By Ung Techhong Luy and J.Corbett Hix
Phnom Penh is at a crossroads between unfettered growth at all costs and quality of life for its residents. The development over the past ten years has traveled at breakneck speed, a result of pent-up demand from the post-conflict period and a decade of finding its feet and stabilization.
The improvements in public health, access to electricity, clean water or better-paying jobs, and a thriving economy are worthy of praise but the rapid economic and related increases in urbanization have come with many unpaid costs. The average speed of vehicles has decreased from 20km/h to 15km/h while large influxes of foreign capital have distorted the property and housing markets, pushing the lower income and middle class further to the periphery of the city.
The entire country has benefitted from growth in numerous ways, but it has also negatively impacted the quality of life for many city dwellers and begun to stratify society according to socioeconomic status, impairing already weak social capital and trust amongst the city’s residents.
Middle-class children no longer walk to their local public schools but instead are scattered across the city with no connection to amenities and daily necessities, adding additional pressure on roads. Lower-income people, for decades, have rushed to buy motorbikes, second-hand cars, or, when possible, the largest SUVs they can find in an effort to announce to the world that they have “made it”.
Meanwhile, cars take the space of six motorbikes on the road while having nowhere to park in the city center other than what were once sidewalks. This forces those who choose to walk into the streets, where all drivers navigate with abandon and where the driving force seems to be ‘only I matter’.
Cars and motorbikes fill, filling every crevice between vehicles and barges through intersections, causing longer traffic jams. Pedestrians have arguably gotten the worst end of the stick. Those who might have walked two blocks to their local markets now feel threatened on foot, forcing them to get on their motorbike or car.
Children are the most at risk, attempting to play in the street because they have few if any, outdoor alternatives. They simply stay inside, attached to screens rather than neighborhood friends.
Things do not need to be this way, but unless there is rapid action, it could be too late. Phnom Penh may have sealed its path towards becoming the next mini-Jakarta or Manila - a self-contained parking lot that most residents look forward to only leaving. If the projections are right, Phnom Penh is on its way to housing more than 2.4 million people in 2030, most of whom might share the same aspiration of owning a car and motorbike adding additional stress on the infrastructure.
Most will not consider the idea of public transport as their daily transportation mode because it is slow, unreliable, stuck in the same traffic or simply, does not exist.
The Emergence of Conspicuous Consumerism and Its Contrast with Buddhism
Seeing the prosperity that Cambodia is experiencing through capitalistic mechanisms over the past decades, it is hard to imagine that its people were once forced to abandon that same ideology. As Cambodia reached a lower-middle-income status in 2015, consumerism boomed with economic growth.
Malls filled with branded designer items and luxury car showrooms sprouted throughout the capital. The new emerging middle-class and the wealthy embraced conspicuous consumerism as a way to show their peers, and the world, that they had shaken off the country’s history and “succeeded” by flaunting their success publicly.
While it can be easy to jump on the bandwagon and call conspicuous consumerism a “Khmer thing”, a global online survey by Ipsos suggests otherwise. It concluded that those in developing countries are more likely to see themselves as materialistic than their Western counterparts, thus what is seen in Cambodia is not a phenomenon unique to the country but common in others.
Around 95 percent of Cambodians are Buddhist but many contemporary actions have strayed away from the teachings of Theravada Buddhism. Our current society is heavily materialistic, corrupting fundamental values that unify a society. Materialism also damages the individual. Findings in Psychological Science show that materialistic individuals tend to have low levels of wellbeing. Maybe it is time for us to review our lessons on Buddhism.
Buddha taught us to gain satisfaction through the tranquility of the mind and a deeper understanding of oneself, which leads to enlightenment and deliverance, setting one free of any social norms or pressures. This is the opposite of a materialist society.
Geographic and Economic Walls — How We Live Apart, From Gated Communities to the Rest
Cambodian society is stratified not only by values but also by the economic, geographic, and, increasingly, physical walls. While attempting to safeguard the privileged, impacts are felt the most by the less privileged. Gated boreys are increasingly where the emerging middle class aspires to be.
These range from affordable options on the far perimeter of the city, to mid-range developments such as New World (Piphup Thmey) and options such as Peng Huoth, Chip Mong, or Phnom Penh Thmey for those able to leap into the upper class.
Again, this phenomenon is not unique to Cambodia. Suburban master-planned communities redefined life in post-World War II America, orienting new communities around economic and racial segregation, and dependency on personal transport.
They offered middle-class Americans an alternative to overcrowded cities, small apartments, and the chaos of the city center. Providing “safer” neighborhoods with private access to a variety of amenities like parks, schools, fitness centers, golf clubs, shopping malls, and other accouterments of middle-class life.
Cambodia is in the midst of a similar postwar real estate boom. CBRE (real estate and real estate analysis firm) found that there were only 77 borey projects a decade ago, but the number has since quadrupled.
One might be excited by the numbers, more housing development is better for the whole city, right? Not necessarily - boreys, like American suburbs, encourage social and residential segregation, causing friction in society. Those who live in gated communities are isolated and less likely to participate in local community events, losing the opportunity to interact with people of different socioeconomic statuses.
Like U.S. suburbs, they are built entirely reliant on cars for access, segregated by economic access, and limiting mobility to youth and those without vehicles to connections to the larger city. The current approach to urban design parallels the story of Buddha’s childhood.
The father-king did not want his son, Buddha, to see the outside world that is filled with suffering and imperfection. He tried to keep his son behind the palace’s gate for as long as he could. Here, the preference for highly controlled, exclusionary housing prevents people of different backgrounds from interacting and knowing each other.
Open spaces in these developments are available only to residents, and are not public, they are available only to those who can afford to pay the borey premium. We would like to see a shift toward a more egalitarian society. If we are to get better as a society, we must encourage and empower Cambodians to think of inclusiveness and not exclusiveness.
The government, city planners, borey owners, and homebuyers, should rethink the fundamental values of a home and community, and understand how a common space where people of all ages, genders, and socioeconomic statuses can meet, talk, discuss, argue or simply, have fun, without feeling they might not belong. One only needs to look at the lessons from Buddha, or the social polarization in the United States
Reclaiming Our Streets — Utilizing Public Transport to Strengthen Social Capital and Strong Communities
Transportation methods similarly divide society. Cars and motorbikes have become the primary transport modes for many. Nearly a million cars and more than 5 million motorbikes are currently on the streets of Cambodia today, an alarming number that makes traffic gridlocks occur more often.
This is understandable given how few choices Phnom Penh citizens have. Phnom Penh implemented a rollout of a public bus system in 2014 after two pilots in 2001 and 2014. At 2,000 Riels, the price is affordable compared to other modes of transport like ride-hailing.
However, the quality of the service in both reliability and geographic reach is a common rider’s complaint. Ridership also suffers from limited first and last-mile access.9 Buses are also constrained by a lack of dedicated lanes, leaving riders in the same traffic that they hoped to avoid, now caught in larger vehicles that make frequent stops.
This has impacted ridership and the financial sustainability of the whole bus operation. The lack of a faster mode of transport impacts the livelihood of the whole city. Precious time that could be spent on family bonding or leisure activities is spent on work-to-home commutes which may result in rising blood pressure and stress among drivers who encounter unethical driving behaviors that are inevitable during rush hours.
While on the road, personal vehicle owners contribute to the worsening climate and air quality by polluting the air with idling engines. Vehicle noise and chaotic honking contribute to the underrated effects of noise pollution on people who live right next to the streets.
“The automobile age promised freedom and self-fulfillment, but it has actually imprisoned us, impoverished us, and eroded our communities. The demand for oil is fast outpacing the world’s supply, and it is time to start imagining a world after the automobile age,” said Taras Grescoe, Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile.
Public transport is the obvious way forward if we are to ensure that Phnom Penh is livable in the future. We do not need to jump to subways, sky trains, or expensive high-speed trains immediately; those projects take a significant amount of time to plan, fund, and implement.
COVID-19 put a stop to the rising public bus ridership of mostly high school students and young adults. But now that the pandemic has subsided, the government, especially the PPCH (Phnom Penh City Hall) and CBA (City Bus Authority) should improve the time and route availability of the public bus while also creating a campaign to promote its usage and benefits.
There is evidence around the world that public transportation increases the livability of a city. Faced with a similar post-conflict and rapid economic growth, Bogotá, Colombia is an appropriate comparison for Phnom Penh. Two decades ago, a progressive mayor, unafraid to rattle the elite, introduced TransMilenio, which is now hailed as one of the most successful bus systems in the world.
Operated on dedicated bus lanes with platforms for ticketing, waiting and boarding (up to 160 people), it operates more like an above-ground subway, but at a fraction of the cost, moving 1.7 million people per day, simultaneously being only 1 of 2 systems in the world that turn a profit (the other is Japan).
Bogota offers a paragon of courageous leadership, transforming the city from one of the most congested, to one built for people by providing cost-effective mass transportation that helps the majority, all in the space of ten years.
Phnom Penh could do the same if its leadership is willing to take bold steps in favor of the greater good. "An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport," says Enrique Peñalosa, Former Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia.
Walking as Transport
Often overlooked, walking is also a form of public transport. Walking is the ideal distance for 100m - 800m distances but is dependent on safe public sidewalks and some degree of shade in hot climates. However, Phnom Penh sidewalks have been overtaken by street vendors, cars, and motorbikes who have completely repurposed them, forcing pedestrians into unsafe streets.
This leads to many trips (like visiting a local market) that could be done by walking, to be done on motorbike or car. Reclaiming the sidewalks for safe use by pedestrians is a win, win, win strategy - it is a low-cost intervention that will improve health, happiness, and safety while helping to reduce traffic congestion.
Similar to declaring some street lanes exclusively for buses, the leadership needs to be willing to upset both the car-and-moto owning class who currently use them for parking and street vendors whose operations and seatings push pedestrians into the street.
These are surmountable problems if the community can voice their opinions for leaders to listen and act. If pedestrian sidewalks are made safe again, thousands of daily unnecessary vehicle trips could be taken off city streets.
Prioritizing the Right Investments In sum, we argue that investments in public transportation, with an emphasis on walking (as a form of transport) and rapid-bus transit, can potentially recover the “charm” of Phnom Penh as an exciting city to visit and help alleviate the growing social stratification.
We need municipal reform that allows for more autonomy and budgetary control at the local level, and leadership that is bold enough to propose policies that might upset the car-owning class. Phnom Penh currently generates 70 percent of the government's tax revenue, but these investments are spread across the entire country.
The split management of the city between the Board of Governors and Ministry of Interior, with little to no input at lower levels on policy matters or budgetary control, prevents full execution of any of the master plans proposed by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and other international donors.
Regionally speaking, Cambodia has the lowest share of subnational expenditures, making it almost impossible for sub-national administrations to design and implement small infrastructure or development projects in their designated area. Secondly, investments in these areas are not only to reduce traffic congestion but also to strengthen the city.
Connections between people from different backgrounds and economic situations are essential and require public space and areas of social infrastructure that allow people to connect. Increasingly, both the high-income and the emerging middle-income class flock to car dependent gated communities, following very much the United States model that we argue contributes to polarization in society and sows distrust between people of different backgrounds.
We argue that real investments and prioritization in quality, fast, clean public transport can assist, but not completely fix, this growing stratification, and help provide small but essential ‘bridging’ social capital opportunities.
Bold steps are needed to guarantee investments in real public transportation solutions that are faster, cleaner, and overall, the best option, for all socioeconomic classes.
[This article is written by Ung Techhong Luy and J.Corbett Hix. The article appears in the latest edition of Digital Insights, a collaborative project between EuroCham Cambodia and the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation Cambodia (KAS).]