Phnom Penh’s municipal authorities have come up with a proposal to cure the capital of its increasing traffic congestion – banning buses. To be clear they’re not talking about municipal bus services in the city, there are none. But from 2016, all buses travelling to Phnom Penh from outside the city will have to establish new bus stations on the capital’s outskirts. However, characteristically it’s somewhat vague how this will be enforced.
This transport proposal throws up many points for discussion, with many drawbacks but few benefits. Firstly, these stations will be situated in fields recently cleared of livestock, vegetation and even houses, a dust bowl in the dry, a bog in the wet season, and bereft of services. Operators have already said that it will be difficult to find suitable locations in time. Likely they’ll be miles from downtown where tourists want to be and worse, an added expense and inconvenience to locals for whom provincial bus services are their primary means of visiting family and getting to and from work in the capital.
If in making this proposal authorities looked to any kind of example it would seem to be Bangkok. There the city’s bus terminals are located away from the city on what once was the urban periphery such as Mo Chit to the north, Ekemai to the east, and Sai Tai Mai to the south. But given that city’s notorious transport woes, you have to question whether it’s the best example to follow. In the 1960s developers chose to turn the Thai capital into Southeast Asia’s version of Los Angeles, and Bangkok is still paying the price.
So what’s the scale of the problem? Phnom Penh has an estimated 900,000 motorcycles for about two million inhabitants, and over 230,000 vehicles. There are about 28 or so bus companies in Cambodia running services in and out of the capital to destinations across the country and over the border to neighbouring countries. The population is increasing all the time, and with it so is the demand for transport and the subsequent strain on the roads.
Cambodia is certainly an interesting case study in development, the country coming from a pretty low baseline. Phnom Penh has limited road capacity. The city is laid out in a grid pattern bordered in the east and south by major waterways, and with a few broad boulevards laid down by the French. It has no motorways, two overpasses recently constructed, high density housing, disputed land ownership, limited funding capacity, and seemingly little appetite for urban public transport networks.
Building more roads is unlikely to be an answer either. It will inevitably involve evictions and demolishing houses. History has shown that in Cambodia this path is fraught with danger for those impacted. In any case, nowhere in the world has building more roads alleviated traffic chaos. Though to be fair, an overpass has improved the intersection on Route One south of the city, but for how long? It’s been proved building more roads usually does little to reduce traffic jams, as invariably more cars are encouraged onto the streets, creating yet more problems.
The answer as so many congested cities around the globe have found, is to invest in public transport infrastructure. This requires a strategy for the long-term and massive investment. Cambodia doesn’t have the money for this investment. To date infrastructure has been financed by foreign agencies and governments, and increasingly this investment is tagged to the donor country. This is especially true of China.
Conversely, public transport may even diminish Phnom Penh’s transport character. The ballet of the intersections, a motorised Barnes Dance which in some converse manner adds to the city’s character. Nevertheless getting from point-to-point can be time consuming and as the economy grows will be costly. Time spent stuck in traffic is a cost to business, and hampers development. Cambodia will need to alleviate traffic congestion to become a more effective member of ASEAN, the regional group of 10 nations, and take advantage of the economic benefits on offer.
A public transport network in Phnom Penh has been attempted before in 2001, and failed. It never took off with the Penhois, and to be fair you can see why. For a start it would likely impact the moto riders and tuk-tuk drivers, a source of employment for thousands of Cambodians unable to find work in any chosen field. As for being passengers, the locals never got their head around waiting at some uncovered spot for a bus to turn up – or not – to take them to some other stop which wasn’t where they wanted to go, and paying for the privilege. The concept of public transport then was about winning hearts and minds, and in this regard buses lost the battle.
In 2014, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency embarked on an experiment as part of its Project for Traffic Improvement in Phnom Penh. For one month, a fleet of ten pink minibuses plied a single 7km route along Monivong Boulevard, one of Phnom Penh’s busiest commercial thoroughfares, servicing 36 stops every 10 to 15 minutes during the day. The Japanese rented the buses, paid the drivers, installed bus stop signs and covered the cost of fuel while the city of Phnom Penh provided workers to dispense information about the new system. Tickets cost a mere 40 cents and proved popular.
Longer term, Cambodian officials with Japanese assistance have drafted a 2035 urban transport master plan for the city that includes expanded bus routes, widened streets and the introduction of an urban rail system in 2020. In typical Cambodian government fashion, however, the concession went to a Chinese firm in a clandestine deal, much to dismay of the other bidders. Although no contract was signed, city hall claims that the company has pledged to invest some US$12 million in the project over the next five years. Amidst a barrage of criticism, Phnom Penh’s governor declared that the company was the only bidder that offered to run the bus system without government subsidies. How it all pans out remains to be seen.
Phnom Penh’s traffic woes essentially stem from rapid urbanisation and poor infrastructure following years of devastating warfare. Mass poverty and endemic corruption haven’t helped. In terms of transportation evolution, pedestrians and bicycles have given way to motorbikes and now cars and to the latest symbol of a small but rising middle class and the corrupting elites, the SUV, the urban tractor. The proliferation of these on the streets are the real issue. Their lumbering hulks detract from the grace of more traditional transport forms, which almost add to the feel of the city.
Traffic woes are compounded by a range of underlying issues. It’s estimated around 30 percent of motor vehicles on Phnom Penh's streets lack registration documents or are illegally-licensed. There’s a flourishing trade in illegal car documents. Shady dealers offer counterfeit number plates, known as "flying horse" plates, for cars and motorbikes and sell fake driving licenses. There’s a stream of vehicle smuggling and plain defiance of traffic regulations amid slack law enforcement. Few people sit a driving test or have a licence. Traffic fatalities are also on the rise; which then impacts on a struggling health system.
Recent figures suggest only 40 percent of drivers respect traffic laws. Road users frequently disregard red lights and exhibit a general indifference to the efforts of the traffic police, who often seem more interested in extracting “fines” than in encouraging better road use.
Despite efforts to improve this situation, including public safety campaigns in the press and on TV and radio, there’s little improvement to be seen on the roads. Few drivers appear to understand basic traffic regulations. Cars are illegally parked and frequently cause obstructions.
This proposal by the municipal authorities appears to be poorly thought out. What they’ve done is select the smallest vehicles type by number, save for cyclos, and declare this is somehow the answer to ‘reduce traffic jams and excessive crowds clogging up the capital.’ Moving bus stations to outside the capital may even have the reverse impact, with more vehicle trips having to be made to and from bus stations to the city to transport passengers longer distances to catch the bus. The authorities could actually look at more progressive solutions, like limiting the numbers of larger private vehicles like SUVs, or restricting their usage to certain parts of the city.
Buses actually help reduce congestion. They carry freight and about 50 people in one vehicle. They provide a public service albeit by the private sector. They utilise central and often convenient locations, like near the Central Market. Yes, journeys are slow often taking an hour to exit Phnom Penh, and there are frequent roadside stops to pick-up passengers. But in a city with narrow streets and no motorways, they are part of the solution, not part of the problem.