Crosstown traffic

October 8, 2012

The awful sinking of a ferry just off Lamma Island near Hong Kong got me thinking. I used to take one of the (killer) ferries every day for years when I lived on Lamma, and though the crew were basically trogloditic pirates, I rarely felt unsafe. I must have spent weeks of my life in total safely gliding in and out of the harbour, 80 minutes a day, and it was all pretty smooth sailing, as it were.

But mass transit anywhere is prone to mass death. I used Moorgate tube station in London every day for years, where in 1975 43 people were killed when the driver carelessly forgot to stop, and slammed into a wall at full speed. So Et in Arcadia Ego, as it were.

But, in Phnom Penh, there is no mass transit. So little chance of mass death, one hopes.

I’ve been meaning for some time to write about the traffic in Phnom Penh. I have to immerse myself in it every day, and every day it surprises me.

I don’t drive here. I could, but life is difficult enough already, and, by god, tuk-tuks are cheap. And because traffic here is is … weird.

I think the Cambodians have evolved what traffic planners in the west are starting to tout as the solution to their urban traffic woes, which may or may not be called accommodative traffic management. Which basically means that if you go quite slowly, and watch what everyone else is doing, you can do what you want.

In super-enlightened Holland, urban planners illustrate the principle by having blindfolded bicyclists cross major intersections without warning. And it works. Without rigid rules, and thoughtless adherence to those rules, stop signs and traffic lights, when you look at other drivers, you drive better and more carefully.

(It may be time for me to trot out, yet again, my theory for increasing traffic safety: having every car fitted with a vicious steel spike protruding chest-wards from the steering wheel. If the consequence of braking hard was guaranteed death, roads would be a lot safer. Copyright: me)

Phnom Penh’s roads are a free-for-all. But it’s mostly OK. Outside the city, forget it. But here, you’re a bit safe. Speeds are so low that terrible injuries are fewer than in other places I’ve been. Delhi was, quite literally, hell on wheels, while Iran was truly terrifying.

In Phnom Penh you’ve got the offspring of government officials in their Ferraris (really!) roaring stupidly up and down the side roads late at night to impress karaoke hostesses, but otherwise most people are on tiny Chinese-made mopeds, that are not overwhemingly quick.

I quite often hear the awful crunch of bike hitting Tarmac, and wails, as some of the clueless 11-year olds let loose on mopeds run into each other during rush hour, but mostly the protagonists get up and walk away. (Although a week spent in the main emergency hospital here has meant I rarely get on motorbike taxis now. I’ve just had about enough of blood and major trauma, personally.)

But no one plays by the traffic rules here. One-way streets? Pshw. Riding on the, er, sidewalk? Of course. But it works. At one junction I go through quite often, all the tuk-tuk drivers simply speed through the pumps of the petrol station on the corner to avoid the lights. No one thinks twice about it. And it works.

It’s one of those things that occupies my mind, as I sit, being gently wafted through the streets in a tuk-tuk: why Phnom Penh hasn’t got a public transport system. Even Calcutta has a metro. In East Africa, there are mutatus, a sort of shared (exceptionally closely-shared) public mini buses. Even poor benighted Rangoon has public buses. But not Cambodia. It would be easy to identify obvious bus routes, put up a few bus stops, and rake in the small change. I haven’t worked out yet why this hasn’t happened, but if anyone has any thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

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