Parallel U
pt. II

Number 29–Phnom Penh Traffic

(Note: This was originally written for a web site oriented towards expats in Cambodia;

"Traffic Accidents, Fatalities Increase Sharply" stated a recent (May 2003) news headline. No surprise there. Absent enforcement of basic traffic rules or improved infrastructure designed for safety, increasing traffic counts must inevitably lead to more accidents. Ironically, improving road surfaces without accompanying safety measures often leads to more accidents since they allow increased speeds within Cambodia's current, what can only be termed, 'anarchic' traffic patterns. Sketchy pockmarked streets, on the other hand, mandate slow, safe, driving speeds.

The current free-for-all system in which rules are voluntary – it doesn't matter how many traffic police are stationed at a controlled intersection (usually under the shade of the nearest tree) if they don't stop people crashing the red light – evolved at a time when vehicles were so few that basic rules were relatively unimportant.

In fact, the lackadaisical, laissez-faire, live-and-let-live, tolerant-to-the-extreme attitude exemplified by Phnom Penh traffic is one of the things I like most, and simultaneously least, about living in Cambodia.

On the one hand it's a tremendous relief to be free of the obsessive order and regimentation of the developed world and to see people get right in each other's way without the reflexive rage those actions would evoke in the West.

On the other, it's fearsome and disconcerting to wait dutifully to cross the street at a traffic light and still have to be wary of people sailing through the crosswalk on their way to crashing the red light, or to look left and then right before stepping off the curb to cross at an unmarked intersection only to be nearly run over from behind because a motorbike has cut the corner in the extreme – of course, in true Cambodian fashion he just laughed and went on his way.

Without a fundamental change in attitude, whether you like the anarchy or not, the time is fast approaching when accidents will reach unacceptable levels and traffic will reach gridlock. While it's true that the city has many narrow streets, it's the lack of organization that is the real culprit today. Driving against the flow of traffic, cutting corners, ignoring traffic lights, racing through intersections with minimal caution, backing up from sidewalk parking into major thoroughfares, dodging pedestrians forced to walk in the street because the sidewalks are blocked and indifference to the dangers of speed will soon become untenable. Taken together they have far more impact on traffic than street width.

There are relatively inexpensive infrastructure changes and no cost land use changes that can make a significant difference in reducing accidents and increasing traffic flow without increasing traffic lanes. And while Phnom Penh does have many narrow streets it also is blessed with many wide sidewalks. How that space is used in the future will have a profound effect on the life, look, feel and functioning of the city.


Before 1975 hanging clothes outdoors in Phnom Penh netted a 500 riel fine, a heady sum in those days. And – who could've imagined it – the sidewalks were unencumbered by vehicle parking, merchandise or restaurant tables.

Regardless of how long they might have been utilized as if they were private property, the sidewalks belong to the people, they are public space. The additional fact that property owners are responsible for construction and maintenance of adjoining sidewalks doesn't change the reality that their private use is strictly at the forbearance of the authorities. Remember the ASEAN conference held here in Phnom Penh a few months back? In a (silly and vain) attempt at sprucing up, all sidewalks on the airport route into town were ordered cleared for the duration.

Once again the ugly dichotomy rears its head. I'd hate to see all the city's sidewalks completely cleared. It's really great to see so many activities out on the street. It adds life and vitality, it brings people together and, considering how crowded the city is, puts a lot of valuable space to use. Personally, I always choose to eat outdoors; even in noisy or dusty locations I inevitably prefer it. Everybody does their thing on the sidewalk, nobody gets bent out of shape about it – cool.

On the other hand it would be lovely to be able to walk on nice, safe, hard surfaced sidewalks as opposed to walking out on the street amongst heavy traffic or negotiating funky, disheveled streets that, now in the rainy season, often become more mud puddle than pavement. In the older, denser parts of town nearly every building has a wide overhang. If the sidewalk under it were kept clear it would be easy to keep dry in the rain and cool in the shade on a sunny day.

I'm willing to compromise: You do anything you want on the sidewalk, just leave me room to walk. Actually, auto parking should not be allowed. Everything else can easily be worked around. Take a close look; with a little rearranging the reservation of walking space would hardly ever be a true hardship. In fact, through sheer doggedness I have blazed or helped to blaze trails through once encumbered sidewalks. By stepping over obstacles, at times with exaggerated gestures, or otherwise bulldozing my way through a cluttered walk, I've actually got people to clear a path. When I come across an expat businessperson who blocks the sidewalk I never fail to implore them to be a good citizen and neighbor and LEAVE ROOM FOR ME TO WALK!!!

As for car parking, drivers in the denser parts of every Western city often have to walk 20, 50, 100 meters and more from their parking space to their destination. That's just the way it is. However, here in Phnom Penh at the present level of car ownership, it's clear that, with a few exceptions, parking on the street would be no inconvenience whatever.

As you might have discerned, I'm an inveterate walker. Many other people would join me if it were more pleasant. Phnom Penh will soon reach a crossroads. Will it take the path of cities that end in gridlock because they focus their resources into the futile attempt to accommodate increasing numbers of private vehicles, or will it try to emulate those that have pursued more pedestrian, more community oriented alternatives?

The experience of the West is clear; no amount of money spent on widening surface streets or building fabulously expensive freeways can keep a wealthy city from severe congestion. Closer to home, it isn't just that the financial resources will never be easy to come by but as Phnom Penh's wealth increases it will be physically impossible to find room for all the people who want to drive cars without turning large parts of the city center into multistory parking garages.

The world's more enlightened, forward looking cities – Amsterdam, Copenhagen, for example – have focused their efforts on improving walking, bicycling and public transportation.

Here's an example of the choice facing Phnom Penh. The public right- of-way – street and sidewalks together – of Sihanouk Boulevard is wide enough to double traffic lanes to eight. But what an awful thought, who could enjoy being there in close proximity to so much traffic? Alternatively, the sidewalks could accommodate safe, off- road bikepaths, large planters and pleasant walking space as well as outdoor restaurants.

With a bikepath placed on every wide sidewalk and greenstrip in Phnom Penh the city would have a superb, comprehensive citywide system. By the way, cyclos (pedicabs) would be entirely appropriate on these bikepaths. The potential is not insignificant – thirty percent of all travel in Amsterdam is on bicycle, and that's in a cold, wet climate not friendly to bike riding for large parts of the year.

Every one who opts for walking or cycling in place of motorized transport does themselves, the city, the country and the world a favor. Themselves for the exercise, the city for the reduction in traffic, noise and pollution, the country for reducing the need to import petroleum and the world because it conserves energy and reduces global warming.

Nobody needs to be encouraged to want a private vehicle; the convenience, comfort and prestige, backed up by excessive amounts of marketing, ensure an increase in vehicles in tandem with increasing wealth. But to get people to ride bikes requires that they be promoted as a public good and their use be made safe and enjoyable. The cost of building a quality bikepath on Sihanouk Boulevard would not be small, but still considerably less than the alternative of adding traffic lanes.


A few weeks back as I was walking on Norodom Boulevard at about 10 pm I heard a motorbike crash and witnessed the aftermath – a fascinating scene. By the time the two men involved in the crash managed to rise off of the pavement and shake off the shock a small crowd had formed. Soon one of them, realizing the extent of damage to his bike, built up enough anger to start pummeling and kicking the other.

The pummelee, however, only tried to stay out of the other's way. He didn't run or fight back and, strangely enough, the aggressor seemed to be pulling his punches – expressing his extreme displeasure rather than trying to really hurt the other guy. Soon peacemakers – hefty guys willing to put their bodies in between the two – arrived on the scene. When I left ten minutes later all seemed to be calm and I was relieved and grateful that it didn't result in bloodshed as per the many stories I've heard or read of.

The accident happened at an intersection of Norodom and one of the minor streets crossing it. Although I wasn't privy to witnessing the actual crash there are elements of it that can be assumed with great confidence. Considering the size and design of the two streets it is self-evident that the driver on Norodom had the right-of-way. The other one, it is fair to assume, figured light traffic at that late hour would allow him to barrel through with little consequence, but that's what the word accident means – something unexpected.

This accident could not have happened in Thailand or Malaysia because every street of Norodom's width in those two countries has a barrier running down the center of it that physically eliminates the possibility of cross traffic or left turns. Drivers are forced to travel out of direction, usually to a traffic light, before they can cross. A stop sign, assuming it were obeyed, would help, as would a speed bump that forced drivers to slow down. However, anything short of a center barrier would still allow cross traffic with its hazards and slowdowns.

The tendency to fill large expanses with pavement, such as in front of the Post Office, also sets the stage for accidents – it's much better to keep pavement at the minimum necessary and properly channel traffic, that is, keep it controlled and in a safe place. Large paved areas only confuse things and add to pedestrian problems. Besides, they're expensive, ugly and serve no good purpose. In fact these giant 'impervious surfaces' add to the city's drainage problems.


"Motosuh, moto, moto, motobikesuh," the invariable, incessant words I hear when I'm walking outside my neighborhood where the motodops already know their cry would be futile. I've been around long enough to be able to instantly recognize their occupation and de facto uniforms and I can sympathize with their desire to be working and making money. However, I'd much prefer when I'm out and about minding my own business that they didn't feel the need to pester me so frequently with their moto message.

If they wore brightly colored vests they would know that I very clearly understood the dynamics of the situation and they would no longer need to remind me of their eagerness to offer me a ride.

Except under extreme duress I don't ride motorbikes during the daytime. Late at night with minimal traffic I'm fairly relaxed. However, during the day with vehicles coming at me from all directions, I just can't deal with it, or rather don’t want to deal with it. Spills and accidents are commonplace; other drivers weave and meander all over the place and come within a hair’s breadth of you and they’re sometimes going very fast and/or doing trick manoeuvers.

As you can imagine, even for a committed walker, this puts my mobility at a big disadvantage in a city where motorbikes are the major means of public transportation. There is the option of pedicabs, which work well over short distances. They do have three wheels but they can still be easily toppled by a motorbike. I use them when I just don’t have the time or physical stamina – after a couple of hours of standing teaching I’m in no position to walk a mile or two. Lately, since 2004, tuk-tuk’s – three wheeled taxis – have appeared on the scene. Most are custom manufactured by shade-tree welders and they basically attach a cab, which under extreme circumstances can carry a dozen people (Don’t forget, they’re kind of small; though still...) onto a 125 or 150 cc motorbike. For me this is good since it means they can’t go very fast – 18mph; 30kph – max.

There are a few taxicabs but they are quite expensive. Besides, after being here for a while it seems kind of a waste to use a big vehicle to get around when feet or a tiny one will do.

Phnom Penh's de facto, motodop taxi, public transit system is faster and far more convenient than any possible alternative. No organized bus system could remotely compete with its instantly available, door-to-door service on small maneuverable vehicles. Buses involve walking back and forth to bus stops, a waiting period and slow travel because of many intermediate stops.

However buses have two advantages in low cost to the consumer and reduced traffic. Many Khmers spend an excessive proportion of their incomes on transportation and would gladly accept inconvenience if it meant large cost savings. Unfortunately bus systems using big vehicles almost always require public support to get them going as well as operating subsidies, a big problem considering Cambodia's limited resources.

As an alternative, something resembling the Philippines' jeepney system might work in Phnom Penh without needing public subsidies. Jeepneys are essentially minibuses seating up to 20 people. They serve fixed routes but on any major street there will typically be several destinations available. When traveling a short distance, you can hop on almost any jeepney that passes by, if going to the end of the line, there may be as much as 10 or 15 minutes wait for the one in five or six that goes there.

Finally, the repair and upgrading of Cambodia's roads will lead to an explosion in bus travel, both domestic and tourist, and leave current intercity bus facilities dysfunctionally overloaded. A new modern bus station will become a necessity. Ideally it should be located adjacent to the train station to make it easy to transfer between the two. Cambodia's train system, being so slow and outmoded, has little impact today but could have a great impact in the future.

Phnom Penh was once called the 'Pearl of the Orient', and could be again. Or it could turn into a little Bangkok. Nothing suggested here constitutes a big ticket item but taken together they would have a profound effect on dealing with the city's traffic and improving overall livability. The only relatively costly suggestion is the comprehensive Amsterdam-style bikeway system. However, even there the cost of such a system pales against the alternative of narrowing sidewalks to increase traffic lanes, an action which the city's leaders will be sorely tempted to take when traffic reaches crisis levels, which won't be that long.