing that interests me as a product development engineer is the creativity in adapting materials and especially seeing products used in ways the original developers never could have foreseen. Certainly the wear and tear on a 110 cc scooter must be many times worse than expected when it’s pressed into service hauling 2 to 5 times the expected load. I wonder if some Japanese engineer has ‘use as a tuk-tuk’ as a line on a DFMEA spreadsheet somewhere.

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Of course, many of you are familiar with long tail boats as seen for many years in Thailand and which I first saw in 1991. Then, most seemed to be large motors from trucks or busses adopted to the task. Since gear drives as seen in traditional American outboard motors were likely very expensive and hard to get these inventive mechanics bolted a prop shaft directly to the crankshaft (sometimes with chain drive reduction) and pivoted the motor to direct the prop. Clearly a bit more dangerous with a prop a couple meters behind the boat but very cost effective.
On this trip I see that Honda and others now make a standard motor for small boats that is widely used as in the pictures below.

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Lash a couple boats together with a platform and you have a ferry as below.

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Something I never saw when we traveled here 20+ years ago is the now ubiquitous 2-wheeled tractor/tiller. I assumed some smart product development team realized that a conventional tractor was too expensive and likely not versatile enough for the Asian market and developed this tool that could till the field then be hooked to a cart to take goods or people to market. I had to wonder if some creative shade-tree (probably a palm tree) mechanic created the first version of this tractor and others copied it. According to this article in Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-wheel_tractor I read that the variation I’m seeing is a ‘long-handled’ tractor developed in Thailand for this market.
Here’s one hauling a large load

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And another acting as a bus

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What do you do when a train track but no train runs by your house? You build your own train! Now chiefly a tourist attraction in Battambang, the Bamboo Train hauled people and goods before the tourists found it.

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The tracks were pretty wavy and the bed had settled unevenly. Max speed according to Google My Tracks app was just over 30kph which seemed plenty fast

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Since it’s a single track they had to figure out what to do when the cars encountered each other going in opposing directions. Simple solution – take it off the track.

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The axle and wheel combination is heavy – maybe 40kg –  but manageable. The wheels are small which makes for a jarring ride where the rail joints aren’t so good but the small diameter means the cost and weight are lower. The platform is bamboo so easy for 2 people to lift and the only other part is the v-belt which slips around the sheaves and the operator provides tension with a meter long lever applied to the petrol motor to engage the drive wheel.

The wheels, bearings, drive sheaves

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No fancy Woodruff or similar key to hold the sheave in place? Just pound in a nail and bend it over.

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The platform has wooden cradles that capture the bearing so once you drop the platform on and attach the drive belt you’re ready to go again after a 2 minute delay taking the thing apart.

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Our driver was happy to oblige my photos and questions

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If I lived close to some unused tracks I’d be tempted to build my own.

There’s mention in our guidebook of restoring ‘regular’ train service so the bamboo train might not be around much longer but considering the narrow gauge and poor condition of the tracks I bet it might not happen for some time.