Let there be traffic lights

Along Norodom Boulevard, a non-operational new traffic light obscures the view of the old traffic lights, which still function as normal but cannot be seen by drivers.
Along Norodom Boulevard, a non-operational new traffic light obscures the view of the old traffic lights, which still function as normal but cannot be seen by drivers. Hong Menea

Two men stood to the side of Norodom Boulevard crossing with Street 294, gesticulating wildly while their bikes lay immobile near the middle of the junction. As a small crowd began to gather on the sidewalk watching the drama unfold, a policeman acting as a traffic controller blew hard into his whistle in an attempt to direct the tumultuous four-way traffic, made even more chaotic by the accident.

The younger man, Nith, pointed upwards at a traffic light and shook his head. It showed neither a green, amber, nor red light. It is just one of the new traffic lights installed by City Hall throughout the capital, but is not working as yet. The accident was just one in a series of road clashes that have occurred directly as a result of the new traffic lights from what he has seen, said Nith.

Since November last year, 100 new traffic lights sponsored by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency were installed across the city, with a specific concentration along the major boulevards of Monivong, Norodom, Sothearos, Sihanouk and Mao Tse Tung. Six months on, only 12 of these have been activated.

In March, five of the lights went online and the rest, according to City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey, were to follow suit by the end of May. Plans, however, have now changed.

“We have changed the plan of placing the network of wires underground, and we have to wait for JICA’s research on technicalities and funding to establish when the rest of the traffic lights will come into operation,” Measphekdey told Post Property this week.

He continued that majority of the traffic lights were not operational because the electricity supply had been cut off by state-run energy utility Electricité du Cambodge (EdC).

“This is a responsibility of the EdC, and not the City Hall, but we are now sorting out with them to reduce or stop this electricity cutoff,” Measpheakdey explained. A representative of EdC could not be reached for comment.

Disorder is not a new thing on the roads of Phnom Penh, as traffic light commands often go ignored and commuters take it upon themselves to exercise self-judgment on when best to whizz across junctions.

Ear Chariya, director of the Road Safety Institute, noted that while the installation of new traffic lights show a progressive step towards reducing the chaos on the roads, it has, in fact, caused more trouble than it has provided benefits.

“A lot of the new traffic lights are built in a way that they obscure the old ones. This causes a lot of confusion on the roads because while the old ones are still working, the drivers are not able to see the lights changing,” Chariya said.

To add fuel to the fire, both old and new traffic lights in some locations are not working, causing more clashes amongst vehicles and even more confusion and congestion on the roads.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A new traffic light stands forlorn and not working along Sihanouk Boulevard. Hong Menea

Chariya continued that with the 20 percent increase of vehicles on the roads every year, the government should embark on more long-term traffic initiatives like encouraging the use of public transport and bicycles.

On a more short-term note, he believes that City Hall should place more traffic police at intersections and all major junctions to organise traffic direction and to spur drivers to obey basic driving rules.

JICA had first proposed the project in 2014 for the development of traffic management in Phnom Penh after observing that neither the traffic lights at 69 intersections in the capital nor the city’s control systems were standardised.

Details of the initiative include a $15 million grant, procurement and installation of intersection traffic signals, traffic signal controllers, traffic monitoring cameras, vehicle sensors and other intersection devices, as well as procurement and installation of traffic control center equipment.

Measpheakdey affirmed that 26 of the new traffic lights include safety cameras, and 88 have censors to standardise timing and organisation.

“90 percent of the entire traffic control installation is complete now, and when we activate all the new traffic lights, the old ones will be removed and used in the outskirts like Por Sen Chey and Dangkor,” he said, although he referred Post Property to JICA on when the complete activation would take place.

A JICA representative wrote through email that the main reason for the delay was due to faulty electricity connection.

“Necessary procedures among the Department of Public Works and Transport (DPWT), Provincial Project Coordinator Adviser, and EdC take time. In addition, relevant agencies such as DPWT and traffic police should check the signal at the site one by one before operations [commence] and road markings should be modified by painting additionally and old ones should be erased,” she said.

“However, these processes are almost done.”

No exact date of complete activation of the traffic lights was given.