By Kenneth Wilson
It is stating the obvious to say that traffic congestion in Phnom Penh is approaching a crisis. Will Phnom Penh be another Bangkok or Jakarta? Both reached gridlock before being forced to tackle the problem. Or might Phnom Penh be able to avoid the inevitable in the same way that it has gone from having almost no landline phones to having one of the most extensive mobile phone networks in the region? With road infrastructure becoming overwhelmed with vehicles, how will the country cope with this challenge in the future? Will the rise of car ownership be counterbalanced by rising fuel prices and, yet, increasing pollution and smog?
Cambodia has an estimated 1.8 million registered vehicles—some 300,000 are cars, and the rest predominately motorcycles and trucks. With an increase of 8 percent from 2011 to 2012, the overcrowding on the roads will only become worse. Assuming the same growth rate, vehicles will increase to 2.6 and 3.9 million in 5 and 10 years, clearly, leading to even worse traffic deadlocks.
With a population today of almost 15 million citizens and 9.6 million of them between the driving ages of 16 and 65, about 1 of 5 Cambodians drive some form of vehicle. And as the country approaches its economic take-off, an increasing number of them will join the middle class and aspire to vehicle ownership. Adding to this is the inevitable rural-urban migration as Cambodia’s rural poor seek higher incomes in the cities.
Although deaths per 100,000 due to traffic accidents are lower than most regional neighbors (except Singapore), and are not a major cause of death, any avoidable deaths are unacceptable. That said, studies have indicated that road accidents account for up to two-thirds of all accidental deaths in Cambodia.
So, what can be done?
Projects are under way but not with the intensity, immediacy and investment of resources required. The heavy funding by other countries, principally China, Japan and Korea, go a long way but so much more is needed.
Street repairs are an excellent example: Phnom Penh’s drainage system regularly floods streets during the rainy season. A Japan International Cooperation Agency grant started an improvement program for 2002 to 2015 with an investment of $105 million. The first two phases (2002 to 2007) are complete with the remaining having started. Investments like this go a long way toward improvement, yet Cambodians continue to throw trash into gutters, cover up gratings with rugs to reduce odors, restaurants pour used cooking oil plus scraps into them, and repair shops discard organics—oil, grease, etc. All contribute to system deterioration, re-stoppage, environmental contamination and future flooding. It isn’t obvious that transportation authorities and police are doing much of anything to stop such actions.
Investments into new infrastructure have focused primarily on national highways with lesser attention to provincial and rural thoroughfares. Connections with neighboring countries—Thailand, Laos and Vietnam—are obviously necessary, but weather-stable provincial and rural road connections to these larger thoroughfares are even more essential. After all, some 75 percent of the population lives rurally, provides 58 percent of the work force and through its agricultural activities contributes 31 percent of gross domestic product. As seen globally, an integrated transportation system linking markets, producers and consumers with a government’s strong focus on transportation expansion and improvement is essential. That said, widespread connections of rural areas to highways are in need of more attention.
As the vehicle numbers expand, are there serious alternatives? Cities as large as Phnom Penh have implemented bus, tram, and underground train systems, or a combination thereof, to reduce congestion. The probable alternative here, and likely the cheapest, would be a bus system. Yet that would require serious investments, disruption while widening streets, designated lanes for bus traffic only, and, likely, riders being charged for the convenience of faster, less hassle transportation. In other major metropolitan capitals, significant percentages of the inhabitants use such an alternative as a means to move around. Given current congestion and worsening gridlock due to increasing vehicle numbers, Cambodia needs progress in this direction, and fast.
Virtually all developed countries adhere to enacted laws dealing with traffic, be it vehicular, pedestrian or otherwise. Regulations establish a system that protects all involved—from accident to prosecution—and the police and courts uphold the laws. In Cambodia, traffic laws exist but ineffectual enforcement and bribing can make them questionably effective. Those that are driving hazardously—speeding, running lights, overtaking dangerously, not yielding, drunk driving—are seldom stopped and infrequently convicted of any offense. If involved in an accident and apprehended perhaps the only restitution for damage is paid; if a death occurs, a financial exchange with the affected family is made. Interestingly, the courts are usually not involved in such cases but rather there’s arbitration—between the grieving family, the responsible person, and the police—and a value agreed upon. If the person maimed or killed leaves a wife and children, the amounts paid might address immediate needs, but certainly not long-term necessities.
Vehicle accidents are the top cause of accidental death in Cambodia wherein near 2,000 fatalities occur annually, or about 5 per day, and most are attributable to poor driving habits and lack of law enforcement. Estimates suggest that 10 percent of the deaths come from car accidents, the rest involving motorcycles (often without helmet). A surprising cost estimate is as much as 3.5 percent of GDP is lost each year due to accidents.
For those wishing to drive, a license is required by law; passing a driving test is supposed to be done and a written exam apparently not required. By observing traffic flow it’s safe to assume that many haven’t qualified and are unlicensed, or drive with one that has been illegally purchased. Paying bribes to those administering the test has been suspected and fake documentation seems available. With a system lacking meaningful fines and possibly imprisonment for either the involved examiner or driver, there is little hope that driving habits will improve.
A day watching Phnom Penh’s traffic reveals drivers on the wrong side of two-lane roads, cutting corners, speeding, running stop lights, excessive honking, and even going in the wrong direction on one-way streets…all too common traffic offenses. Each of these affects not only the other wheeled vehicles in the immediate vicinity but foot traffic as well. The latest idea of converting some Phnom Penh streets from two-way to one-way as a solution to traffic congestion is an interesting suggestion. The primary reason for road congestion is thoroughfares not designed for today’s traffic load and, as vehicle numbers continue to increase, it will obviously get a lot worse.
In other countries, the pedestrian paths next to roads are reserved for walkers needing to stay out of harm’s way. Given the size, speed and mass of vehicles, it is only reasonable walkers be provided this degree of safety. Globally, such structures, paid for by citizens and taxes, are designated as an area wherein vehicles cannot park; in various cities around the World, a driver opting to park on a sidewalk will be ticketed for $25 to $150. Violators skipping payment suffer increasing amounts due and, perhaps, even prosecution and jail time.
In Cambodia, however, sidewalks are clearly used for any variety of purposes: parking cars, trucks, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and even food carts; store’s exhibiting and selling merchandise; even for restaurant tables, cooking and cleaning supplies. Those occupying sidewalk space for a short time usually aren’t haggled but for a longer period they’ll likely make a “contribution” to a store owner, and perhaps the police, to be allowed the space.
So, obstructions to foot traffic are due not only to licensed vehicles but a multitude of additional impediments; result: Pedestrians are forced into the street and exposed to traffic dangers. The sidewalks need to be returned to the walkers and stores; a program established designating restricted parking areas—open lots or specific structures, and imposing new building codes wherein garages of ample capacity are integral to any structure—home, office, or shopping center. Although expensive, the current crowding and projected growth of vehicle numbers requires major investments.
Increased focus and investment on all roads is critical to continuing Cambodia’s evolving economy. Given that most roads are unpaved, roughly 70 percent, and of limited use during the rainy season, much more attention to them is required. With continually worsening congestion projected, the protection of this infrastructure through restructuring, expansion and improvement of the transport and logistics infrastructures is dearly needed.
Equally important is focused attention on driver education, training, licensing, plus enforcement of existing laws, to reduce road danger. The criticality of a safe transportation system must have the highest national prioritization to meet projected development goals.
Kenneth Wilson, adjunct professor at Texas State University, teaches at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and has opened research laboratories in Cambodia.