11 January 2012

Why a bus system in Phnom Penh doesn't make sense

A family vehicle
Traffic is undoubtedly a major annoyance for expats (and many locals) in Phnom Penh.  My daily ride to Takhmao, 10 km outside Phnom Penh, resembles a live video game dodging packed motorbikes, "remorque motos" full with garment workers, tortoise-like Lexus SUV's and fume-belching Hyundai trucks. But, rejoice, because the city of Phnom Penh is considering introducing a bus system with assistance (meaning donations of discarded buses) from international donors.

There are many reasons to get frustrated by Phnom Penh's traffic, but a lack of public transport is not one of them.  True, there are no buses in Phnom Penh - except for long distance buses and the ubiquitous minivans, plying the routes to neighbouring towns, and neither is there a tram or metro system.  No, Phnom Penh has a demand-based, flexible, cheap and door-to-door transport system.  It consists of 'tuk-tuks' and 'motodops'. Motodops are motorbike drivers at street corners taking passengers. Tuk-tuks can take between 1 and 6 (for locals: 15) passengers, but can double up to transport motorbikes, furniture or about anything else.

Phnom Penh's famous public transport system
Tuk-tuk sir?

I don't understand the fixation on bus systems.  They offer no escape to congestion and, having experienced many bus trips in Cambodia, I wouldn't call them safe either. Phnom Penhites don't like walking to bus stops, which is understandable given the walking-unfriendly climate - with blistering heat (March -June) or torrential downpours (July - October) - and the absence of pavements (and shade).  No, the way forward is a better regulation of motodops and tuk-tuks, nurturing a convenience that is impossible to match with a standard bus or tram system.  

Phnom Penh's emerging congestion is caused by a switch to cars by an increasingly affluent middle class. Chances are slim they would trade their newly acquired luxury for daily bus rides.  Buses would inevitably become the transportation mode of the poor, a stigma that western countries are desperately fighting.

The focus on tram and bus systems betrays lazy thinking and imposing western policies in a context that is culturally and environmentally very different. As in education, it makes sense to try understanding what people think, how existing capacities can be strengthened and how a city can be made more liveable for all its inhabitants.
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