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Phnom Penh’s Citybus rolls on, despite Covid downturn

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Workers enjoy the comfort of the air-conditioned bus on June 13. Heng Chivoan

Phnom Penh’s Citybus rolls on, despite Covid downturn

The Covid-19 pandemic forced the suspension of many public services, and the Phnom Penh public bus system was one of them. Thanks to the remarkable success of the Kingdom’s vaccination campaign – and the corresponding drop in transmission cases – the government has reopened the economy, and approved the restoral of the public transport network.

In November last year, the buses began servicing the mass transit needs of the people of the capital once again, albeit with a reduced schedule. Four of the original 13 routes are now open, with 60 buses ferrying passengers.

Khly Norak, head of administration at state-run Citybus, said that based on his estimates, between 3,000 and 5,000 people were riding the buses each day. The buses are operated in accordance with strict Covid-19 preventive measures, and are disinfected and ventilated every 20 to 25 minutes. Social distancing is maintained through the allocation of alternating seats.

He recalled that Citybus suspended its transportation service in March 2020, noting that since the reopening, passenger numbers have been significantly lower than their pre-pandemic levels.

“The number of passengers using the buses is still small due to the residual fear caused by the Covid situation. Passengers are not using the public service as much as they were, so we are still considering when to roll out reopening the remaining routes. We expect that full schedules will commence in 2023,” he added.

Sem Sokhon, a bus driver on Route 3, said that immediately after the reopening, there were very few passengers. Once the mask mandates were relaxed, he said the number of people using the buses climbed by about ten per cent. The majority of passengers are students and people commuting to work, he added.

Sorn Oun, another Route 3 driver, said that he wanted more passengers to use the bus as it would reduce traffic congestion. At just 1,500 riel ($0.38) per ticket – although the elderly, students, monks, the disabled and factory workers ride for free – it was also cost effective, he said.

Hay Ren, who drives on Route 4B, said that the number of passengers on any given bus depends on the time of day, with the busiest times tending to be as people were finishing work. He thought some didn’t use the bus because they perceived it as more vulnerable to becoming stuck in traffic, and some simply preferred to ride their own motorcycle or drive their own car.

Ren also discussed some of the challenges that he and his fellow drivers faced out on the roads of the capital. He said most of the issues he saw were caused by a lack of tolerance or by people who simply ignored traffic laws.

“A lot of motorcycles and tuk-tuks in particular, look like they are being operated by people who have never been to a driving school or passed a drivers’ license test. Their driving appears to be based on how they feel at any particular time – sometimes they drive very fast, and sometimes very slow. This makes it difficult for traffic to ‘flow’ and causes problems for the drivers of larger vehicles, like buses or cars,” he said.

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Commuters boarding the bus in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district on June 13. Heng Chivoan

Im Chanthorn, another driver who spoke about the more difficult aspects of the job, asked that the authorities step up enforcement of traffic regulations. He also wished that the public would respect bus stops and keep them clear so that buses could easily pick up and drop off passengers.

“People should know that they cannot park on double lines or bends in the road because it blocks traffic. The rules apply to everyone. Just because a car has a state license plate, it should not be allowed to be parked wherever the driver chooses – this inconveniences everyone. There are also still people who think one-way streets are a guideline, rather than the law,” he added.

Oun Sareth, in charge of timekeeping, makes sure that the buses are running according to schedule. She explained how important her role was, saying that the buses were expected to arrive at each stop according to a fixed timetable, and that passengers relied on the timetable’s accuracy. Monitoring the buses movement also made it easier to respond to specific problems that could come up, whether a serious accident or a temporary road closure.

“I need to know exactly what time each bus arrives at each stop, and when it leaves. It is a very important role, as I can judge what problems the drivers are facing, and act to try and resolve them,” she said.

Pheng Pek was reading the news on her phone while she rode the bus from Ang Dong Hospital to Toul Pong Ro Village. She said she was impressed by the service, saying that the drivers and ticket collectors were very helpful, especially to new passengers.

“Some people will hop on the bus but aren’t sure where to get off because they don’t know which bus stop is nearest to their destination. The drivers are always polite and happy to tell you where to get off,” she said.

Khim Srey Pov, a resident of Wat Phnom commune, said the buses are nice and cool because of their air conditioners, you don’t need to worry about getting into an accident, and the service is cheap.

“I have an employment card which means I ride for free, but even without one, the cost is just 1,500 riel. I used to ride a motorcycle or use tuk-tuks, but it was riskier and cost me a lot more money,” she said.

Tol Sopha, another Phnom Penh resident who likes to take the bus, said it not only saves her money but also helps to reduce traffic congestion. The more people are on the bus, the less extra vehicles are crowding the roads.

“Taking the bus costs only 1,500 riel, no matter how far you go. This saves me a lot of money, and I am protected from the rain and the hot sun,” she added.

Chamroeun Nearyrat lives near central market and says a fear of traffic accidents is an additional factor in her preference for using the bus. Her husband recently broke his arm while riding a motorcycle and is still undergoing medical treatment.

“I don’t like to ride motorcycles. Taking the bus is safer and costs me less money. Riding my moto means I must pay for petrol, and risk being the victim of an accident,” she added.

There are four routes currently in operation, excluding alternates.

Route 1 runs from Prek Pnov to Veal Sbov, and Route 2 travels between Kuoch Kanong roundabout west of the Chroy Changvar bridges – with the statue of a knotted revolver – and Takhmao town.

Route 3 takes passengers from Russey Keo to the Russian Federation Boulevard. Route 4 departs from Russey Keo, and will deposit passengers on Veng Sreng Boulevard.


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