Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Monday, November 14, 2011
Friday, November 11, 2011
Thursday, November 10, 2011
The government recently announced it was signing a contract with a French engineering firm to design a bus system for the capital. The city is the only one of its size I’m aware of that doesn’t have a public transit system. This is especially problematical as Phnom Penh is becoming denser with high-rise buildings sprouting everywhere. The current non-system, relying totally on private carriers - motorbikes, tuk-tuks and taxis - is a lot more doable in a low-rise, medium density city than in a city with modern skyscraper-type ambitions.
Public transit will not be a cure-all for the capital’s traffic problems but it would certainly help. Motorbikes are small but they still take up more street space than the equivalent number of people traveling on a bus. Even if each motodop is carrying an average of two people, that’s 30 motorbikes to equal the capacity of a 60 passenger bus.
Buses have other advantages besides traffic relief. They’re immeasurably safer than riding on motorbikes and more comfortable; think about riding a moto in the rain or in the hot sun compared to a relatively comfortable seat on an air-con bus.
Phnom Penh did in fact have a bus system for a short six months back in 2001. It was an experimental system financed by Japan. Until just a few years ago you could still see the leftover bus stop signs and bus shelters along Monivong and Norodom. That system was before my time and I’ve heard conflicting reports of its acceptance by the population, but in general people were getting used to them and ridership was slowly increasing. It was ended because the government didn’t want to continue the necessary subsidies. Big bus systems always seem to require infusions of public money. The government, knowing how inefficient and corrupt it’s capable of being, let the system die rather than get itself involved in such a big and expensive project.
Fare collections in American bus systems usually account for only about 1/3 of operating costs. Municipalities charge the remaining costs to the taxpayer because the alternative would be worse. There’d not only be the additional traffic to deal with absent a bus system but finding place to park all the extra cars would be difficult. Nobody needs to be encouraged to own a vehicle; with few exceptions it’s what everybody wants, so in Western countries where people have the means, governments go to great lengths to try to entice people away from their vehicles on to public transportation. In addition to massive subsidies, they advertise and even plead with their citizens to leave their cars at home and bus it.
You can’t really sustain a dense urban area where everybody has a vehicle, though that’s mitigated somewhat when most vehicles are motorbikes. Still, even in Phnom Penh where they are the primary form of transportation, parking is an important consideration. Where I taught English a few years back they had just built a new six story classroom facility. Two of those floors are devoted exclusively to motorbike parking, and that space is crowded with them. Small as they are, there is no small cost in accommodating them. And witness the masses of parked motorbikes in front of every popular restaurant or shop. Within a few years at present trends with increasing numbers of cars on the road, the city will be swamped.
The only thing that makes the situation somewhat tenable today is the widespread use of sidewalks for vehicle parking; it’d be very hard to accommodate them otherwise, though at the same time, lack of safe, comfortable pedestrian ways discourages walking and thus adds to motorbike use. A few years back a friend who was living in Saigon told me he was forced to take a motorbike to go only 100 or 200 meters because blocked sidewalks made it impossible to walk and traffic is so much denser there. I’ve heard they’ve since cleared the sidewalks for pedestrians. Another friend, a Khmer, who’d spent some time in Europe, really enjoyed walking there. She was all fired up about doing the same when she returned to Phnom Penh, but was quickly discouraged from walking in the capital because it’s so uncomfortable there. At any rate anything that encourages people to use alternate means of travel; that is, other than their own vehicles, makes it better for everyone.
Motodops and tuk-tuk drivers will howl in protest at a competing bus system but there’ll still be a big place for them in the transportation picture since they do have two distinct advantages over buses: they’re convenient and fast. Leave any building in the city and unless the motodops already know you and know you don’t require their services, you are besieged by drivers seeking to give you a ride. Contrast that with having to walk to the nearest bus stop and then wait till the bus comes. And further, in place of snaking very quickly through traffic on a motorbike, buses are lumbering and slow and they spend a lot of time stopping for passengers. Moreover, instead of getting you direct to your door on a moto, you have to walk to your destination when you get off. Going short distances you could probably make two round trips on a moto just in the time you have to wait for the bus, though if they really catch on there might be enough patronage to have buses every few minutes. Buses also have negatives in terms of being noisy and smoky, though that could be mitigated somewhat in the future with hybrid buses.
Where buses would really make a difference is in long trips for the city’s low income people. For you or I spending 6000 riels to go from the center of town to the airport on a moto is no big deal, for the majority of the city’s residents it’s a great burden and severely restricts their mobility, especially in terms of jobs. Contrast that cost with the ten cents or 400 riels cost of going that far in Bangkok on a non-air-con bus or the 40 cents or 1600 riels on an air-con bus. Unless time were of the essence many if not most Cambodians would opt for the bus. For instance, going from Kampot to Phnom Penh, the cost differential between taking a (relatively) comfortable air-con bus and an absurdly crowded and practically demeaning minibus is only about a dollar and yet lots of Khmers have no choice but to save the money and ride rough.
Many locals who can afford long moto trips, but maybe just barely, are strongly encouraged by the economics to get their own wheels since the cost of fuel for the same trip would be relatively very small. This then also adds to traffic and the need for parking.
I’ve always thought the jeepney system used in the Philippines would be ideal for Phnom Penh. It’s basically the same as the minibus or remorque system used in rural Cambodia, but for some reason stops at the city’s outskirts. For those unfamiliar with jeepneys the first ones were elongated military jeeps left over after the second world war. Now they are manufactured in country. Fares are equivalent to 500 or 600 riels. As far as I could tell they are all privately owned and operated. They have bench seats on the sides which about 18 to 20 people can squeeze into. They can also pull out stools for passengers to sit on between the rows and, like in Cambodia, there’s always room for people to hang off the back or sit on top, though sitting on top is mostly found in the countryside, I don’t ever remember seeing topside riders in the cities.
While you do see big buses in Manila, jeepneys are still the major transportation mode. If I remember correctly they have designated places to stop, but they will also pick up anybody who waves them down. On a major thoroughfare there’ll be several lines operating to different destinations and they pretty much keep to designated routes. For instance, if the same concept were applied to Phnom Penh there might be three or four routes operating on a street like Norodom. If you were heading south from Wat Phnom there’d be one route heading east over the Monivong bridge, one going south to Tahkmau, another to Russian Market, etc. If you were going a short distance you could take the first one that came along, otherwise you’d have to wait till the right jeepney came by for the further destination.
I doubt very much if the French engineering firm will consider the jeepney/ minibus option. It’d probably never cross their minds, at least in part because it would never be a viable option in their own country because of the high cost of labor. However, in Cambodia, as in the Philippines, a minibus owner/operator working the city streets could easily earn a basic living - if moto and tuk-tuk drivers can earn their keep, minibus drivers certainly could also.
In addition, minibuses are more flexible as in the above example of jeepneys operating on a single street going to several destinations. A big bus system, especially in the beginning, is likely to have limited routes. For instance, the bus on Norodom will not likely branch out to different destinations, which means many riders will need to take more than one bus. And since transfer systems can get quite complicated, they’ll probably wind up paying multiple fares, all of which will discourage ridership. Considering the inherent disadvantages to the individual in taking the bus and the concurrent greater benefit to the society as a whole, the authorities have to do everything they can think of to get the people to use them.
In contrast to Asian cities, American cities tend to have well defined downtowns which allows for relatively more efficient transit systems since most bus lines converge in a central place, meaning most riders need only one bus to their destinations. When people do need to take more than one bus, having bus lines converge facilitates transfers. In Phnom Penh, downtown type activities are widely spread over the city, still it would help to have a centrally located bus station where a lot of bus lines, if not all or most, come together.
The capital’s other major transportation deficiency is the lack of a modern centrally located overland bus terminal that would be used by all the bus lines. The present haphazard system works but a single terminal would be a lot more convenient for riders. Now when you take an overland bus you have to know which company you want to use and their schedule. The experience of taking a bus from Kuala Lumpur’s central bus station provides a good example. First, it’s easy to find the terminal compared to Phnom Penh where bus stations are scattered all over town. Then you walk in and unless you really prefer one company over the others and know its schedules, you take the next available bus. With all the buses converging in a single station, for most routes you’d never have to wait long till the next bus leaves. Then you have all the different companies’ ticket windows lined up, making for intense competition. As I remember it, when a bus about to leave had empty seats, the ticket sellers would call out how soon their bus was to depart and offer discounts to use it. Finally, with a modern terminal all overland buses, with their attendant noise and pollution, would congregate off the street and also not increase congestion.
The ideal location for an overland bus terminal would be adjacent to the train station, that way transfers between the two would be facilitated. (There are no passenger trains now, but it won’t be long as the tracks between Sihanoukville and the capital are almost finished) For instance, you’ve just arrived on the train from Kampot headed for Kratie; you get off the train and walk over to the bus terminal and catch the next bus to your destination. In the present scattered system, you get off the train and then take a moto or such to your choice of several bus companies and hope your timing is good. Or you get off the train and head to the only bus company you’re familiar with even though you know the schedule and know you’ll have to wait a long time. With all the buses in the same terminal, there might be another company with a bus leaving in a few minutes. To top it off, for obvious reasons, a transit station where local buses meet should also be located close by.
In Portland, Oregon, my home away from home in America, trains, intercity buses and local buses all converge in a small area at the edge of downtown. The long distance bus station was previously located in the heart of downtown, but was moved to the transit center because the land was considered too valuable for a bus terminal and the noise, pollution and congestion the buses caused was a detriment to the ambiance of the area.
I wouldn’t expect Phnom Penh’s leaders to act on a suggestion like this even if they understood its value because it’d be way too complicated to implement and very expensive in terms of securing the necessary land. It wasn’t that long ago that there weren’t hardly any overland buses in the country because the roads were too bad. Very soon, with the country constantly growing in wealth and tourism expanding, the present non-system will become increasingly dysfunctional.
The municipality made a proposal/plan a few years back to relocate the overland bus terminals to the edge of town believing that would lessen traffic whereas the exact opposite would be true. Presently many people live close to one of the bus terminals, by locating them in the outskirts, nearly everybody would need local transportation to get there thus adding to traffic, not lessening it, not to mention forcing most people to pay the additional cost of the long moto or tuk-tuk ride to the bus terminal.
Anyway, any bus system for the city is progress.