Say the words “sky train” and “Phnom Penh” in the same sentence and most people will laugh.
The problem of traffic is obvious in Cambodia, where four people die in road accidents every day, but the solution has proven elusive.
After the city’s last experiment with mass transportation in 2001, both the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which spearheaded the two-month public bus project, and the government concluded that Cambodians weren’t ready to trade in their trusted motorbikes for a few public buses, let alone something as hi-tech as an electric train in the sky. JICA officials said last week that they believe this to still be the case.
But whether or not people are ready may soon cease to be the point.
In Phnom Penh, there are about 120,000 registered cars and 440,000 registered motorbikes, according to Ung Chun Hour, director general of transport at the Ministry of Public Works. The number of vehicles increases about 15 to 20 percent each year, he added—which is to say nothing of urban growth in general.
A new marker will be reached the world over in the coming year when half the world’s population—3.3 billion people—will be living in urban areas.
In Cambodia specifically, the urban population is growing at more than 4 percent a year, now totaling 17.7 percent of the nation’s 14 million people, according to Christine Chan, a program officer at the UN Population Fund.
And as conditions become extreme, some are suggesting extreme solutions.
Earlier this month, Bangkok Mass Transit System announced its intention to begin construction on two sky train lines in Phnom Penh, a north-south axis from the Japanese Friendship Bridge to the Monivong Bridge and another line running east-west from Phsar Thmei to the garment sector hub in Meanchey district.
Municipal officials were quick to qualify the progress of this proposal, calling it an ambitious plan that was likely still a ways off.
But urbanist Helen Grant Ross, who worked on Bangkok’s mass transit system in the late 1990s, said the time to think big is now.
“Usually from the concept to the construction it takes about 10 years to set up the financing, do the design work, construction and installation of the rails and rolling stock,” Grant Ross said of an urban mass transport system as sophisticated as a sky train.
“So it is important for Phnom Penh to think about this now, as in 10 years time the population will be about 3 million and congestion will have become intolerable,” she wrote in an e-mail last week.
Bangkok learned the hard way, she said. A sky train network was designed in 1980, but the Thai government did not follow through with building it until the 1990s, when “road traffic had come to a complete halt and it was a question of survival of the city to get things moving,” she said.
Acclaimed Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, who is responsible for designing many of the country’s landmark buildings, said there needs to be a full-scale study of traffic—something he estimated would take an international group about six months—but added that he thinks the only viable public transport options for Phnom Penh’s traffic lie above ground.
“The only way is to separate the road into several levels for rapid and slow traffic, and for pedestrians,” he said, adding that digging underground for a subway system would be detrimental to the city’s already strained drainage and sewage systems.
Most experts say that within the next 10 years, a mass transport system will become necessary given the strains of increased urbanization, and most agree that whatever mass transportation there is needs to be part of an integrated traffic system with many options—such as public buses and attractive sidewalks for pedestrians.
Ung Chun Hour said last week that he looks down the road for Phnom Penh and sees increasingly heavy traffic, but feels frustrated because he lacks the funds to substantially address these concerns.
“In 2006, we only had $100,000 to work with,” he said. “There is not enough budget to respond to the rapid development and growth of people.”
Chea Bunthoeun, municipal bureau chief of transportation, said a few, smaller traffic projects are underway, such as street-widening efforts on Russian Federation and Monivong Boulevards and flyover bridges—one of which will be on the way to the airport over the intersection of Russian Federation Boulevard and Street 271.
Ou Thonsal, municipal manager of transport, said that soon the urban population in Phnom Penh will demand sky trains.
“Such a project inevitably will become logical,” he said. “If not by one company, it would be another company.”
But JICA, Japan’s aid arm, which is currently working to improve several city intersections and previously provided the government with an urban master plan, said Cambodia should be wary of doling out individual projects to foreign companies until they can sufficiently regulate such projects.
When a team of French developers revamped the area around Phsar Thmei last year, it eased the flow of traffic in that immediate vicinity, but also succeeded in pushing traffic elsewhere and clogging up areas a little further out, according to Ono Tomohiro, JICA assistant resident representative of infrastructure and urban living condition.
Developers need to look at the whole scene, he said, and start at the beginning.
Before people are able to change their traffic habits, no tangible traffic remedy will make sense, he added.
“If you don’t understand the roundabout system, then a roundabout won’t work,” Ono said. “It’s too early for flyovers.”
As for a sky train that stretches up and over the swirling traffic around Phsar Thmei, he said: “They’re just dreaming.”
Ung Chun Hour said that the majority of the national traffic budget is being spent on implementing and educating people about the new traffic law passed earlier this year.
“We want to change the behaviors of people, but it takes a long time. Not one, two years,” he said.
To UN Habitat Program Manager Someathrith Din, the solution can’t possibly be a sky train because the problem isn’t even traffic.
“The problem is not the increased number of vehicles or the size of the roads,” but rather the city center under strain due to urbanization and the lack of forward-thinking development, he said last week.
As of now, too many people living in greater Phnom Penh need to pass through the city center on a daily basis in order to take advantage of various amenities including schools and hospitals.
“More development surrounding [the] city center is what needs to happen,” he said. “That will ease up the traffic…then problems will be reduced.”
“In Bangkok, they have undergrounds and skytrains and buses, but they cannot solve the problem,” he added.
International donors concentrate their money in rural areas, he said, because they assume those in the city are better off.
But until resources are built up outside the city center—primarily in Phnom Penh’s outlying Dangkao, Russei Keo and Meanchey districts—everyone will still be in a traffic jam headed to the same place.