As fuel prices soared over the past months, a spate of vehicle owners driving off without paying their gasoline bills has become a source of anger, disbelief and amusement for Cambodian social media users. But behind these scenes of fleeing drivers and disgruntled gas station attendants, lies the issue of unaffordable mobility, one that is strangling every citizen’s livelihood.
The reality is spiking gas prices are impacting Cambodians’ ability to earn income, seek education, healthcare and other necessities.
At their lowest point in 2020, gas prices stood at 56 cents (2,300 riel) per litre but increased to $1.41 (5,800 riel) per litre as of July. This is a 152% increase over a period of 24 months. And such a drastic surge has had a disproportionate impact on struggling, lower-income families earning less than $2.66 (10,951 riel) per person per day, according to the National Institute of Statistics.
Although the Cambodian government has cut fuel taxes to alleviate pressure, the effort may not be enough to stave off further price increases and the resulting impacts on daily life.
Given the precarious global security situation in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s show of force near Taiwan’s coast, prices will likely continue to fluctuate, jeopardising the fragile economic recovery Cambodia has managed after last year’s intensive Covid-19 lockdowns.
But the livelihoods of Cambodians should not be tied to the fickleness of global fossil fuels prices. One way to decouple citizens’ lives from fossil fuel prices is to commit to changing the country’s urban mobility policies.
An obvious first answer to rising gasoline prices is to switch to electric vehicles (EV), but this alone is insufficient. With citizens already financially struggling, asking them to buy a new vehicle is unrealistic and counterproductive. There’s only four EV charging stations installed throughout the country, so in terms of practicality, it’s not feasible. And given the slow rollout of EV infrastructure in Cambodia thus far, an effective solution must be usable by all and be implemented within the span of weeks, not years.
Typically, urban mobility interventions take years to implement and decades to mature. But Cambodian planners seeking a timely intervention can look to Paris as a feasible model to accelerate this process.
The French capital made use of temporary bike lanes, originally implemented in 2019 to alleviate disruptions caused by striking public transit staff. During Covid lockdowns, Parisian authorities rapidly rolled out 650 additional kilometres (404 miles) of dedicated bike lanes through temporary interventions, using movable planters, paint and bollards to demarcate new road features.
Paris shifted to alternative mobility solutions rapidly and cheaply, allowing the city to dramatically improve mobility and safety during the pandemic and shield residents from the negative impacts of fuel price shocks that have struck in 2022.
Phnom Penh measures
To ensure equitable mobility, Cambodia’s capital city should consider the formation of a cohesive transit network and reclaim streets for pedestrians and cyclists.
Despite its efforts, the Kingdom is not known for the quality, usability and reliability of its public transportation system.
Phnom Penh’s public transit network faces issues of disjointed implementation and poor reliability. Public transit issues are compounded by the absence of walking and cycling infrastructure, as sidewalks are occupied by parking and streetside businesses.
Instead of waiting for funding, the government could adopt temporary and movable measures to offer cheap and quick solutions that could create streets conducive to active commuting and public transit. Once successful, these features can be upgraded by investing in permanent and quality infrastructure improvements.
Smaller thoroughfares can accommodate protected cycling lanes by implementing one-way vehicle traffic and setting up planters, bollards and street furniture as barriers to protect cyclists.
Quiet residential streets should be converted into shared streets, where vehicles retain access, but are restricted from high speeds and volumes.
On important boulevards carrying bus routes, physical barriers including bollards would allow for the quick installation of separate bus lanes. Additional bus shelters should be prioritised, while existing ones can be cheaply upgraded with movable planters and seating furniture.
Temporary measures would enable quick instalment of curb extensions, protected crosswalks, road medians, and parklets. These features improve safety and convenience by deconflicting traffic, providing better visibility and encouraging slow and careful driving.
These design changes to establish people-centred urban spaces improve safety and accessibility, decrease pollution and enable more active lifestyles, even as gas prices rise.
Getting it right
Building towns and entire cities around public transit and active commuting creates a transportation model that is relatively immune to fuel price shock. Adopting this model of mobility, can also reduce pollution, improve road safety and create more vibrant and prosperous streetscapes.
In the long-term, Phnom Penh should seek to disentangle its bus routes by moving them onto boulevards prioritised for transit, while private vehicles are placed on alternative routes. Bus reliability can be reinforced through the inclusion of separate bus lanes, sheltered bus stops and bus bulbs, which are curb extensions allowing easy boarding.
At the same time, a full-scale cycling network across the city should be carved out, incorporating routes adjacent to popular sites with direct and continuous paths.
Greenery along routes provides much needed comfort, and planting new trees while allowing existing to grow freely creates a natural canopy over street spaces.
This can also reduce street surface temperature by up to 12 to 15 degrees Celsius (21 to 27 degrees Fahrenheit) and the felt ambient temperature by 10 to 12 degrees Celsius (18 to 21 degrees Fahrenheit), according to a 2013 study by German researchers.
These interventions also could provide a cheap, and more importantly, rapid solution to replace fossil fuel dependent transportation with active and transit-enabled mobility.
The degree of mobility of residents determines their access to education, housing, employment, healthcare and other crucial services.
Uncertainty of fuel prices adds to the importance of implementing an affordable system of movement now and over the long-term. Cambodian policy makers must help protect citizens from external economic shocks by discarding the current model. In its place, they must adopt a new approach, one that values people over motor vehicles.