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Turn On the Lights

Yvan Cohen for TIME.
SPINNING ITS WHEELS: Bangkok's traditional road controls are still very much the order of the day.

Even a high-tech system to control traffic signals cannot ease Bangkok's congestion

Asia and technology: put them together and miracles bubble up all over the place. That's a prevailing notion these days—as long as you don't live in Bangkok. Technology and Thailand aren't an alchemic mix, and if you're a Bangkok resident the proof surrounds you. It's called gridlock.

The city's traffic achieved legendary status years ago. But a surplus of cars on a shortage of roads does not explain why some motorists wait at red lights for what can seem like hours, while others enjoy endless green signals. "Our traffic is bad," says Raul Ordonez, a tourist from Mexico City, "but I've never seen anything like this. You can sit at these intersections for more than an hour."

The obvious explanation for the interminable delays is that Bangkok's traffic signals have been manually controlled by policemen at road junctions. An individual's progress, or lack thereof, depends entirely upon the officers' whims. In a notorious incident from the early 1990s, a certain Lieutenant Suradej Chumnet switched all the lights at one of the city's busiest intersections to green—during rush hour. He said he wanted to clear the road for the procession of Thailand's King Chulalongkorn, who died in 1910.

The good news is that technology now exists to take over the traffic cops' arduous job. (The bad news? Just keep your engine idling a little longer.) In 1994, the Bangkok municipal government hired a British company, Peek Traffic Ltd., to computerize the city's traffic lights. The firm's technology has the impressive name of Split Cycle Offset Optimization Technique, or scoot; it monitors traffic levels and, based on that information, times the lights to keep vehicles moving. Four mainframe computers at Bangkok's City Hall are connected to sensors that measure congestion at 369 intersections across the city. The mainframes' job is to control the signals and keep traffic flowing—an operation the system manages to perform smoothly in 130 cities around the world. But in the Thai capital, where scoot has been in use 1996, the technology has plainly stumbled. Says Jeremy Cowling, Peek's general manager in Thailand: "Bangkok is notorious. We're pretty much at the bottom of the list."

Initially, Peek didn't realize how antiquated the city's telephone and electrical lines were. The former disrupted signals from the sensors to the computers; the latter sent dangerous surges to the mainframes at City Hall. Another problem arose with the construction of Bangkok's Skytrain elevated rail line, which opened in December and was supposed to help unclog the streets. (Another failure of technology and planning: fewer than 200,000 people use the system daily, largely because of relatively high ticket prices and the absence of a park-and-ride system to get commuters to the trains.) The building of the elevated rail link further disrupted phone and electrical cables, and the construction of a subway line could now prevent scoot from working in some areas for several years. Then came the geckos. scoot's sensors are housed in metal cabinets with vents. All across the tropical city, geckos slithered inside and, at the cost of their own skins, shorted out the electrical circuits. Plastic lizard guards have now been installed.

But the biggest tangle has been caused by the police themselves. Some are afraid of losing their jobs to scoot. "We've seen direct evidence of sabotage, including cables being cut," says Cowling. Other cops argue that Bangkok's traffic problem is unique and that Western technology couldn't possibly work. "It's better to turn it off and run the lights ourselves," says Sergeant Suparb Eiamchang, a 30-year veteran of the traffic police. "If humans built the computer, then we must be smarter than the computer." That's an argument you might ponder—forever—in a Bangkok traffic jam.

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