Cambodia Busophobia

The latest, somewhat convoluted, traffic idea to come from City Hall is the banishment of overland buses from the city center. The city’s leaders seem to have an inordinate dislike of public buses of all types. This is unfortunate since a halfway decent public transportation system would make a big difference to our city’s traffic problems. It would especially benefit the many individuals who would use it. Buses are admittedly big and clunky, noisy and smoky: still, when you compare their negative aspects with the alternative; large numbers of individual vehicles – even small vehicles like motorbikes – they still come out way ahead. (The answer to noisy and smoky is electric or hybrid diesel-electric buses, but that possibility’s obviously a long way off for Cambodia.)

Let me illustrate the importance a public transit system would have for ordinary Phnom Penhers by going back to an experience I had in ’93 while teaching in Bangkok. I taught at a school for about 8 months that was quite off the beaten path. It was across the Chao Phraya River and about a kilometre off the nearest bus route. For those of you unfamiliar with Bangkok’s layout, it has a deficit of thoroughfares; in this case, streets capable of accommodating standard buses. To compensate for the deficiency of big buses not being able to get close to people’s destinations there is a secondary transportation system. At most bus stops (they are quite far apart in Bangkok) is a motorbike taxi stand to get people to their final destination. Most Thais, as well as most Khmers, as well as most of everybody, are not fond of walking. Out for a Sunday stroll, OK, but as a rule, as part of daily life, people would rather ride, especially in inclement weather.

I, of course, am the exception, since I only jumped on a bike when I was seriously late for work. If I remember correctly it cost 6 baht (1 baht = about 100 riel) – about 15 cents at the time – to go within the neighbourhood – a maximum of a couple kilometres. This stop had a larger than average reach and population and offered the further option of a small bus for 2, maybe 3 baht. Many people would wait 10-15 minutes for the bus to leave in order to save 3 or 4 baht off the cost of an immediate motorbike ride. For you or I a pittance, for low income Thais or Cambodians, sometimes the difference between eating or not eating that day.

If you’ve been around for very long, and have gotten to know very many locals, you know that if they don’t live close to work, they often spend a very large part of their income on transportation. I know a young Khmer who spent a short time working in the office of a garment factory on Monivong (south of town). With a fare of 6000 riel each way she was spending 60% of her income on transportation. What she had left of her salary after motodop costs was so minimal that she quit after a short time. The equivalent cost of a bus to go the same distance in Bangkok is 600 riel, in Saigon, 1200 riel.

The high price of going anywhere outside the neighbourhood does two things. It limits people’s mobility and therefore their economic opportunities; one of the great advantages of living in a city. It also encourages those of slightly higher means to get their own transportation.

It’s a given that the great majority of people prefer owning their own vehicle, and that’s true even if they also use public transportation on occasion. Buses can never be as convenient as private transportation, except under very limited circumstances. First, you have to walk to the bus stop, and then wait for it. Once aboard, it goes relatively slowly and has to stop often to pick and drop off passengers and when you get off there’s still the walk to your final destination.

A less than 10 minute door-to-door ride on a motorbike could easily take more than half an hour using the bus. For that reason most Phnom Penhers would not immediately sell or park their bikes if presented with a bus alternative. Neither would most motodops be out of a job. Still, many, in fact, would save the money and use the bus. Most importantly, every person who opted for public transit would help ease traffic problems, reduce the need for parking, cut pollution and save energy.

Parking is an important consideration. Where I teach they’ve just completed a new six story classroom facility. Two of those floors are devoted exclusively to motorbike parking, and that space is crowded with bikes. Small as they are, there is no small cost in accommodating them.

There seems to be a lot of confusion regarding the efficacy of bus transportation and central location. Banishment of buses will have the same negative impact on traffic as the relocation of public services to the outskirts of town. In both cases I’ve received quizzical comments from friends: What’s the difference, they say, if public buildings and bus stations are sent packing from the city centre?

Big difference. I had first hand experience recently of what relocating bus terminals would mean. I was returning from Kampot on the last day of Water Festival when buses were prohibited from entering the city. Our bus stopped at the terminal one kilometre west of the airport, about 10 kms from the heart of Phnom Penh. I do ride motorbikes occasionally, but I would never ride that far, especially through heavy traffic (I’d rather walk – 10 kms would take about two hours). I asked the fare from a tuk-tuk driver, was told $8 and in turn told him to shove it and started walking. I really have to learn to control myself- I’m really going to get pummelled one of these times – but that’s another story. I walked over to the airport, about 1 k, and got a tuk-tuk for $4. Under the best circumstances it’ll cost about 6000 riel to get a motodop from that bus terminal to town.

While it’s true that the average person will have to hop on a motorbike taxi to get to the bus anyway, the majority of people in the Phnom Penh area live within 2 or 3 kilometres of the centre of town.

According to the Daily article there are about 300 buses that serve PP. Let’s assume that about 30 of them are destined for Sihanoukville or Kampot and would stop at that terminal and together they carry about 1000 passengers. They could actually carry quite a few more, but I’m assuming they’d not all be full. In the first place, 30 buses take up far less street space than the 800 or so motorbikes that would be necessary to get 1000 people to the terminal. Needless to say, it?s far safer, not to mention more comfortable, to ride in a bus than on a motorbike. Further, for a majority of riders, a 1000 to 2000 riel ride to a centrally located terminal becomes a 6000 riel ride to the outlying one.

Relocation of public buildings to the fringes of the city has a slightly different dynamic. Even if everyone who works in them were to move nearby that would only have a small effect on traffic since they?d be going about the same distance to work as they do now. As far as I can tell those outlying areas aren’t much less congested than the heart of town. Moreover, chances are that most civil servants already have homes or neighbourhood commitments that preclude their moving with the relocation. They, like the great majority of citizens who have business in those places, will have to go much farther and that additional mileage will add significantly to congestion. The suburban areas in question may not be as congested in the present, but the extra travelling and the fact that it’s all concentrated on the route to the new facility, will soon make them just as bad.

Part of the problem with any kind of traffic mitigation – even ones that actually work as opposed to the cockamamie ideas coming from City Hall – is that economic and population growth will quickly swamp any beneficial effects that might accrue. For instance, when a metropolitan area grows 10%, traffic grows by a greater percentage.

The reason is that increasing population means more area is developed and thus the average trip is lengthened. Many of the people who live in the newly built areas on the fringes of town will continue to work or visit the centre. When a very fast increase in vehicle registrations is added, the recipe for Phnom Penh is gridlock.

However, if the new construction was centrally located and there was a good public transportation system available, traffic would actually be eased – at least as a function of the number of people involved.
Look at Amsterdam. It is a compact city of 700,000 with excellent public transportation – including trains, streetcars and buses – and its design is devoted to making bicycling safe and convenient to the point that 30% of all trips are by pedal power. In combination with making driving into the centre of town very difficult, you have a city with little traffic congestion and that also means quiet streets and clean air.

Phnom Penh has only been able to survive without a public transit system until now because the city has been poor and thus vehicles have been few. If present trends continue, traffic will grow very quickly past the point where the infrastructure can cope, especially absent a drastic effort to enforce basic traffic rules. Narrowing all of the city’s sidewalks, another wacky idea being pursued by the city’s leaders, even if the many millions were available, it will take more than two million just to do that to 3 kilometres of Kampuchea Krom and will have little effect; traffic will quickly increase to fill up the additional street space.

That is the American experience: build a new road and it’s congested the day it’s opened. That’s true at least in part because American cities are so spread out that public transportation can have little impact in many areas. In spite of that, nearly every US city goes through great lengths, including providing very large subsidies, to get people on the bus. They know that every person who opts for public transportation does everyone else a favour.

Next; public transit for Phnom Penh… Give me ten grand and I’ll have self-sustaining public transportation operating on one of PP’s thoroughfares in a month or two.

Stan Kahn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *