Idled Thai taxis go green with mini-gardens on car roofs

BANGKOK (AP) – Taxi fleets in Thailand are giving new meaning to the term “roof garden” as they use the roofs of taxis that have become inactive due to the coronavirus crisis as small vegetable gardens.

Workers from two taxi co-ops created the miniature gardens this week with black plastic trash bags stretched over bamboo frames. On top of that, they added soil in which all kinds of crops, including tomatoes, cucumbers and string beans, were planted.

The result looks more like an eye-catching art installation than a parking lot, and that is partly the intention: to draw attention to the plight of taxi drivers and operators who have been hit hard by the corona measures.

The Ratchapruk and Bovorn Taxi cooperatives now have just 500 cars left on the streets of Bangkok, and 2,500 are parked at a number of locations around the city, according to 54-year-old director Thapakorn Assawalertkul.

With the streets of the capital dead quiet until recently, there was too much competition for too few fares, resulting in a drop in drivers’ incomes. Many are now unable to afford the daily payments for the vehicles, even after costs were halved to 300 baht ($9.09), Thapakorn said. So they ran away and left the cars in long, silent lines.

Some drivers gave up their cars and returned to their homes in rural areas when the pandemic first struck last year because they were so scared, he said. More gave up and returned their cars during the second wave.

“Some left their cars at gas stations and called us to pick them up,” he recalls.

With new outbreaks of the virus this year, the co-ops were “completely shut down” as thousands of cars were abandoned by their drivers, he said.

The number of new infections in Thailand has hovered just below 15,000 in recent days, after peaking at more than 23,400 in mid-August. The government hopes the country will emerge from this wave, which has been the deadliest to date, accounting for 97% of Thailand’s total cases and more than 99% of its deaths. In total, Thailand has confirmed 1.4 million cases and more than 14,000 deaths.

The situation has put the taxi companies in financial jeopardy as they struggle to repay loans when purchasing their fleets. The Ratchapruk and Bovorn cooperatives owe about 2 billion baht ($60.8 million), Thapakorn said. The government has so far not provided direct financial support.

“If we don’t get help soon, we’ll be in trouble,” he told the Associated Press on Thursday.

The taxi top gardens do not offer an alternative income stream. The employees of the cooperatives, who were asked to implement wage cuts, now take turns tending the newly landscaped gardens.

“The vegetable garden is both a protest and a way to feed my staff during this difficult time,” says Thapakorn. “Thailand has seen years of political turmoil and a major flood in 2011, but the business world has never been this terrible.”

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Associated Press video journalist Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.

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