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Solving Phnom Penh’s Traffic Requires a Multi-Faceted Approach

Future Forum's junior research fellow, Aronsakda Ses was published in Kiripost on September 25, 2023. Check out the original article here, and read it below!


Future Forum research fellow and trained architect, Ses Aronsakda, takes a look at what measures are needed to improve traffic flow in Phnom Penh to make life easier for commuters and residents.

Phnom Penh's traffic congestion coasts billions each year, harming productivity, health, and the environment. Kiripost/Siv Channa

The worsening commute experience is a begrudging fact of life for most in Phnom Penh. Families living in the outskirts have to leave their homes at the crack of dawn if they are to make it to work or school on time. Spending hours stuck in traffic daily creates a multitude of negative consequences.

The scale of economic loss due to lost productivity, traffic accidents, pollution, and increased vehicle usage was recently estimated to be between $500 million and $700 million a year in Phnom Penh. Co2 emissions are another concern, with transportation in the capital producing an estimated 27,800,000 metric tons of emissions annually. Not to mention the mental health burden placed on all commuters.

“Usually it takes 10 minutes, when congested it can take up to 40 minutes. So it is a waste of time for commuters like myself. Congestion wastes our time and also impacts our mental health. We become stressed, unhappy when we are constantly stuck in traffic.” A Phnom Penh commuter told Voice of America.

To remedy this, the Government, private sector, and civil society have conceived a flurry of solutions. From flyovers, smart traffic lights, pursuing electric cars, and pedestrian bridges, to education campaigns, and so many more. There is no shortage of ideas.

But these ideas too often rely on isolated approaches. Each solution tackles a narrow angle and often fails to account for the wider context or consequences. For Phnom Penh to break free of its gridlock, city planning authorities must take a multi-faceted approach and reorient their efforts to prioritize space-efficient and cost-effective measures.

We Need Multi-Faceted Approaches

Cities must be understood as a series of interconnected parts; as an ecosystem. Changes applied to one part of the system have the potential to create ripple effects in myriads of other moving parts. Hence, even well-intended policy changes can cause adverse consequences if downstream impacts aren’t taken into account and planned for.

For example, most residents support the construction of additional car parking within the city. However, adding parking infrastructure only increases the incentive to drive cars within Phnom Penh, thus worsening congestion.

Sound recommendations must avoid addressing an issue like traffic congestion on the surface and must consider possible implications beyond the most obvious and immediate results.

Another key factor in evaluating any solution is to consider whether that solution understands and takes into account user behavior. For Cambodia this will often be the most effective approach, as enforcement remains weak and unequal. For example, instead of solely relying on traffic law enforcement to control speed, it would be preferable to change street designs to have an impact on drivers’ behavior.

Crucially, solutions should be cohesive; each element must work in concert to support the wider goal of reducing private vehicle traffic. Two mutually supportive approaches that Phnom Penh can quickly adopt and scale are curbing parking spaces, and prioritizing public transit and active commuting.

Parking Reform

City authorities in Phnom Penh must undertake parking reform. UCLA professor Donald Shoup’s research into parking has long shown that an abundance of parking in urban areas leads to an over-reliance on cars for commuting. More recently, scholars have identified the availability of nearby parking as a major factor in users choosing to commute by car rather than using other modes of transport, such as public transit, bicycling, or walking.

To remedy this, reforms to Cambodia’s parking requirement should be conceived as a tiered system designed to take into account a number of characteristics, including mobility access (is the location best served by public transit, active commuting, or motorcycles?), utilization of space (does the area need frequent freight vehicle access?), urban density, and existing street network capacity. Taking these factors into account allows Phnom Penh’s planners to tailor parking requirements across the city according to the local context.

Another effective regulation that Phnom Penh badly needs is parking permits. Regulations that require car owners to prove that they have an off-street parking spot (within their own property) at the time of car purchase would limit most households to owning only one car, thus curbing the overall number of cars.

Vehicle excise and taxation schemes should also be modified to discourage large, older, and polluting cars. To this end, both excise and vehicle taxes should be based on vehicle mass and size, targeting SUVs and pickup trucks in particular. These types of car models are becoming increasingly popular, yet pose excessive risk to other road users, take up more space, and have worse fuel efficiency.

Likewise, excise for importing second-hand cars should remain high, while vehicle tax should increase annually as car models get older rather than decrease with the current scheme.

Favoring Space Efficient and Cost Effective Mobility Solutions

As Phnom Penh grows, both in terms of population and economic productivity, an increase in commuting trips is inevitable. However, that does not mean that trips by cars need to increase. Quite the opposite, Phnom Penh should strive to ensure that the share of trips leans more heavily towards public transit, wheeled micro-mobility options, and walking.

Firstly, Phnom Penh stakeholders must recognize that walking forms the basis of urban mobility. All other forms of commute rely on good walkability, thus the city must prioritize improvements that allow pedestrians to safely and comfortably move about their neighborhoods and beyond.

Beyond building and maintaining sidewalks, planners must consider other factors that are just as crucial in Cambodia’s context. In a hot climate like ours, planting trees to provide shade on sidewalks and building public seating are indispensable.

Moreover, efforts to ensure a lively streetscape markedly improve safety and help build social cohesion among neighbors. And to truly welcome pedestrians, there must also be a reason to walk. Placemaking efforts can go a long way toward ensuring that this is the case.

Phnom Penh should take these lessons into account with the creation of pedestrian streets along suitable locations, for example the riverside, which are the best testing grounds for championing walkability.

Secondly, in terms of micro-mobility Cambodian planners would do well to learn from Hanoi’s mistakes in its decision to implement a ban on motorcycles by 2030. In terms of space efficiency, two-wheeled vehicles are far better than cars, and much closer to the efficiency of bicycles, which are the gold standard of space efficient vehicles in cities.

In contrast, many cities in Europe and the US are encouraging commuters to adopt light electric vehicles, for example, electric bicycles, especially wheeled mobility devices for people with physical disabilities, through tax rebates when they purchase these vehicles.

While affluent cities have to offer large subsidies for citizens to switch to micro-mobility, in Phnom Penh four-fifths of all private vehicles are already motorcycles. Therefore, policymakers must build infrastructure and craft policies to support the transition to electric micro-mobility.

Policy interventions should encourage the adoption of electric scooters and other light EVs (E-bikes, E-scooters, E-tricycles. etc.) to replace gasoline powered models. Moreover, regulation should impose criteria to carefully control the mass, speed, and quality of light EVs that are imported into the Cambodian market to ensure the safety of these devices and to protect consumer rights.

Infrastructure should incentivize light EV usage through the creation of a separate network of streets that prioritizes both light EVs and traditional bicycles. On such streets, wheeled mobility lanes should be physically separated from motor vehicles, employ chicane lanes, include protected intersections, and incorporate diverter intersections that only allow bikes and scooters to pass, for example.

Features like bike and scooter parking corrals should be standard, especially close to popular areas like schools and commercial districts.

Lastly, for the bulk of longer distance commute trips, Phnom Penh should set public transit up to fulfill the demand. Phnom Penh’s public transit must be enhanced, yet the city should shelve plans to chase after high-flying projects. With cost often being cited as the main concern by the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, public transit solutions should utilize what Phnom Penh already has.

Phnom Penh City Bus already possesses a large and modern fleet of buses donated from Japan and China. And most recently, 200 more Korean buses bolstered the number. What is missing is a provision to separate public transit buses from private vehicle traffic.

Phnom Penh should seek to “disentangle” its bus routes by moving them onto boulevards prioritized for public transit. While other forms of commute namely, private vehicles, can be placed on alternative routes.

Within their own designated routes, bus reliability can be reinforced by the inclusion of separated bus-lanes, bus bulbs, a curb extension that allows for easy boarding, sheltered bus stops, and enhancements to improve accessibility for passengers with physical mobility issues.

The combination of a reliable and fast public transit system, improved walkability, and options for safe journeys using wheeled micro-mobility, will offer a far superior alternative to car-centric mobility solutions.

Changing to Sustainable Urban Mobility

The current approach taken by all stakeholders to resolve Phnom Penh’s traffic woes is inadequate, and the results are self-evident.

Instead, Cambodian planners must treat cities as ecosystems and understand the wider consequences of actions taken. Crafting effective policies requires city planners to abandon car-centered solutions by curtailing car parking, and instead prioritize space efficient and cost effective mobility measures.

For the sake of the environment, for the mental and financial well-being of all inhabitants, and for the prosperity of the whole city, Phnom Penh’s urban mobility must move people, not cars.



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