Public Transportation Finally Comes to Cambodia

Phnom Penh is probably the only city of its size in the world that doesn’t have a public bus system, but finally a start has been made. The city has managed to live without a public system, but that has resulted in hardship for some and excessive traffic congestion for all.

There has been a single line operating on Monivong Blvd. since March of this year which in the beginning of September was extended to the outskirts of town in both directions. Two additional lines were inaugurated in the middle of September. One goes from the Night Market on the riverside to Takmau town about 9 km south of the city. The other goes from the Night Market to Cham Chao in the east, presumably passing right by the airport, so if you’ve got the time and you’re not too burdened with luggage you’ll be able to go airport to town for 1500 riel – 37 cents – a bargain.

There still are lots of scoffers, people who will never take one and think it’s a waste of energy. In response to a facebook post about the expansion, one fellow insisted that the current system of relying on motodops (motorbike taxis in the local lingo) and tuk-tuks, (3-wheel taxis) works just fine. They’re cheap, fast and convenient, he said, so why bother with buses. I and another fellow pointed out that they’re cheap for a ‘rich’ expat but for many locals going any distance it’s prohibitively expensive.

For instance, I knew a young Khmer college grad quite a few years ago who spent a short time working in the office of a garment factory about 5 kilometers south of the city center. With the cost of a motodop 6000 riel ($1.50) each way she was spending 60% of her income on transportation. What she had left of her salary after transportation costs was so minimal that she quit after a short time.

The high price of going anywhere outside the neighborhood 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 since the out-of-pocket cost of fuel is minimal. Many times when people are displaced by development they’re given small plots of land just outside the city, but with no jobs out there and transportation costs so high, they soon wind up back in the city center where they can earn their minimum $2 to $4 a day. So the biggest losers of the city not having public transportation are the city’s poorest.

In some ways it works the same in an American city. With the exception of the biggest cites, most people who ride the bus outside of commuter hours either don’t drive, can’t drive – think of the young, old and infirm – or can’t afford to own a car. Without public transit they’re screwed. Thus one of the two primary reasons why public transit in the US is heavily subsidized. Farebox revenue typically covers only a third of operating costs. The other factor is traffic; a full bus takes up far less street space than the equivalent number of cars needed to carry the same load, especially since most cars carry only a single person. It works the same way here in Cambodia. Even though motorbikes take up only a small fraction of the space of cars, when you add it up a full bus uses much less street space than the equivalent motorbikes to move the same number of people.

Motorbike taxis have two great advantages: time and convenience. Nothing could be quicker or easier, especially in Phnom Penh where there’s a motodop waiting on every corner and in front of every business ready to whisk you on your way. They are very maneuverable and are able to get you there as quickly as possible.

Using public transportation, on the other hand, is very time consuming. First you have to walk to the bus stop, then wait for it. Once aboard, it goes relatively slowly and has to stop often to pick up 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 half an hour or longer using the bus. For that reason most Phnom Penhers would not immediately sell or park their bikes if presented with a bus alternative. Still, many in fact would save the money and use the bus. With the extra time, students for instance, could use it to study or just diddle with their smart phones. Most importantly, every person who opted for public transit would help ease traffic problems, reduce the need for parking, cut pollution and save energy.

Bus transportation would not put most motodops be out of a job, in fact, many people going long distances on the bus would hop on a motorbike taxi for the short hop to get them from the bus stop to their final destination. It’s mostly for the long haul that people would use public transportation.

On the other hand, buses have some great advantages. Probably most important is that they are 1000 times safer than riding a motorbike in Phnom Penh’s traffic. And nothing beats the comfort of proper seat in an air-con bus when Cambodia is brutally hot or in the middle of a tropical downpour. There’s also the pollution you breath in to consider when you’re on the street in an open vehicle.

The capital had a short-lived bus system back in 2001 that was financed by Japan; it even had proper bus shelters. I’ve heard conflicting reports about the experiment. One was that people weren’t riding it; the other that the city didn’t want to continue the subsidy after the six-month trial period. I believe time would’ve solved the first problem. Traffic wasn’t so bad then and people needed time to get used to the bus. The other problem is the need for public subsidies; big bus systems almost always need public money. If you try to pay for it through the farebox, it’ll cost too much and people won’t use it in sufficient numbers, which defeats the purpose of getting as many people as possible to use it for its traffic reduction aspect.

The government has been trying for years to get a private company to run the buses, hoping to relieve itself of the burden – the Cambodian government is hardly noted for its efficiency – and avoid the subsidy regime, but has not had any takers. Even the company that ran the single line since March quit after the city wouldn’t grant a tax break on its other operations. After six months of operation, the government just couldn’t close it down and has pledged to keep it going regardless of the cost.

For a system to be successful it needs to offer wide coverage: there aren’t that many people moving around the city who have a starting point and destination on the same street. The fact that the single line was showing progress bodes well for the system as a whole. For best results there also needs to be free transfers between lines since a significant percentage will need more than one line. Even after the complete system is up and running traffic will seem just as bad. The city is growing so fast the bus system will only keep congestion from getting much worse, a worthy enough goal.

Ultimately, large cities need rail transport in the form of sky trains or subways or at minimum dedicated bus lanes to get beyond street congestion. It’s only then that public transit can begin to compete timewise and provide a reasonable alternative to the comfort of a private vehicle. Either way, the cost of those systems is far beyond the government’s finances so they’ll not be happening anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Siem Reap is about to have a solar bus system, one of only 3 or 4 in the world. Star8, an Australian company, will be building and running the system. They’ll be exclusively solar-electric, no back up combustion engines needed. The buses will have solar panels on their roofs to help provide power and there’ll be solar charging stations on the routes where extra batteries will be charged. The batteries will be able to take the bus 90 kms on a charge and when they get low, they’ll be able to make a quick change en route. There are other ways to charge batteries without removing them: microwave chargers can be placed in the road so they can be juiced up at stops, but that’s probably a pretty spendy option at this point.

There are great advantages to electric transportation, in this case one of the most important will be the reduction of pollution at the temples. With more than a million tourists visiting every year, all on combustion engine vehicles, the pollution has become a threat to the temples.

Electric vehicles are far superior to combustion driven ones even if the power comes from central generating stations. Electric motors are more than 90% efficient compared to combustion engines in which half the fuel expended is lost in waste heat. They are nearly silent, which in fact has resulted in problems for blind people as they can’t hear them coming. There’s talk of adding sounds to electric vehicles to protect those people: that applies mostly to small vehicles. They’re pollution free in the cities, where it counts most. Besides, it’s easier to control and limit pollution from a single large point source than spread amongst large numbers of small engines.

They are super efficient, especially in urban use as they don’t idle; that is, they expend no energy while stopped, except for accessories. When I lived in Bangkok in 1993, traffic would come to a complete stop for an hour in many places. All those vehicles were chugging away for an hour, wasting energy and creating pollution while going nowhere.

They also have what’s called regenerative breaking. When the brakes are applied, the motor helps to slow the vehicle down: it turns into a generator. It sounds complicated but it’s really very simple. Motor and generator, when wired properly, are fundamentally the same machine. If you put electricity in one direction it does work. If you put work into the other direction it generates electricity. In this case the work is helping to stop the vehicle. In the case of a bus that makes many stops, regenerative breaking reduces energy use by about 30%. Electric vehicles actually get better mileage in town than on the road for that reason. Also they accelerate faster than diesel and the motors last longer and require less maintenance.

Up until now, with solar cells becoming so cheap, electric buses required overhead lines or lots of very heavy batteries. The Australian company that’s building and will be running the solar bus system currently has a solar cell factory in Phnom Penh and is now building one in Siem Reap. It’s truly gratifying to think that our lowly Cambodia will soon pioneer with one of only 3 or 4 totally solar bus systems in the world.

But it’s also depressing and dispiriting to think that conversion to solar could’ve happened long ago. Back in the 70s during the OPEC oil embargo and resultant turmoil the Pentagon did a study that showed if $5 billion were spent buying solar cells for their remote locations, the ramping up of production would’ve made the cost of solar competitive with fossil fuels, and that’s when gas was 50 cents a gallon. In response to the crisis, Jimmy Carter called the need to switch to renewables the Moral Equivalent of War. He proposed a drastic change in priorities and did his little part by putting solar hot water on the White House roof. The people didn’t want to hear about it so they elected Ronald Reagan.

When Reagan came into office in 1981 he removed the solar water apparatus from the White House, ended Carter’s solar tax credits and trashed everything environmental. He insisted there was plenty of fossil fuel and environmentalists were just a bunch of do-gooder hippies who wanted everybody to live in caves (I’m paraphrasing, of course). His first Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, said the environment didn’t matter because the End Times were coming soon and the world would be destroyed anyway so why bother trying to save it.

Now we’re at the brink of irreversible change and the world continues to increase CO2 production; last year saw the largest increase ever. That’s in spite of great successes like Germany where one day last spring they got 100% of their power from renewables. There is also one district there with 100,000 people that now not only gets all of its power without burning fossil fuels but often sends another 100% back into the grid. Texas and Iowa now get 25% of their power from wind, something that could’ve happened decades ago. Yet, in the height of folly and insanity, the US government still subsidizes the oil giants, some of the richest corporations in the world, to the tune of $8 billion a year. America consistently provides more in subsidies to old technologies than renewables.

China is making great strides developing renewables, and is the world’s biggest exporter of solar panels, but still builds a new coal fired plant every week, that in spite of many of its cities having the worst air pollution in the world. How can we go forward if we’re still going backward?

Even Cambodia is joining the death march to destruction with a new coal fired power plant being built in Sihanoukville… just what a tourist town needs, air pollution.

Not a penny should be going into new fossil fuel facilities, not when we know renewables can work just fine. If we stopped right now, we might have a stab at mitigating the worst impacts of climate change, we might be able to just barely make it without totally crashing the planet. But we won’t because there’s lots of money to be made in not giving a shit. At least it’ll be an exciting ride, a race against reality, a true extravaganza of extraordinary events.

Which I expect to witness in my lifetime, which at 73, isn’t all that long.

Of course, I’ve been wrong before.

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