Phnom Penh Traffic

I’ve had this on my list of topics for a long time now, and ever since my accident it’s actually been salient. On paper, Phnom Penh is like most cities in the world: there’s a lot of traffic, especially around rush hour, and you drive on the right. In real life, I’ve heard it described as “chaos”.

The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. My diplomatic phrase for it is “dynamically negotiated”, but…well, let’s just see how it works.

You start with a usual road, cars (and tuk tuks) going in both directions, driving on the right-hand side of the road.

Motos, aren’t restricted by things like “lanes”, though…they’ll be weaving in and out of the cars. Bicycles tend to stay on the right, but especially near intersections they’ll move towards the center, to get out of the way of people turning right.

And then to top it off, because it can be hard to get across to the other side of the road, it’s not uncommon for bikes and motos (and occasionally tuk tuks and even cars) to just ride along the left side of the road, towards oncoming traffic, until there’s a gap to cross over to the right. It’s even more common to do this when you’re planning to turn left—cross when there’s a gap, then ride along the left until you get to your turn. Of course, then you have to watch out for people turning right onto your street…

So the final picture is something like this:

…and that’s not even including intersections. At intersections with traffic lights, you’ll still find motos and bikes going if there seems to be a gap, the usual “okay to turn right” rule in the US extended to all three directions. Intersections without traffic lights are places where you mass up enough vehicles to block the other side for a while and vice versa, or where you try to squeeze through between the traffic coming the other way. (Which is why people will take the opportunity to move to the left early if they can.)

What saves all of this is that (a) people don’t want to hit you or force you off the road, even if they cut you off sometimes, and (b) because of all of the traffic and the “dynamic negotiation” of people blocking each other, no one’s going that fast.

Nevertheless, there are apparently over 60 accidents a day in the city, and since that number’s probably based on extrapolation from reports, the true number could be higher. If I had a stronger self-preservation instinct, I would be taking a tuk tuk everywhere.

And I have been in an accident, which now makes more sense: I was making a left turn on a bike from a big street to a small one, without a traffic light and from behind a car, and the other guy was driving a bit too fast. My accident turned out fine, but of course even at what would be fairly slow speeds for big streets in the US some accidents can be fatal.

But kids ride bikes (and motos!) every day here, people put ridiculous things on the backs of motos and get them home safely (an upcoming post), and tuk tuks just can’t make it through traffic sometimes. (Cars really can’t make it through traffic…the only reason to have a car is to drive a family around, or carrying really big things.) I’ve seen deadlocked intersections before, where the only way to get unblocked was to back up. So I’m keeping my bike…and riding on the fairly empty streets at 6:00AM in the morning today made up for all the hectic traffic of 6:00PMs.

To close, I’ll pass along a quip from my host brother: to drive/ride in Phnom Penh, you need “pineapple eyes”…so you can see in all directions at once. >_<

These animations were made using Keynote…but it would have been a lot easier with something like Flash. Still, it may have been impossible with PowerPoint.