Siem Reap, the gateway to Cambodia’s world-renowned Angkor temple complex, was long known for being a small town with a pleasant and attractive atmosphere. Worryingly, however, the town’s rapid and untidy growth, compounded by the impacts of heavy tourism, has taken some of the charm out of it.
The Cambodian government has used the halt in tourism due to COVID-19 as an opportunity to invest $149 million to upgrade Siem Reap’s infrastructure.
Yet, Siem Reap was unable to handle the first major influx of 455,000 visitors during 2022’s Khmer New Year celebrations. Although street parties and large crowds were welcomed, it was concerning to observe major arterials, like Charles De Gaulle Road, which leads from the town center to Angkor Wat, gridlocked with vehicle traffic.
This demonstrated the extent to which Siem Reap remains a car-centric town, which is contrary to the goal of transforming it into a livable, attractive, and vibrant urban center. Continued car-dependency only leads to endless urban sprawl, massive roadways, and vast parking lots – hardly an exciting atmosphere for tourists.
But alternatives exist. For Siem Reap to thrive, urban designers should look to the humble bicycle as a solution.
Siem Reap is well-suited to cyclists. The town’s reputation of being a cozy and quiet settlement stems from its relatively small size and human-scaled spaces. The town measures only 5 kilometers across, a distance easily traveled in 15 minutes of casual cycling, granted there is sufficient biking infrastructure.
Moreover Siem Reap’s street network is dense, with narrow street widths and meandering turns. While these features are a disadvantage for cars, for pedestrians and cyclists these characteristics are ideal. Narrow streets lined with short row-houses achieve a comfortable sense of scale and the meandering bends prevent motorists from driving at high speeds.
In short, the existing street network of Siem Reap is not suited for high volumes of motor traffic, but is actually perfect for active commuters. The prevalence of bike rentals illustrates the strong demand for cycling amongst visitors, while locals engage in cycling for exercise and recreation.
Given its potential, the benefits to be gained from designing the town for bicycles is enticing for all stakeholders.
From the perspective of the local municipality, cycling infrastructure is cheaper to build and maintain, requires less space, and carries more volume. A 3-meter-wide cycling track carries 7,000 people per hour, compared to a driving lane of the same width, which carries only 1,100 people per hour.
Cycling lanes, due to their smaller dimension are also less expensive to build and experience less wear and tear over time, cutting down on maintenance costs. By being space and cost efficient while capable of handling high volumes, bicycling infrastructure solves the challenges of supporting the mobility needs of a rapidly growing town.
Local businesses will also benefit from crowds of active commuters. It is plainly evident that cyclists and pedestrians are far more likely to stop and visit a store as they commute compared to motorists. Even better, numerous studies have illustrated that due to their frequent visits, active commuters outspend motorists over time. This results in increasing income for local businesses.
Lastly, locals and visitors alike would enjoy healthier living and more vibrant urban spaces. With daily commuting accomplished by cycling and walking, inhabitants would live more active lives. Moreover, the reduction of motorized traffic would improve road safety, and lessen air and noise pollution, thus significantly improving the health of local communities.
Cycling-focused development also means more space for people, replacing parking and large motorways with public spaces for leisure, social interaction, and events. This approach would help preserve the cozy and tranquil character of Siem Reap.
Other tourism-oriented towns have already succeeded in prioritizing cyclists and pedestrians. Hoi An, a popular historic coastal town in Vietnam with streets and buildings dating back to the 17th century, managed to preserve its character by restricting vehicle access and prioritizing active commutes. The town’s car-free nature no doubt also provides a more pleasant and enjoyable experience for visitors.
A walkable and bikeable environment offers valuable benefits for Siem Reap. While the town is naturally suited, bringing cycling to the forefront as a viable alternative will take effort and careful planning.
Although recent attempts at creating bicycle infrastructure are admirable, there needs to be systematic and city-wide implementation following several crucial concepts.
Firstly, the network must strive for excellent connectivity. Potential cycling routes should follow popular courses which would ideally be adjacent to frequented destinations. The bike paths should be long and continuous but avoid being circuitous; that means taking the most direct paths.
This is where Siem Reap’s dense street network could prove indispensable. It offers active commuters many alternative paths to reach their destination or to just explore, while motor traffic moves onto a parallel route to avoid conflicts.
One of the biggest factors keeping away potential cyclists is safety. In this regard a cyclist and pedestrian-only street is preferred but will not always be possible. Therefore in most cases, cycling routes must share space with motor traffic. In this scenario, a protected bicycle lane is necessary to physically separate cycling from motor traffic.
Additionally, Siem Reap’s narrow streets should aim to restrict motor vehicle speed and volume. A combination of road diets, which reduce the number and width of driving lanes, and traffic calming measures are crucial in improving safety and making space for cycling infrastructure.
Safety must also be strengthened at key locations like intersections and crossings. Enhancement through the incorporation of raised crossing and curb extensions to increase drivers’ awareness, pinch points and chicane patterns to lower driving speeds, and difference in pavement material to communicate that bicycles have priority on the roadway.
Lastly, a bicycle route should appeal to inhabitants and visitors alike. Attractiveness can be accomplished through effective signage, landscaping, and the placement of bike routes alongside prominent spaces and buildings. Better yet, Siem Reap has a unique potential in the form of its budding art scene, which can organize displays or exhibitions and create decorative art along the routes.
Local businesses can further promote cycling by offering discounts and incorporating it as part of their brand image. Existing tourist services should not be overlooked either; their help in disseminating and explaining cycling route maps to new visitors will prove crucial in convincing more people to switch to cycling.
Perhaps the most effective way to increase the popularity of cycling is through a bike bus for tourists. A bike bus is a large group of cyclists organized and led by an experienced group of cyclists. Riding together helps those who are young, old, or unsure of themselves, and it can potentially replace the typical giant tour buses which are a constant eye-sore around the Angkor temple complex – not to mention being a novel and unique way to experience the splendor of Siem Reap.
A lot is riding on Siem Reap’s rebound in the next couple of years, and a crucial part of that recovery is creating a more livable and bikeable environment. Switching its focus to cycling-centric infrastructure is a viable and attractive solution for all parties involved.
Cycling gives local authorities a cost and space-efficient solution to traffic. Businesses can expect to prosper from the improved attractiveness of the town and by high volumes of non-motorized traffic passing their shops. Inhabitants and visitors can expect a healthier and more vibrant lifestyle in a town that is filled with people friendly spaces.
Cycling is more than just a hobby or leisure activity. When properly planned and implemented the humble bicycle is the most sustainable, healthy and efficient form of mass commute in an urban area. And Siem Reap stands as a strong candidate to reap the many benefits on offer.