In Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, sidewalks are not for walking. They function as an extension of shops, street food stalls, or parking lots.

Crowded sidewalks are driving people to use more motorbikes. And with an increasing population, “the number of vehicles, private vehicles, will keep increasing,” if the problem is not addressed, says Vannak Seng, General Secretary of the Phnom Penh City Hall.

GovInsider spoke with Seng to find out how Phnom Penh is reclaiming its sidewalks for pedestrians and keeping vehicles on the road.

Taking back sidewalks

Authorities wanted to make walking a convenient way to get around the city. “You need to have the proper walkability for the city, which promote people to walk because you have space, you have shade, and it’s more safe,” Seng says.

It enacted new regulations mandating that all sidewalks are public spaces and detailing when private citizens can use them. One third of the walking path was set aside for street vendors, a third for pedestrians, and another third for road signs, trees and street lamps. The City Hall gave one month’s notice to businesses to clear sidewalks, or face closure and legal action.

The government repaired potholes and is installing smart street lighting systems on all eleven main boulevards. “It is about implementing regulations with solutions,” Seng says, by making these urban spaces “walkable, clean, and also good for everyone.” The city is also planning to provide public Wi-Fi services along these streets, to support the business of popular street vendors, Seng reveals.

The sidewalk regulations have also been expanded to apply to the whole of Phnom Penh. “It seems really basic, but it’s such a big achievement for City Hall,” Seng says.

Making way for public transport

With the sidewalks cleared, Phnom Penh now wants its residents to use the public transport system to travel around the city. Two years ago, Phnom Penh successfully relaunched its public bus system. It currently has a daily ridership of 25,000 in a city of 1.5 million, and Seng says the City Hall needs to promote it more.

Phomh Penh wants to improve its bus services by providing timely updates to commuters. New bus stops are being built on the now clear sidewalks with real-time information on the weather, traffic, and bus services along the boulevards. Seng hopes people will now see public transport as a viable alternative “because now I can know what time the bus comes, and what time I should leave from my house.”

The City Hall is also working with private developers to add more public spaces near bus stops. Developers are encouraged to include street-level coffee shops in their developments, to make waiting for buses more appealing. While waiting for buses, Seng hopes commuters can one day “have a coffee there, sitting there reading, and then enjoy the space without all the pollution from cars and motorbikes.”

Cities are only going to continue growing, and Seng’s strategy is not to limit population, but make the city more livable even with limited space. He asks: ”If the city centre, we don’t have space for everyone, we don’t have public spaces, walkability, how can we receive people from outside, how can we welcome people?”

The city started with rejuvenating sidewalks, which has now spilled over to improving public transport and redesigning roads. And Seng hopes that Phnom Penh will become a role model for the 24 other provinces of Cambodia, on how to develop urban spaces for the long-term public good.