The anomaly of transport modernization

First of a two-part series

The transport chaos on the
first day of the less restrictive general community quarantine (GCQ) was
painful to watch. With limited public transport, thousands of Metro Manila
commuters eager to recover lost jobs and incomes were practically left on their
own to figure out how to get to work.

Department of Transportation
(DOTr) secretary Arthur Tugade said that the government has “concrete plans”
for GCQ. He also had to say that the government is not “sacrificing the people”
just to revive the economy, because that was what it seemed.

The recommendation by the
Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) to transition to GCQ was apparently based more
on the compulsion to reopen business than on categorical facts of virus
containment. The Duterte government was also reportedly already “out of funds” for
socioeconomic relief.

The government once again
resorted to the military. The military and police deployed trucks and cars to
ferry the stranded passengers, breaking distancing protocol and betraying
government’s lack of preparedness. Then, the usual victim blaming – the
Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and Malacañang blamed commuters
for the mayhem. Then, the DOTr made a U-turn from its initial pronouncement and
said that it never promised to meet the transport needs of the public under
GCQ.

For the majority of poor
commuters, what is more painful to see now is how the Duterte government, not
backed by science, is on the verge of banning the traditional jeepney from the
road forever and insisting that modernization is the cure.

If there is anything that
COVID-19 has emphasized, it is the fact that the Philippine transport sector is
in its worst crisis – a reality that the Duterte administration had repeatedly
denied before the pandemic. If the economy has to transition to a genuinely
better shape, the government has to address the basic woes of the transport sector.
Vice versa, if the mass transport system has to be more efficient, the economy
has to be transitioned to a genuinely better one.

But we seem to be stuck in
our old problems.

Havoc in the new normal

The DOTr resumed public
transport operations in two phases. During the first phase, trains and bus
augmentation (which means bus loading and unloading at designated stations of
MRT3), taxis, transport network vehicle services (TNVS), and point-to-point
(P2P) buses were allowed with limits on the number of passengers. Tricycles were
also allowed, subject to the approval of the concerned local government units
(LGUs). Bicycles have also been encouraged.

During the second phase,
public utility buses (PUB) and modern public utility vehicles or jeepneys
(PUV/PUJ) were allowed with a limited number of passengers in rationalized
routes. There are currently 30 routes from previously 96 routes for PUB and 34
new routes for the modern jeepneys. The DOTr will open more routes for the
modern PUV in the coming days. Meanwhile, the traditional jeepneys remain
prohibited from plying their routes unless seen as “roadworthy”. They are also
the least priority and will only be used to fill in transportation gaps that arise.

Utility vans (UV) express
will be allowed to operate with limited passengers as soon as more modern PUV
routes are added. Provincial buses remain prohibited from entering Metro
Manila.

The DOTr has also given some
“new normal” guidelines, such as wearing of face masks at all times, cashless
payments to avoid physical contact, use of thermal scanners, provision of
alcohol and sanitizers, use of disinfection and establishment of disinfection
facilities, and contact tracing. Costs for all of these are of course to be
shouldered by the private transport operators and the passengers.

Apart from the added
inconvenience these adjustments bring to the already unreliable mass transport
system, there has also been lots of confusion on other relevant guidelines. The
Philippine National Police (PNP) for instance prohibits backrides on motorcycles
even for couples, yet some members of the police themselves are seen violating
the rule. Interior and local government secretary Eduardo Año attempted to get
around the prohibition by suggesting the use of sidecars but these are not
allowed on the metro’s major highways.

Promoting the use of bicycles
has not been accompanied by government policies to designate bike lanes and road-sharing
with cyclists for a safe and efficient bike commute. Ironically, even the
initiative by bikers’ groups and advocates to marshal the bike traffic along
the “killer highway” Commonwealth Avenue was fined by the MMDA for “traffic
obstruction”. Some LGUs are also reviving their old bike registration
ordinances to collect fees even if they have not yet provided the needed
support to bikers.

But the most glaring havoc is
in the future of the traditional jeepneys – the ones that do not pass the DOTr’s
standard of “modern” – which now hangs in the balance. Jeepneys were prohibited
during the lockdown and are now under threat of being banned permanently from
the roads in the name of the “new normal”.

The pandemic has obviously
given the DOTr the opportunity to push for its “old normal” fixation on a
modernization program that it has been proposing even before COVID-19. The
modernization program revolves around: the digitization of fare and toll
collection systems, vehicle registration, franchising, licensing, and
navigation and positioning systems; routes rationalization; the transformation
of EDSA; and jeepney phaseout.

It is premised on easing
Metro Manila’s notorious traffic and pollution. But it is clearly a business-minded
proposal that promotes the sales of private cars, modern PUVs and modern PUBs,
and the privatization of transportation infrastructure. It is private
transport-centric, while our obvious problem is the lack of an efficient and
reliable public mass transport system. Now that the perennial road congestion
is aggravated by physical distancing, the solution still seems to disfavor the
mass of working class commuters.

Principles of E-R-A-S-E

The country badly needs an efficient,
reliable, affordable, safe and environment-friendly public mass transport
system. With or without the pandemic and physical distancing, these features of
a public mass transport system should be ever-present for real and sustainable
development. A strong government role is crucial in this.

Efficiency means that we are
transported by vehicles through the shortest distance and in the shortest time possible.
This also means less fuel use, less vehicle emissions, less costs, and less
traffic.

Reliability means getting the mass of
commuters to their destinations on time, with the least difference between the
anticipated amount of travel time and the actual one. The crucial fact in
reliability is that a large number of people rely on public transportation for
their mobility.

Affordability and accessibility mean
that the majority of the population who are wage workers and informal earners
can afford public transportation and can easily avail of it from their dwelling
and work places. This also includes facilities for persons with disability and
senior citizens.

Safety includes measures that prevent
harm to the riding public and create pedestrian-friendly conditions and
infrastructure to reduce accidents and traffic deaths and to improve public
health.

Finally, environment-friendly means
public mass transport promotes healthier cities and living spaces. This
includes the need to use clean and energy-efficient technologies and fuel for
motorized transport on one hand, and the promotion of non-motorized modes such
as walking and cycling on the other.

The crisis is real

The country’s public mass transport
system is far from having these positive features. This reflects how the government
has defaulted on its responsibility to ensure people’s mobility, and shows the
general lack of national economic planning for sustainable development.

Our problem may be summarized as
follows: 1) Mass transportation is left in the hands of private providers,
including private rail corporations, bus franchises and single proprietors; 2)
Deregulation is an operative principle in the entire sector, with the government’s
role reduced to licensing, franchising and the like; 3) There is a lack of
urban planning based on rural development and national industrialization that genuinely
decongests the cities; and 4) Our mass transport system is corporate-driven,
promoting the interests of infrastructure, transport, automobile and rail
corporations as well as the profitability of real estate corporations, shopping
malls, fare collecting banks, and the rest of the service-oriented and trading
economy.

These problems manifest in many ways.
The various modes of transportation are not fully linked, and there is heavy
reliance on the ‘last-mile’ modes such as jeepneys, tricycles and even
pedicabs. There is more road than rail transport, which is an indication of
quite an unsustainable and expensive transport system. On the other hand, rail
is privatized instead of being government-owned, controlled and operated, thus
it is profit-driven and maintained by user-fees.

Fares are high as a consequence of
privatized transport. According to the latest available data from the Family
Income and Expenditure Survey in 2015, passenger transport for land travel eat
up 7% of total non-food expenses of families in the National Capital Region
(NCR). This covers fares for railway, jeepney, bus, taxi, tricycle and pedicab
rides.

Transport is unreliable, with roads saturated
and the quality of rail service poor. This is not to mention that roads are
unsafe and rail accidents and breakdowns are frequent. Air pollution in the
metropolis is one of the worst in the world, according to the World Health
Organization. Lastly, there is a high volume of vehicles on the road.
Navigation app Waze identified the Philippines as having “the worst traffic on
earth”.

The anatomy of the transport mess

Metro Manila or the National Capital
Region (NCR) has a total land area of 63,600 hectares and population of 12.9 million
that swells to about 15 million by daytime. It accounts for one-third of the
national economy and is home to about one-fourth of the urban population.

Metro Manila has six conferential roads
and 10 radial roads. The radial roads do not intersect one another and
intersect the conferential roads not more than twice. There are interchanges
that separate these roads, but there are still missing sections in these
interchanges. There are fully grade separated expressways in the north (NLEX),
south (SLEX), and on the southwestern part (Cavitex) that connect Metro Manila
to neighboring provinces.

These roads and highways were constructed to lead traffic
in and out of the NCR. But lack of national economic planning has weakened job
creation, increased rural poverty and displacement, and concentrated economic
activities in the NCR. The region is the most congested city out of 278 cities
in developing Asia, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The region
is brimming with urban blight and poverty.

There are the more recently built Metro
Manila Skyway and Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Expressway to
decongest SLEX and speed up travel to NAIA, the country’s major international
gateway. These are also obviously to cope with the high traffic brought on by
government’s labor export policy. The country’s international airports process
the some 6,000 Filipino migrant workers who leave the country every day, which
is more than twice as many as new jobs created locally.

There are more than three million
registered motor vehicles in the NCR as of 2019, which accounts for almost
one-fourth of the country’s total. This is a 9.7% increase from 2018 and a 28%
increase from 2016, yet the urban space is finite and unchanging.

The latest data for vehicles disaggregated
by type is as of 2016. It shows that motorcycles or tricycles comprised almost
40% of registered vehicles in NCR. Utility vehicles follow at 36% and cars and
sports utility vehicles are at almost 30 percent.

On the other hand, the latest
statistics on units for land transportation services is as of 2012, which shows
that PUJs accounted for most of the franchises and units. There were 49,305 PUJ
franchises and 50,153 PUJ units, which only shows that jeepney operators are
small-scale and own only a little more than one unit. There were no registered
PUBs in the NCR at that time, but there are 14,500 registered buses by 2016. If
we try to extrapolate the 2012 data, considering that the number of PUJs almost
remains the same over time, it means that PUJs and PUBs accounted for only 7.8%
of registered utility vehicles in 2016.

The MMDA recorded an average daily
volume of 405,882 vehicles plying the main thoroughfare EDSA in 2019, an
increase of 22,054 vehicles from the previous year. About 63% of this volume
are cars (255,732 units). PUBs make up only about 3% of total EDSA traffic,
while PUJs are not allowed along EDSA. There is therefore no statistical basis to
blame mainly the PUBs and PUJs for the traffic and transport anarchy in Metro
Manila.

Traffic demand is at 12.8 million trips
in Metro Manila, based on a study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency
(JICA). Public transport accounts for 69% of total trips. The lesser share
(31%) is done by private mode, and yet it is this mode that takes up 78% of
road space. The traffic volume within the metropolis already exceeds the
capacities of existing roads.

In terms of rail, Metro Manila has one
commuter line (the Philippine National Railway or PNR) and three rapid rail
lines (LRT1, LRT2 and MRT3). It has the least number of rail lines and the
shortest urban rail system (51 kilometers) among 11 major Asian cities. The
rail lines are not fully linked, only compounding the problem of an intermodal
transport system where Metro Manila commuters use a variety of modes of
transport and take an average of two to three transfers to reach their
destinations.

MRT3 is privately owned like the PUBs,
PUJs, taxis, TNVS, P2P, and UV express. The PNR, LRT1 and LRT2 are the only
government transportation assets, although the operations and maintenance of
LRT1 are privatized. The government does not subsidize fares, and in fact increases
fares to attract private contractors.

The
rapid rail system is the epitome of the inefficient, unreliable, unsafe and
unsustainable public mass transport system in NCR. It is bogged down by
frequent breakdowns, diminishing numbers of operational trains, accidents,
inappropriate trains, and even non-working elevators and escalators. It is also
in the center of corruption controversies.

Where
does the commuter figure in all of this mess? The government through all its
numerous transport agencies cannot even give a complete picture. An oft-cited
study by JICA estimates that 39% of
passengers’ trips in Metro Manila and nearby provinces are by jeepney and 38%
are by tricycle. This indicates over-reliance on what has only been a coping
mechanism for lack of system. Buses account for 13.6% and trains for only 8.6%
of the number of trips by public mode.

Per day, LRT1 and MRT3 carry
about half a million passengers each, while LRT2 ferries more than 200,000
passengers. Taking into account the number of registered buses and the
estimated vehicle capacity by the JICA study, it may be surmised that buses
also carry half a million passengers. Using the same extrapolation, jeepneys
have the same passenger load.

Privatizing the rapid rail lines and phasing out the ever-reliable traditional jeepneys are therefore not solutions to the transport crisis.

The last part of this
series will discuss how government uses the pandemic to justify pre-COVID programs
like the jeepney phaseout and Build, Build, Build that will further aggravate
the socioeconomic crisis, and what steps government should take to genuinely address
the country’s mass transport troubles.

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