photo@STT_2014

Waiting for the next bus

A bus ticket in Phnom Penh typically costs 1,500 riel, which is roughly $0.40. That sounds like a great deal right? Using public transportation also helps the environment and reduces traffic congestion by reducing the number of private vehicles on the road. So why don’t more people take the bus instead of taking on the added risk of driving their motorbikes and cars through this busy city?

The answer is quite simple actually: they don’t have a choice. At the moment, Phnom Penh City only has one bus line which runs along Monivong Boulevard. If you live and work on that route, you have nothing to worry about. However, everyone else (the vast majority of residents and tourists) must find their own means of getting to where they need to go.

Thankfully, the government has recently made an effort to resolve this issue. On Monday (September 1st, 2014), City Hall announced a significant expansion of the bus route. “Bus Line 1 – the current route, which operates from 5:30am to 8:30pm – will now run a total of 67 stops, starting from Monivong Boulevard’s Kilometre 9 near the Japanese Friendship Bridge and going south to Chbar Ampov district along National Road 1, then back up again” (Phnom Penh Post, September 2nd).

City Hall spokesman, Long Dimanche, also confirmed that two more bus routes are to be made operational within the month. “Line 2, which will run from Phnom Penh’s night market to Takhmao town, is to begin operation on September 7. Line 3, which is to run from the night market to Choam Chao commune, is to open a week later” (Phnom Penh Post, September 2nd). The long-term goal is to have 18 lines up and running by 2035.

There is no doubt that this is a worthy undertaking but, as to be expected with any major urban development project, you are bound to run into problems. Some problems arise before the project even gets underway. In April of this year, 17 bus drivers who worked for the Phnom Penh Sorya Transportation Company were fired for attempting to form a union.

An Arbitration Council later ruled in favor of the bus drivers and ordered the company to reinstate 15 of them and pay compensation for the other two former employees. The Sorya Transportation Company chose to ignore this decision.

On Monday, August 26th, over 50 people from three other unions (including the aggrieved bus drivers) protested in front of the company’s offices. This demonstration blocked traffic and also prevented any buses from leaving the premises.

“Sorya Transportation general manager Chan Sophanna said yesterday that he was preparing to file a complaint with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court today or Wednesday over the protesters’ actions. ‘I think they used their right [to protest] to cross a line…they have rights, but they cannot block and interrupt my business. What they are doing is illegal’” (Phnom Penh Post, August 26th).

Mr. Sophanna also claimed that the reason they refused to comply with the Arbitration Council decision was because there were no jobs available. Both parties seem to have arrived at a stalemate. Perhaps the additional bus lines will help alleviate this tension, though City Hall has not yet chosen which private firm will operate the new routes.

But I would like to end on a more positive note—one that looks to the future. Remember the city’s long-term goal to have 18 bus lines by 2035? Well maybe you won’t have to wait that long.

“As part of its multibillion-dollar Urban Transport Master Plan, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) unveiled a modern rail system for Phnom Penh yesterday [August 27th, 2014] that could begin operation as soon as 2023” (Phnom Penh Post, August 28th). Ok, so maybe that is still a very long time from now. But still, a modern train system in Phnom Penh!

“The first part of the proposed rail system would run in an east-west loop from the airport to the city centre, with the route likely to cost a total of $1.35 billion, according to the project’s own assessment…the Master Plan proposes a network of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), rail and freight routes estimated to cost $4.5 billion over 20 years – a massive sum that would be raised through donors, the city government and the private sector” (Phnom Penh Post, August 28th).

This is a tremendously ambitious project, but it is still something Phnom Penh desperately needs when you consider this city’s constant urbanization and population growth. At the same time, it would be detrimental to overlook the people that this project may displace. Everyone involved in the last railway-related project (I am of course referring to ADB’s Cambodia Railway Rehabilitation Project) is still painfully aware of the consequences that will arise if it is not handled properly and any evictees are not sufficiently compensated. All eyes will be on the government as this plan develops and I sincerely hope they have learned from past mistakes.