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Cambodia’s Capital Introduces New Public Bus Service

February 26, 2014

By Chris Holben

Earlier this month, a fleet of 10 air-conditioned public buses took to the congested streets of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. The pilot program, launched by the city Municipality in partnership with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), will run until the end of February with a wait-and-see approach to announcing any expansion plans. This is the second time the Municipality attempted a bus program: in 2001, the first attempt was scrapped halfway through its two-month window due to a lack of interest. However, this time around, early reports from the city and JICA cite ridership at about 60 percent capacity with an average of 1,600 riders a day. The municipal governor has reportedly proposed plans to expand the bus service by adding two routes, which would effectively create a public transport ring around the most densely populated areas of the city. Phnom Penh citizens appear to be ready for a new way to get around.

Phnom Penh Public Bus

Phnom Penh started a pilot bus service in early February that aims to reduce congestion in the city of 1.7 million. The pilot consists of one north/south line along a busy commercial boulevard with residential areas at each end. Photo/Chris Holben

Necessity is the mother of invention. Cambodia’s economy has taken off over the last 10 years with a steady trend toward urbanization. The Ministry of Planning’s National Institute of Statistics second mid-census national population survey estimated that Phnom Penh grew 12.4 percent between 2008 and 2013. The city’s population now stands at 1.7 million people. This growth puts pressure for greater investment in municipal public services such as in transportation and solid waster management. There is an even greater incentive to innovate and adapt public services to meet the growing demand.

The pilot consists of one north/south line along a busy commercial boulevard with residential areas at each end. The 10-bus fleet is scheduled to run every 10 minutes during rush hour and every 15 minutes at other times. There are 18 stops per direction that are spaced less than 500 meters apart. Most riders I’ve spoken to have similar feedback: “Please add more routes!” If the Municipality is to adopt and expand the service, it will need to add many more east/west routes and plan for transfers at major intersections.

The new bus service aims to reduce congestion and improve air quality for the city’s residents. The potential is there for these goals to be met. Urban buses can be a clean, flexible, and relatively inexpensive way to deliver extra capacity, take up less space on the roadway than automobiles and motorcycles, and with proper enforcement and infrastructure can reduce delays and journey time. The idea is to get riders to their jobs more quickly and cheaply, while producing fewer carbon emissions. The buses in the pilot are former tour buses and are comfortable with ample air conditioning. One rider I sat next to recently said, “I can sit back and relax without having to worry about the air quality or dust while riding on a moto or tuk-tuk.”

The cost during the pilot is 1,500 riel or about $.35 per trip. This is three to five times cheaper than a motorcycle taxi or tuk-tuk, the two prevalent private transportation options in Phnom Penh. A private vehicle is more expensive, with added fuel, parking, and insurance costs. The bus system, if adopted and expanded, ideally could provide an inexpensive way for low income workers to reliably get to and from jobs, especially as cheaper housing is located outside of the city center. Another aim is to have students use the new bus service to get to and from school. Currently, school bus service is very limited in Phnom Penh, and most students cannot afford private vehicles.

For the bus service to succeed, the reliability of the schedule will be important. Congestion is a factor that slows down the schedule and makes for a longer wait at a stop. This point may well be the deciding factor on whether citizens embrace the new service. If a schedule can’t be met, the reliability of the system drops and users look for other options. A few riders and I waited 25 minutes for the bus to arrive one early morning. This was during the stated every-10-minute window. While this can sometimes be a problem for cities with even the most advanced public transportation systems, Phnom Penh has ample room to improve conditions to ensure better reliability.

Traffic congestion disrupts any bus schedule. Congestion delays the bus, makes for a longer wait at a stop, and increases time spent on the bus. In Phnom Penh, driver behavior is the major visible cause of congestion: running red lights, not staying in lanes, and double-parking. Running red lights increases the chance for crashes (and more resulting congestion) and further slowing the flow of traffic. Double-parking creates situations for traffic backups that also slow the flow and thus impede the schedule of the buses. The double-parked vehicles are typically in the same lanes that the buses use, causing the buses to weave dangerously in and out of their lanes.

In tackling traffic congestion, the Municipality, working with the traffic police, could increase enforcement to prevent traffic violations, such as double-parking or parking of private vehicles in a spot designated for the bus. If this pinpointed enforcement can be introduced with a marketing campaign to promote the bus service, the negative public reactions for increased fines could be offset by the perceived public benefits of an efficient and usable bus system.

As the month-long pilot comes to an end, there have been a number of positive articles praising the pilot program and its potential for improving the capital. The next phase of the system will be announced after the data from the pilot has been analyzed. A university student rider summed it up on a recent ride: “I love this bus. It’s an example of how we are becoming a world city. Tourists can see this bus and see progress. And I can do my homework! No homework on the back of a moto taxi!” Perhaps the next innovation in public transport will be seeking to make the sidewalks more walkable. Among other benefits, riders would be guaranteed a safe walk for a block or two to catch the bus.

Guest writer Chris Holben is an urban planner specializing in non-motorized transportation and most recently started and ran the Capital Bikeshare program in Washington, D.C. He relocated to Phnom Penh in 2013 and can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Cambodia
Related programs: Good Governance, Inclusive Economic Growth
Related topics: Urbanization


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