Marc Vanhemelryck decided to start a taxi company after a 1995 hit-and-run accident threw him from the back of a Phnom Penh motorbike taxi and left him unable to drive himself around town.
“The accident made me realize that there was something missing in Phnom Penh,” Vanhemelryck said.
But even today, with his left leg 3.5 cm shorter than his right as a result of the accident and five cabs at his disposal, he continues, for convenience’s sake, to travel by the city’s ubiquitous “motodops.”
Motodops are one flourishing form of de facto public transportation in a city of well over a million people where there are few other options. Cyclos are good for slow rides over short distances, and three-wheeled motorbike taxis, or tuk-tuks, are quicker for those who can afford them and live in the right neighborhoods.
Phnom Penh is a rare city that has no buses, trams or trains and few taxis, except at Phnom Penh International Airport where fleets of cabs specialize in the drive into the city.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency launched a pilot Phnom Penh bus project in 2001 as a part of its transport master plan released that year, but the system, which had a planned budget of $14.8 million for the short term, failed. Municipal Governor Kep Chuktema said that was because, although Phnom Penh residents use buses to travel to the provinces, they were unaccustomed to buses within the city.
JICA representatives said they could not respond to questions about the failed bus project until next week.
“That was a complete failure, because it was too expensive,” architect and city planner Vann Molyvann said.
Though the city is in desperate need of diversified forms of transport, it would likely need support from the government. “There is no bus system in the world that makes money,” Vann Molyvann said. “This must be subsidized. If it is higher than the cost of a motodop, it will be very difficult for the poor.”
Taxi Vantha is not making Vanhemelryck rich, but it has more customers than it can serve, he said. “I’ve stopped making publicity,” he said. “I could easily have 20 cars, [but] you need a safe place to park.”
He added that though business is good, there have been some bumps along the road.In the 1990s his taxis had meters, but they calculated fares in riel, and inflation was so rapid that he gave up sending them abroad to be recalibrated to the new rates. “By the time they came back, we had to change the taxi meters again,” he said.
His drivers now charge $2 for the first 2 km, and the kilometer rate gets cheaper as the distance gets longer.
But Vanhemelryck’s taxis remain unmarked, so business comes mostly from expatriate customers who call an office number.
“I would love to mark them, but my drivers say they hate marked cars. They say that police stop them to get some pocket money,” Vanhemelryck said.
Municipal Traffic Police Chief Tim Prasor denied that his officers target taxis for bribes. Rather, they stop taxis that are breaking laws and endangering passengers, such as those that are carrying too many people, he said.
Tim Prasor added that police should take offenders to the police station, but that taxi drivers often beg to pay on the spot instead. “Some traffic police take this opportunity,” he conceded.
Motodop Ton Mao, 45, said that though he has lost business since buses to the provinces became popular, and fears losing more if city buses become available, he would like to try them himself.
Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema said this week that the license to operate buses within the city has been given to a Malaysia-based company, Ho Wah Genting, which runs Phnom Penh Public Transport Co, Ltd. The company already operates on routes from Phnom Penh to the provinces, but Kep Chuktema said that they plan to purchase about 100 more buses and expand to travel within the capital.
To enable the future bus service to run more smoothly, Kep Chuktema said it is necessary to widen the city’s roads and carry out the controversial plan to remove many hardware and construction materials shops along major boulevards.
But Cambodian people are slow to embrace new forms of transport, and motodops may not have anything to worry about, Vanhemelryck said.
“After 10 years, Cambodians are quite aware of Taxi Vantha,” he said. “But they don’t take it, and why would they? I take a motodop myself.”