Green revolution on campus
Encouraging bicycle use is part of Mahidol University's environmental and community strategy
As Associate Professor Anuchat Poungsomlee, vice president of Mahidol University, reaches his vehicle in front of his building, he quickly stores all his files and takes off on his daily duties around the Salaya campus. A few minutes later, Anuchat _ who takes care of physical and environmental affairs at the university _ arrives at his destination and, within seconds, has parked his vehicle.
For a less-conventional executive at Mahidol University, a white utility bicycle with a plate declaring ‘‘Executive’s Vehicle’’ is cool.
Surprisingly, the vehicle with a plate declaring "Executive's Vehicle" is not a luxury sedan like those used by more-conventional executives. Anuchat's vehicle is one of the white utility bicycles that make it very convenient to get around campus, and it's parked among dozens of other white two-wheelers in a bicycle parking lot. Most of the bikes carry plates featuring a serial number indicating either that they belong to students or are free rental vehicles for visitors.
Getting around the Salaya site has become much more convenient since the university initiated its "green campus" project in 2008, aimed at turning it into an environmentally- and bicycle-friendly place.
"Universities in Thailand have been dominated by cars. A number of parents buy a car as a gift when their children are accepted by a university," said Anuchat at a recent launch of a project to promote the use of bicycles on campus.
While Thai parents may reward their child with a car for safety reasons, many students around the world are being encouraged not to drive during their four years in college.
"How much space and investment do we need to build enough parking lots for them?" Anuchat asked.
Many students find cycling a more convenient way to get around the campus.
About 20,000 people, including students and staff, visit the 1,200-rai Salaya campus each day, with the number decreasing to 5,000 at night. To build a parking space for one car costs about 140,000 baht, not counting the cost of surfacing roads to cater for thousands of cars each day, according to MU research.
Mahidol, wishing to be different from other Thai universities, has created the image of being a green campus.
But the "green revolution" is not limited to clearing motorised vehicles from the central zone of the campus; the university has made massive changes to campus infrastructure, allocating half of the public space to pedestrians and cyclists. The plan affects about 3,700 visitors' cars and some 700 cars used by university staff members who have lost their full "authority" to use the roads.
Under the green concept, everyone is encouraged to leave their cars at allocated parking areas in peripheral zones and travel onto the campus either by foot through sheltered walkways linking the buildings, by 16 electric tramcar shuttle services that run around the campus every 15 to 20 minutes, or on their own bicycles.
Maintenance services can be found at the Jakka Centre.
A total of 420 free-rental white utility bicycles, called "Jakka Mahachon", are available at various places for public use. ("Jakka", a slang term used by MU students, is a shortened form of Jakkayan, the Thai word for bicycle.)
The central academic zone's six traffic lanes were originally paved for motor vehicles _ the left-most in each direction was for parking, the next one for slower traffic whose drivers were looking for a parking spot, with only the only right-most lane remaining for traffic flow. The green plan has now divided the original six lanes into two. One half is for one-way traffic flow for motorised vehicles only, with no parking allowed; the other has been raised and paved for bicycles and pedestrians only. Bike lanes, painted in blue, are also provided around the campus.
But the toughest job in the green project was not about transforming the infrastructure, which cost the university about 40 million baht in the first year (with the price now down to 10 million baht). University management also had to correct the mindset of countless conventional commuters who don't perceive that roads are public spaces to be shared among all types of commuters, both motorised and non-motorised.
''I was asked to warn my students to be more careful about cars when cycling on the road, and was told that they should carry some reflective tokens to prevent them from possible crashes at night,'' said Anuchat, recalling a colleague's serious concerns about road safety.
But, at the launch event, he posed the question: ''Why aren't we, the car drivers, more careful with other commuters sharing the road surface?''
Assoc Prof Anuchat Poungsomlee, vice president of Mahidol University, (far right), cycles around the new bike lanes at the press launch.
Accidents hardly occur as long as everyone observes the speed limit of 40kph while driving on campus, he said. Accidents, which were once a daily occurrence, have now decreased to about once or twice a month.
But the new infrastructure and the system that gives priority to pedestrians and cyclists is not yet fully understood by everybody. Some staff have complained that the painted bike lanes are overlooked by some students who are used to riding in the same lane as motorised vehicles. The campus management is trying hard to educate everybody to maximise the use of the new infrastructure.
University is the first step in grooming people for their future lives, said Saranarat Kanjanavanit, secretary-general of the Green World Foundation, when asked to comment about sharing the roads and environmental awareness.
''It's not only the relationship between humans and community, but also with the environment as a whole,'' she said. She added that cycling allows people to appreciate the lower temperature under the shade of a big tree; it makes you want to save the environment. When confined to their air-conditioned vehicles, people can't appreciate what's provided by the nature.
Anuchat said that cycling also allows people to appreciate the details of life they can't experience while travelling in high-speed motorised vehicles. ''You can't see the faces and expressions of the people on the street,'' he said.
The management at Mahidol does not want to limit the bicycle culture to campus, but to expand it to the surrounding communities, to universities nationwide and to big cities.
Anuchat said he hoped the bikes would link his students to surrounding communities and promote tourism to people in the neighbourhood.
''We hope to be the small seed of bike culture that grows into larger communities nationwide,'' he said.
A total of 420 white utility bikes designated ‘‘Jakka Mahachon’’ are ready to be borrowed for one-day use.BIKE SHOP'S A HUB FOR STUDENTS
Officially launched early last month as a part of the green campus project, Jakka Centre isn't only a bike shop that features new and used bicycles, accessory swaps and a maintenance service for students' bicycles. It also acts as a community centre where groups of cyclists meet, exchange news and set off for their daily trips.
Supported by the university, the centre aims to encourage a more active cycling culture. The equipment for bike maintenance is provided by the university, while the low-cost service is provided by an understanding shop owner in the neighbourhood. Each day, there are three students working part time at the centre. Students also spend evenings at the centre learning and helping out with repairs. Some of basic services are free but donations are welcome to keep the centre running.
Jakka Centre is a part of the ''Bike Way, Mahidol Way'' culture under the green campus concept that was initiated in 2008. To encourage bicycle use within the campus, the management last year provided 200 refurbished bikes (from deserted bikes) for free use within the premises. Any of the bikes parked on campus could be borrowed and left anywhere on an honesty basis.
However, the first lot of used bikes were too old and were not working well. Some bikes eventually ended up wrecked, lying in the water, while others remained uncared for.
A new system was introduced last month, providing 420 brand-new bicycles sponsored by a corporation. With an ID card or a Jakka Centre membership card, you can borrow a white utility bike for one-day use from security guards stationed at eight spots on campus.www.bangkokpost.com