While driving through Phnom Penh, it is not uncommon to spot public buses making their way down major boulevards with virtually zero passengers, even during peak traffic hours. No image can better represent the current state of Phnom Penh’s disjointed public bus system than the visual of these empty buses surrounded by, and at times blocking, clusters of smaller vehicles as they squeeze through the busy roads.
At the same time, it’s no secret that Phnom Penh is coming up against a very real traffic problem. The number of registered vehicles in Cambodia has increased by 11.3% during the last 5 years according to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport. The rise in private vehicle ownership, an increasing urban population and Phnom Penh’s car-centric urban design has resulted in longer commute times, increased C02 emissions, decreased human productivity and higher rates of road accidents. By all accounts the congestion in Cambodia’s capital is only set to get worse.
Public transit, including buses, has the potential to be a powerful tool for mitigating Phnom Penh’s traffic congestion problems. But because of the way the city’s bus system is designed, public transportation has not meaningfully contributed to traffic relief. There have been some attempts to address the system’s inadequacies, but they have largely been misguided and unsuccessful.
The Cambodian government could make significant steps towards solving two central problems—underused public buses and overused private vehicles—with a few targeted policy shifts. In particular, authorities should focus on addressing Phnom Penh’s much-neglected last kilometre problem: the lack of infrastructure and mobility options linking public transport hubs to commuters’ final destinations.
Without these targeted reforms, the city’s buses will continue to be empty, and our streets will continue to be far too full.
A Misguided Approach to Tackling Bus and Traffic Woes
When it comes to Phnom Penh’s bus system, improvement projects seem to take an exclusively more is more approach. Simply put, authorities appear to believe that adding more buses into the system will automatically generate more interest from the public in using this transit resource, and will result in an improved public bus experience.
In June, for instance, the South Korean conglomerate Booyung Group gifted 1,000 additional buses to the Cambodian government. But adding more buses without first addressing the key barriers holding Phnom Penh’s public transit back could make the city’s traffic even worse. After all, if these buses don’t actually serve a significant ridership, they are simply large vehicles that take up space on the road and add to growing traffic jams.
Phnom Penh authorities’ attempts to reduce overall congestion have not included much investment in public transit. Instead, their traffic alleviation strategies have almost exclusively focused on major infrastructure projects that increase the road surface area, such as widening or adding roads.
Several big-budget overpass construction projects are currently underway. Unfortunately, adding more roads is not a viable solution to congestion in the long run due to a principle called induced demand. When road infrastructure is built to accommodate private vehicles, people respond by using their vehicles even more, ensuring that congestion increases at the same pace as road expansion.
Rather than adding more roads, or adding more public buses, additional effort and resources should be directed toward improving the ways existing systems, such as the bus system, serve the needs of passengers.
Why Has the City Bus Struggled to Take Off?
When the Phnom Penh City Bus service was relaunched in 2014, the initial testing yielded generally positive results. Citizens noted that the overall travel experience was more comfortable and convenient compared to motorcycle taxis, which were the most common and accessible transport service in the capital at the time. However, shortly after its implementation, commuters soon found the service to be slow and unreliable and the bus network fell short of providing relief to Phnom Penh’s heavily congested traffic.
A huge part of the reason why Phnom Penh’s buses have failed to serve passengers is due to factors related to what urbanists refer to as the last kilometre, describing the last leg of a transit journey. If the bus is unable to take you all the way to your final destination, how are you continuing on your way after you get off the bus? The transit system in Phnom Penh is currently set up in a way that leaves bus passengers with no simple answer to that question.
Lack of Walkability
The city’s complete lack of walkability is a huge part of why the bus system is unable to gain traction, pushing would-be pedestrians into traffic both figuratively and literally. Phnom Penh’s roads are dominated by motor vehicles while sidewalks and footpaths are occupied with street-side businesses or obstructed by parked vehicles or piles of garbage.
As the bus system is not designed to pick up or drop off commuters at their doorstep, Phnom Penh’s lack of pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, footbridges and bicycle lanes serves as a direct obstacle to the system being a success. In this environment that is so deeply hostile to pedestrians, even a 15-minute walk from a bus stop can be a significant deterrent for a potential bus rider.
Research in other urban areas has shown that a city’s walkability has an important role to play in establishing an effective public transportation network. A 2009 study looked at pedestrian infrastructure and bus ridership in the U.S. city of San Diego, and found that higher levels of walkability in the station area were associated with higher bus ridership at any particular station across the board.
A 2016 report by the TransitCenter foundation surveyed 3,000 people in 17 metro areas in the U.S. One finding from the research was that the majority of commuters taking public transit walk to their stops rather than drive. This indicates how important it is that bus and rail stops are set up in easily accessible locations where pedestrians are not required to walk long distances.
The issue can be found in ridership data in Los Angeles as well, according to an op-ed by transportation researcher Steven Higashide in the Los Angeles Times. Analysts have identified ridership differences between newly built transit stations that enable walkability and those that do not. Certain transit stations in relatively dense, walkable neighbourhoods saw ridership soar by nearly 50% since opening, while stations located in sprawling, less walkable neighbourhoods experienced more modest ridership.
No Dedicated Bus Lanes
Another problem facing the Phnom Penh bus system is the capital’s lack of dedicated bus lanes. Buses are therefore forced to share the same lanes with smaller vehicles, making a bus ride longer for riders.
The U.S. city of Denver showcased the importance of dedicated bus lanes in a 2019 transportation race organised by sustainable transportation advocates. Participants either walked, rode a motorised wheelchair, rode a bicycle, drove a car, rode a bus with its own transit lane or rode a bus on a mixed traffic lane. At the end of the race, the bus with its own designated lane finished in second place just behind the cyclist while the bus travelling on mixed traffic lane finished dead last.
Without a separate lane for buses, the Phnom Penh’s bus service will only serve as a hindrance to motorists. One way of addressing this problem is through the process of road space reallocation, which seeks to reclaim roads for mass transit and pedestrian uses. Sufficient space can be allocated for dedicated bus lanes and proper sheltered bus stops to provide waiting passengers with a clean and safe place to rest and protect themselves from the elements. The process can also create dedicated space for pedestrian pathways and bicycle lanes.
This approach would be more commuter-centric, with a greater emphasis on pedestrians and public transit use rather than cars in Phnom Penh’s city planning. At the same time, smaller roads could also deter the use of private vehicles due to the limited space available and the priority offered to buses.
A third issue hindering the progress of public transit in Phnom Penh has to do with locals’ over-reliance on private transportation and the deep-seated social barriers detracting from the broad appeal of the city bus service. The convenience and practicality offered by motor vehicles, coupled with the normalisation of being picked up and dropped off at your doorstep, has made owning a motor vehicle a perceived necessity for many in Phnom Penh.
This cultural norm conflicts with a central value of public transportation, which prioritises group travel coupled with walking in order to reach the final destination. The resulting mismatch of priorities leads to the creation of more car-centric infrastructure, such as tunnels and overpasses, which offer little to no practical use to pedestrians.
If Phnom Penh authorities ever want the city bus system to gain popularity, they will need to prioritise policies that rectify these issues.
A Necessary Shift in Priorities
Kong Sophal, Deputy Director of Land Transport at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, acknowledged the lack of investment into public transit when speaking at an automotive sector event earlier this year.
“Cambodia doesn’t have good public transport and to achieve a system which is reliable and affordable will take at least 10 years, and by that time it is predicted that demand for transport will have risen further,” he said, the Cambodia Investment Review reported.
Although officials such as Sophal have noted that the public transport system is still limited in its capacity, government efforts to address the issue have been insufficient or ineffective so far. Since accommodating motor vehicles is not sustainable in the long run, government investments would be better off used for improving and expanding the city’s public transport system. Further investment is required in order to make the system more accessible, reliable and affordable to the general public.
These reforms will not succeed without the cooperation of the entire community as well as policy makers. For instance, commuters cannot be convinced to give up their vehicles if the bus service fails to effectively address their travel needs. Similarly, the bus system cannot hope to effectively replace cars and motorbikes if no concrete reform has been made to prioritise buses or allocate bus-only lanes.
As such, collaboration is needed to realise a vision of the capital no longer burdened by piece-meal projects whose end results only compound to further traffic complications. A concerted effort from the government and other relevant stakeholders to improve Phnom Penh’s walkability and enhance the city bus network will transform transportation in the city for the better.
Sambath Chhum is a young research fellow at Future Forum.