Cambodia Busomania

The sign at the head of this article is what’s left over of an experimental bus system, financed by Japan, that operated for about 6 months back in 2001. As I understand it, people did use the system but it shut down because the government was unwilling to continue necessary subsidies.

Systems using standard size buses almost always require input of public money. Portland, Oregon, which has an excellent system for a mid-sized American city, gets less than one-third of its income from the fare box. A system here would probably not need the same level of subsidy, but it would still be substantial. Since the government understands clearly enough how corrupt and inept it is, they were probably wise not to keep the system going. In the last article I said with ten thousand dollars I could have a bus line operating on one of Phnom Penh’s thoroughfares in a month or two.

I didn’t say I actually wanted to take on such a project, though the idea is certainly intriguing. Personally, I’ve always liked riding public transportation. I’d rather sit back and let someone else do the driving while I watch the world go by and gander at my fellow passengers. Even back in the states where I have access to my own wheels, I often take the bus when it’s convenient. Here I would tend to ride whenever distances went much past 2 k’s.

While lack of public transit does restrict my movements somewhat, it also forces me to walk more, which in my peculiar way, I’m happy about. However, what’s good for me, isn’t the same for Phnom Penh, which desperately needs some form of public transportation. At any rate, my bus line wouldn’t include big buses: ten grand wouldn’t even buy one decent bus. In contrast to standard-sized buses, urban mini-bus systems typical of the Philippines, as well as many parts of Thailand, seem to operate just fine without subsidies.

Even in megacity Manila, mini-bus jeepneys are more prominent than big buses. For those of you unfamiliar with the Philippines, the first jeepneys were left over World War II military jeeps elongated to carry additional passengers. They have longitudinal seating (along the sides) for about 14 to 16 people. They’ve maintained the basic design over the decades except many of them are fantastically decorated – riots of color and stainless steel and replete with quirky statues and artifacts, droll quips and sayings.

The fare today ranges from ten to fifteen cents (400 to 600 riel). On a major thoroughfare there will be several routes operating to various destinations. People going shorter distances can hop on any jeepney, those going further have to wait a little longer. They are all independently owned and operated and do cause traffic problems sometimes since large numbers will be out cruising looking for riders.

Also studies have shown that they use the same amount of fuel as a 54 passenger air-con bus. For the above reasons, a scheduled big bus system would be preferable; nevertheless, jeepneys do provide frequent low-cost service without requiring public subsidies. At some point in Cambodia’s development, people will demand the comfort of standard sized (because they’re easy to get in and out of) air-conditioned buses, but for now, as a start, tuk-tuks carrying 8 to 10 people would work just fine. These could be purchased, or custom made, for somewhere between $1200 and $1500 each.

You’d also need a small storefront, etc., and maybe some bus stop signs, though it might be easiest to start with a flag system – whenever somebody waves, you stop. I would start my first route on Norodom and operate between Wat Phnom and Mao Tse Tung Boulevard, which is about 5 kilometers. By my rough calculations, a round trip could easily be run in less than an hour, even during peak times. Six vehicles then could provide service of 10 minutes or less. At a standard fare of 1000 riel, I figure it would take only 8 passengers per round trip run to cover all ongoing costs – labor, gas, maintenance and overhead. Recouping initial investment, and making a profit, would obviously take quite a bit more ridership.

Needless to say, when you make a business plan, you typically underestimate costs, even when you pad the numbers, and overestimate income, so to be safe you’d probably need an extra $5000 to $10,000 of start-up money to cover unforeseen costs. With a little bit of advertising and promotion, I believe the system would quickly be swamped with customers. Even just Wat Phnom to Independence Monument on a motodop will cost you 2000 riel today.

You’d immediately need to purchase additional vehicles; possibly larger minibuses in the form of vans or converted pick-up trucks typical of those used in Thailand. You’d also want to extend the route, both north and south, by at least a couple of kilometers, and add additional lines Once you’ve got steady customers, two other dynamics enter the equation; the government and competition.

As to the former, I’m not aware of any type of regulation of motodops or tuk-tuks, so aside from a basic business license, the municipality should have no impact on the operation. It’d be different if you wanted to have exclusive rights. To be safe I’d definitely check with the appropriate authorities – you wouldn’t want to get all geared up, not to mention ten or twenty grand poorer, only to discover that you’re stepping on assorted important toes. Once you’ve shown how easy it is to fill up those minibuses, you’d be faced with serious competition – if there’s nothing to stop you from running a bus system, it’d be open to all. At that point, if I were doing it, since I’m not much into running a business again, I’d just sell the vehicles to the drivers and let them continue on their own.

This minibus concept, in my humble opinion, would catch on like wildfire. Needless to say, it’d be far superior for this minibus system to be organized by the government and designed to cover the entire city. It’d be exceedingly simple; 1. Start by laying out one route at a time. That would give a little time to work out the bugs and see how the public responds. 2. Sell low cost permits to operate on any one route. Permit holders would be allowed to use any type of multipassenger vehicle; these could be tuk-tuks, vans, converted pick-ups or whatever.

There’s also no reason why a person couldn’t run a fleet on one of these routes. 3. Set fares; probably 1000 riel per ride, though I believe less would also be viable. The designated fare should be regardless of length of trip. This would allow significant savings to passengers going longer distances and simplify fare collection. It’d be important that everybody know there is a standardized fare. 4. Permit holders could operate as many hours as they wished. 5. They could go off the specified route to provide service to an individual passenger’s exact destination, as long as the other passengers didn’t object.

This would especially be appreciated at night from the security aspect. There you have it; for the cost of a little organizing time and a small bureaucracy to handle permits and complaints and set up the routes, Phnom Penh could have a self-sustaining public transit system. It wouldn’t be a traffic panacea. Most people would still want their own wheels, many would opt for motodops to save time. Moreover, vehicle registrations are growing so fast that traffic will still get worse, only not as quickly as with a bus system available. The benefits of a bus system impact more than traffic.

To recap from the last article; one of the most important aspects is the social benefit of providing low cost movement. We often hear of the plight of people relocated to the city’s outskirts who have no access to jobs because the cost of getting back to the city, where the work is, is too great. In Bangkok it’s possible to go twice as far as the airport (9 k’s) for the equivalent of 600 riel. Lack of public transportation provides an important impetus for people to have their own vehicles. This is especially true of people who need to make longer trips but even just a few short trips per day can get quite expensive for low-income Cambodians.

Also, in a situation where most people have their own vehicles, parking becomes a very large burden. For instance, ELT uses two full floors of its big new classroom building solely for bike parking. Motorbikes may be small, but their impact is not inconsequential. Two wheeled vehicles may be very efficient, but when you add it up, they still require more fuel and create more pollution than moving the equivalent number of people in multipassenger vehicles. To sum up: Phnom Penh needs public transit. Who will step up to show the way? Forget about the government: They have their Lexus’s, what do they care about buses for the masses?

Stan Kahn

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