Badly Congested, Phnom Penh Battles With Traffic Jams

Expert says more roads and bridges will only solve traffic problem for the short term

At the intersection of Russian Boulevard and Kampuchea Krom, where a flyover bridge is currently being constructed, SUVs, trucks, motorbikes and bicycles wait for the traffic lights to turn green. An old man pushing a cart full of recycled bottles inches out ahead of everyone, while motorcycle taxi drivers weave their way around the stalled traffic to get to the front.

Rush hour traffic on Phnom Penh’s increasingly congested roads.
Rush hour traffic on Phnom Penh’s increasingly congested roads.

When the lights change, it’s every vehicle for itself on the traffic-choked streets of Phnom Penh, where rush-hour gridlocks are a new, and testing, part of city life.

“Even if you increase more roads or widen them…these are just some of the engineering ap­proaches to reduce congestion. But this will only solve the traffic problem for the short term,” said Nasir Hasan, an environmental engineering expert for the World Health Organization, who be­lieves that the country needs a national strategy for land transportation, particularly in Phnom Penh.

“There needs to be long-term planning…such as changing the attitudes of people or understanding the need to change—and that needs to be not just the public, but also the police and the municipality,” he added.

He explained that basic rules like driving on the correct side of the streets or not making illegal turns should be enforced, while the traffic law must continue to be improved by City Hall.

City Hall officials say they have been working to improve the streets in the hopes of easing traffic congestion: That flyover bridge along Russian and Kam­puchea Krom boulevards in Tuol Kok district is slated for completion by January 2012, while the most re­cent flyover bridge in Cham­kar Mom district was finished in July. In March, work around the Neang Kong Hing roundabout, which connects the chaotic Charles de Gaulle and Monireth boulevards, began; it was completed in September.

Heng Chantheary, municipal traffic police chief, said the government is working on a solution to the traffic by widening roads and building flyovers. However, he blamed the increased congestion on the influx of rural people flooding into the city and their lack of knowledge of traffic law.

“I appeal to people from remote areas to pay attention to learn more about the traffic law, especially to the public announcements on the TV and radio,” said Mr Chantheary.

How much rural people are adding to the traffic problem is debatable, however, with the ur­ban rich quickly buying up gas-guzzlers like Land Rovers, Land Cruisers and Cadillacs that take up large portions of Phnom Penh’s narrow roads.

Sann Socheata, road safety program manager of Handicap In­ternational, said the traffic police department should look to its own role in the problems on the city’s streets.

“There is…a lack of law enforcement. We can observe that there’s some increase of improvement in Phnom Penh or two or three other provinces, but still it is not as advanced as in Vietnam. The traffic police there are much more of a presence than in Cambodia.”

Yet better infrastructure and law enforcement still may not address the growing number of individual vehicle drivers. For that, public transportation is typically needed.

City Hall attempted a bus service back in 2001, but it fizzled out quickly.

Men Chansokol, deputy director of land transport department at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, said the failed bus service ran only on main streets and even a short walk home is troublesome for the public, many of whom would forgo walking in favor of using a motorcycle.

Ms Socheata, of Handicap In­ternational, welcomed Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema’s announcement in February about a feasibility study being conducted for a public transport service because this will—it is hoped—reduce the number of private ve­hicles in the capital.

But a public transportation system will take years before materializing, and for now, city residents will just have to wait—and likely in longer traffic jams.

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