The old adage goes: It is not the destination that matters, it is the journey. But for a city, the exact opposite is true — it’s not the trudging commute that matters, it’s the destination.
This holds true for Cambodian urbanites. To them, busy streets and thoroughfares are just something they grudgingly deal with on the way to where they actually want to be. After all, a city’s road network mundanely carries traffic, goods, and people and are rarely if ever seen as more than just that.
But the importance of city streets hides in plain sight. For Phnom Penh, streets often represent the only fully public space left. And their correct utilization holds the key to a more vibrant, livable and prosperous city.
Street as Destination
The concept of revitalizing streets as destinations may seem strange. Yet some of the most memorable, and celebrated spaces of a city are often its streets. The Champs-Élysées in Paris, the Passeig de Gràcia of Barcelona, New York’s Broadway, and even Phnom Penh’s very own Sisowath Quay are just a few examples.
The most obvious factor for a vibrant street is space for pedestrians and cyclists. If streets are to be a destination then there must be space to leisurely walk, cycle or do some window shopping, and parklets for passersby to rest, have a conversation or do some people-watching. This means motorized vehicles must give up some space, although this does not necessarily mean user volumes have to be decreased. In fact, the opposite is true.
Footpaths and cycling lanes on average carry more people per hour than a driving lane, while the inclusion of a public transit line (bus or tram) makes a street more accessible for visitors who are further away.
Take New York’s Broadway, particularly Times Square, as an example. Well-served by public transit, this section of the avenue benefits from a road diet redesign, which replaced space for motor vehicles with pedestrian footpaths, cycling lanes and a public plaza — converting what was once a highly congested intersection into a lively public square.
A well-designed street must also maintain a sense of enclosure and protection against the climate — in Cambodia this would mean protection against high temperatures, and strong rains.
This is where buildings and trees play a crucial role, providing shading, an interesting backdrop and a sense of enclosure.
In short, appealing streets are people-friendly, well connected by public transit, and are beautifully framed and shaded by trees and buildings. But these changes don’t just benefit the people who use the streets. There is also reason to believe businesses benefit as well.
Destination Streets Are Great for Business
In a number of research papers studying the direct economic impacts of designing streets to reduce vehicle traffic and increase cycling and foot traffic, the results collectively illustrate a positive impact for local businesses.
Spending differences between motorists and active commuters are relatively small with drivers spending $47 and cyclists spending $43 per trip. But it’s important to remember that
pedestrians and cyclists spend more time along retail areas, are more likely to visit the shops they pass by, and revisit them more frequently than drivers. Hence, overall they contribute to more sales revenue over time.
Lastly, businesses can accommodate more active commuters compared to drivers.
A single car parking spot can be used to park six bicycles, and of course no parking is needed for pedestrians.
And let’s not forget that the by-products of a well designed street goes beyond just good business.
Vibrant streets benefit society by establishing spaces for socio-cultural activities, like having social interactions, promoting architectural and historical heritage, while contributing to place-making value for a city.
They benefit the environment with the addition of trees and other greenery, contributing to urban biodiversity and improving local microclimate — from reducing urban heat gain to noise and air pollution, as well as improving water infiltration, and more.
Lastly, well-designed streets are beneficial to public health, with the reduction or complete absence of motor traffic creating a safer environment for all users, reducing air and noise pollution, and getting more city dwellers to stay physically active.
Better Streets for Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh certainly has the potential to develop attractive, lively, and activity-rich streets. One such street is Street 184, which stretches 1.4 kilometers east to west from the riverfront to Monivong Boulevard.
The first step would be to prioritize active commuters. The stretch between the National Museum to Norodom Boulevard has the potential to be fully pedestrianized. Since it is mostly flanked by large public buildings, and small food and beverage shops which will be easier to convince these vendors of the benefit of full pedestrian traffic.
This article is produced with the financial assistance of the European Union in Cambodia and Embassy of Sweden Section Office in Phnom Penh through Transparency International Cambodia (TI Cambodia). The views expressed herein can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the European Union, Sweden, TI Cambodia, or Future Forum.