September 2015
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The UP Bike Share project

Students of the University of the Philippines Diliman recently launched an initiative promoting bicycle use in the campus. The UP Bike Share initiative is a welcome initiative that has gotten the support of the community including the UP Diliman administration through the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Community Affairs. Here are some photos of pages of the packet/manual.

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You can also check them out at their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/UP-Bike-Share/882352095136994?fref=ts

This is an initiative that hopefully will expand especially towards Katipunan and the major schools (Ateneo and Miriam) along that corridor. Perhaps even Teachers’ Village and Sikatuna will be part of a bike share community. It would be nice to see safe bikeways and people on bicycles not just at UP Diliman but a larger area that can benefit from reduced motor vehicle traffic.

Some thoughts on Uber in Metro Manila

I had wanted to write something on Uber the past weeks but couldn’t because I wanted to have some visuals to go with the text. And so one time we decided to use Uber, I consciously took some screenshots for the photos that are shown in this post.

After opening your Uber app, you can indicate your pick-up point and you destination. You can see how many Uber drivers are nearby based on the map and the quick reference on screen. You can also check for a fare estimate as well as select the service you want. There are currently only two types of services available in Metro Manila – UberX and Uber Black. UberX is the default service and involves a regular car. Uber Black is a bigger and more ‘luxurious’ vehicle. Of course, you pay more for a better vehicle. Once you have inputted the necessary information for your itinerary, you can put in the request. Success in getting a ride is immediately shown on your phone.

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The screen shows that the driver is en route to your pick-up point. Details on your ride are provided including the name of the driver, the vehicle make, model and plate number. The vehicles I have rode on so far are recent models and most have no license plates yet – an indication of how new these vehicles are. Uber is supposed to be screening both the drivers and vehicles being registered to provide their services. One criteria for vehicles is that these are supposed to be recent models and well maintained, what’s perceived to be the opposite of vehicles used as conventional taxis.

During the trip, you can get updates on your progress through the map onscreen. This includes the estimated time of travel until you reach your destination. Information on the driver is also shown including his average rating. Our driver in this example had a 4.6 star average rating. I guess this is good given the star rating scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the highest rating.

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At the end of the trip, you can receive a receipt on your email. The receipt includes details on your fare, the start and end times of your trip, the travel distance and the route taken in map form. Information on the driver and a note for rating your driver is at the bottom of the receipt. Of course, you can save this for future reference and perhaps print it out in case you will be reimbursing the cost of your trip.

Receipt

After rating your driver, you will receive another message thanking you for rating your driver. Our driver that afternoon was good and drove safely. He wasn’t talkative but was polite and could strike up a conversation (My companion asked a few questions about his driving for Uber in an interview-like manner.).

Rating

What you don’t see is how your driver rated you. Uber also asks drivers to rate users and I would guess that this will have repercussions on passengers with bad attitudes. The ratings work both ways as Uber customers should be wary of their potential drivers as well as their own behavior. I suppose that drivers get information on whether a potential passengers is a rude one and may opt to avoid such passengers.

My take so far on Uber is that it is what conventional taxis are supposed to be. I find Uber drivers to be better in terms of politeness and safety in their driving habits. Fare-wise, Uber has been less expensive than Grab Taxi or conventional taxis as you don’t have to bid to get an Uber ride. The Grab Taxi app basically formalizes the bidding process as it asks you how much gratuity (tips) you are willing to give for a ride. I feel that this gratuity feature is a major determinant for taxi drivers choosing their fares and leads to more expensive fares. Of course, I haven’t experienced Uber’s surge pricing yet but friends who use Uber have informed me that this can be quite steep and can hurt your pocket or wallet. Still, I think Uber provides good service but it is not for everyone especially those on a budget or going to a place where roads are generally congested.

Running out of answers? How about congestion pricing?

A lot of people ask me about solutions to transport and traffic problems. Some are very general like the question “How do we solve traffic congestion in Metro Manila?” and others are more specific like “How do we solve congestion along EDSA?” These questions are becoming quite tricky because, for one, we are running out of answers of the ‘short term’ kind. All these ‘stop-gap’ or ‘band aid’ measures will only provide short-term relief and we have used many of them already including vehicle restraint measures we are very familiar with like the number coding and truck ban schemes currently implemented in the metropolis.

The general answer and likely an inconvenient truth is that we can’t solve congestion. It is here to stay and is a given considering the continued growth experienced throughout the country. Accepting this phenomenon of congestion, we can proceed towards managing it and work towards alleviating it. Denying that there is a problem or dismissing such as an issue requiring urgent action sets a dangerous course towards unsuitable responses or worse, inaction on the part of the government.

Like cholesterol, there is good congestion and bad congestion. Good traffic congestion is when it is predictable in occurrence and period. For example, the morning rush hour is termed so because it used to last only about an hour or so. Congestion occurring between 7:30 – 8:30 AM is okay but between 6:30 – 11:30 AM is undesirable. The cases between those two vary in acceptability based on the tolerance levels of commuters. In Metro Manila, for example, many people probably have been conditioned to think that 2-hour congestion is okay but more than that is severe. This is actually related to travel times or the time it takes to travel between, say, one’s home and workplace.

And so, are there better options other than a return to the “Odd-Even” scheme? There are actually many other options but they are more complicated to the point that many are unpalatable to people who are in a hurry to get a solution our traffic mess. Note that this is to get out of a hole that’s deep enough already but they still managed to dig deeper the last 5 years. Among these solutions would be congestion pricing.

Singapore offers a successful model for this where tolls vary according to the levels of congestion for these roads. There is a base rate for peak periods when congestion is most likely or expected. The government determines the desirable speed ranges along roads as a basis for congestion charges. Along urban streets, that range may be between 20 – 30 km/h. If speeds reduce to below 20 km/h (i.e., congested) then charges or tolls increase. If speeds increased to above 30 km/h, the rates decrease. The image below is screen capture from a presentation made by an official of Singapore’s Land Transportation Authority (LTA).

ERP

Note the item on the scheme being ‘equitable’ that is very essential in understanding how road space must be shared among users and that there is an option to use public transport instead. This scheme, of course, will require a lot of consultations but the technical part should not be worrisome given the wealth of talent at universities, private sector and government agencies who can be involved in the analysis and simulations. Important here also is to determine or institute where the money collected from congestion pricing will go. Logic tells us that this should go to public transportation infrastructure and services. In Singapore, a big part of the funds collected from ERP goes to mass transit including their SMRT trains and buses. Funds help build, operate and maintain their trains and buses. The city-state already has a good public transport system that is subsidized by congestion charges and this system is able to attract people from using their cars especially during the weekdays when transport is used for work and school trips. That way, people who don’t really need to own and use their cars are discouraged from doing so (Note: This works together with Singapore’s restrictive car ownership policies.).

Would it be possible to have congestion pricing for Metro Manila or other cities in the Philippines? Yes, it is and but entails a lot of serious effort for it to work the right way. We can probably start by identifying major roads whose volumes we want regulated, installing sensors for monitoring traffic conditions and tagging vehicles and requiring most if not all vehicles to have transponders for motorists to be charges accordingly. However, there should be an attractive and efficient public transport option for this program to work. Unfortunately, we don’t have such along most roads. Perhaps an experiment or simulation can be undertaken once the LRT 2 extension is completed and operational? That corridor of Marcos Highway and Aurora Boulevard, I believe is a good candidate for congestion pricing.

With the sophisticated software that are now available, it is possible to conduct studies that would employ modelling and simulation to determine the potential impacts of congestion pricing on traffic. It should have a significant impact on congestion reduction even without mass transit systems such as Singapore’s. However, without good public transport, it would be punishing for people who are currently using their own vehicles to avoid taking public transport. I used the term ‘punishing’ because congestion pricing will be a back breaker for people who purchased vehicles to improve their commutes (i.e., they likely were not satisfied with taking public transportation). These are the working people and part of the small middle class whose transport needs should be addressed with urgency.

Future of jeepneys?

I spotted a jeepney on my way home with a message (or tagline, depending on how you see it) printed on its side. It says BEEP, which was supposed to stand for Bagong Jeep (translated as New Jeep). From the looks of the vehicle, there was nothing new about it, except maybe this sign that was painted over an older design on the vehicle’s body. Apparently, the tagline does not refer to the vehicle itself but to the image of the jeepney. “Bago” or “New” here refers to a new image for jeepneys. Long regarded as the “King of the Road,” the jeepneys have become synonymous to reckless driving, uncomfortable rides and unreliable services. They have also come to represent unsustainable transport what with most jeepneys being fuel guzzlers and smoke belchers.

2015-06-27 08.57.23I already spotted several jeepneys plying the Cogeo-Cubao route sporting this sign that’s apparently a campaign to uplift the image of jeepneys. It seems really a stretch to call these ‘bago’ as the vehicles I’ve seen are the same customized bodies with second hand engines running them.

There is a campaign to rehabilitate the image of the jeepneys and perhaps it should start with driver behavior and not necessarily the vehicle. Many jeepney drivers (as well as drivers of other public utility vehicles) have attitudes leaning on the rude side. You see many of them driving recklessly along our roads and stopping just about anywhere (e.g., in the middle of the road). Such behaviour is due to many factors including the way these people learned to drive and their motivations for their means of earning a living. Much can also be said about their education both formal and regarding their driving.

There are also many vehicles vying to be the replacement for the jeepneys and among these are electric vehicles including the electric jitneys that I have featured in past articles on this blog. Incidentally, one of those electric jitneys is actually a more recent model of the electric jeepneys that’re currently in operation in Makati and Alabang, and it happens to be called the Beep. Operating in Filinvest City, the e-jeepneys there have been lauded as a viable option for replacing the conventional jeepneys. So far, so good and time will tell if indeed, conventional jeepneys will be phased out in favor of e-jeepneys. The jury is still out there in terms of the e-jeepney’s reliability and durability.

2015-07-03 05.59.42An electric tricycle currently undergoing experimental operations at the University of the Philippines Diliman campus is more a replacement for tricycles and multicabs than for jeepneys.

Transport in times of rains and insensitive statements

How important is a good public transport system? Part of the definition of a good public transport system is that it should be an all-weather system. This means that even if there is inclement weather, the system would still be functioning and able to ferry people between their homes, workplaces, schools and other destinations. Of course, the exception here would be the times when there are extreme weather conditions like typhoons passing through cities. The rains today and past other days reminds us how difficult it is to commute even when you have your own vehicle. Those who opt to use their own cars now encounter severe traffic congestion with increasing frequencies while those with only public transport as their choice usually have difficulty getting a ride home.

Metro EastCommuters on the carriageway trying to get a ride home – many brave the strong rains to get ahead of others

It is not just unfortunate but rather depressing that Metro Manila and other major Philippine cities have no efficient public transport systems. The current modes of transport are road-based and dominated by paratransit including jeepneys, multicabs and tricycles. The state of disrepair of the PNR and MRT3, the much-delayed extensions of LRT1 and LRT2, and the much-delayed construction of MRT7 and BRT lines all contribute to the hellish commutes people experience everyday. Combine these with what experts regard as deficient station plaza designs that have led to inefficient transfers between the trains and road-based transport. It is no wonder that a person on  bicycle can beat a commuter on a trip between Trinoma in Quezon City and a university in Manila considering the state of MRT3 and the poor transfer conditions between MRT3 and LRT1. This won’t likely be the case in Singapore or Tokyo where the proper hierarchies of transport are well established and with the necessary facilities to support their people-friendly systems.

What’s more depressing, frustrating and disappointing (if its possible to feel all three simultaneously) is how transport officials, including and especially the top official of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), apparently see our transport woes as “not fatal”. Is it really “not fatal”? Increases in the incidence of respiratory diseases due to the increased emissions are attributable to mobile sources (vehicles) and the long hours of road traffic congestion. The increase in the number of fatal road crashes as reported by the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) is also attributable to a significant increase in traffic volumes. One comment on social media was right on the dot on emergency cases ending up dying due to the ambulances being unable to make it to the hospitals in time for their passengers’ treatments.

And so, there were renewed calls for transport officials to get out of their chauffeured cars and take regular public transport between their homes and offices. The dares include riding the MRT3 during the peak periods and actually experiencing the queues and the crowded platforms and trains. It is no wonder that the image of the Dutch ambassador riding his bicycle to his office has been a popular share in social media because a lot of people feel that leaders should be examples themselves on how each one of us can pitch in to solve transport and traffic problems. Attempts by some government officials (including the top official of the transport department) to ride the MRT3, for example, are met with much criticism because they are given special treatment – they skip the lines and have bodyguards escorting them and clearing the way and space for them to ride comfortably. Clearly, this is not what the common commuter experiences everyday when he or she would have to use something short of MMA skills to get a ride.

Are we helpless against such insensitivity of our officials, many of whom are politicians and professionals associated with oligarchs? Not totally. And next year’s elections offer the commuting public a chance to express what they think about transport in this country and in their cities and municipalities by making transport and traffic urgent issues that need to be addressed and prioritized. Will you vote for candidates who had a hand in the continuing deterioration of transport in the Philippines and who consistently dismiss transport and traffic issues as secondary and just a by-product of non-inclusive economic growth? I surely won’t and will be very critical of candidates’ platforms and proposed programs should they win and become the leaders of this land. A big part of those programs should be how to address transport and traffic issues especially the deficiencies in infrastructure. Addressing these pressing issues on transport and traffic will go a long way in improving the quality of life of Filipinos and ensure a sustainable and inclusive growth for the country.

Good intentions and knee jerk reactions

Social media is again abuzz with stories about Uber and how Philippine government agencies like the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) are hassling Uber, Grab and similar companies into complying with government regulations covering their services. Is it really a hassle and are these “Transport Network Companies” or TNCs the real deal in terms of solving part of Metro Manila’s transport woes?

I believe Uber and other services like it have good intentions towards providing high quality, on-demand transport services. However, based on what I’ve read about the service in other countries (particularly in the US and Europe), the intention (original?) was to take advantage of surplus or excess capacity of vehicles being driven by “owner-drivers” between origins and destinations such as their homes and offices. That means an improvement of sorts for traffic as, instead of having one vehicle per person, two or more can share a single car. The main differences with conventional carpools is that the driver and his passengers practically do not know each other, and the passengers pay the driver a fee that is agreed upon at the start of the transaction. This works well in car-oriented cities as well as those with less than satisfactory public transport services especially when it comes to taxis.

The last sentence seems to be the right description for Metro Manila and other rapidly growing Philippine cities. And so, Uber, Grab Car and other shared service attracted many users who can afford them and providers willing to share their rides with total strangers. I stated “owner-drivers” in the previous paragraph as this was supposed to be an essential part of the set-up where Uber and others didn’t add to the cars already on the roads. Problem is, apparently and allegedly, some enterprising people who had the resources thought it would be a good idea to deploy all their vehicles (and even purchase additional ones) by hiring drivers they could register with Uber or Grab Car. That way, they thought they could bypass the typically bureaucratic process of getting a franchise for taxi or rental car franchises that also include all those business permits and, of course, taxes. The result of this would not be the utilization of excess capacity but the addition of more cars on the roads and therefore contribute to worsening congestion.

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As far as the LTFRB is concerned, like it or not, they are just doing what they are mandated to do and are supposed to do with any transport service provider that is not purely private (i.e., services with a fee). It just so happens that the DOTC and LTFRB have been on the receiving end of a lot of flak from the public and especially in social media for what is perceived as the agencies’ ineptitude in dealing with major issues in public transportation. These include the continuing saga that is EDSA-MRT 3 and the perceived low quality services provided by buses and jeepneys in general that leave people at the mercy of taxis and UV express if they opt not or cannot afford to purchase their own vehicles.

The main issue is not whether DOTC and LTFRB should pay attention to Uber and others like it. The agencies should as per their mandates. However, there are a lot of other more serious and more urgent issues/problems including the much delayed mass transit projects and the low quality of service being provided by buses, jeepneys, UV express and conventional taxis that the DOTC and its attached agencies need to act on and now. I know it is a generalization (There are many good bus, jeepney, UV express and taxi drivers and operators out there who are also working their butts off to earn a living.) but then when you combine unsafe driving, with high fuel consumption and a lot of harmful emissions then you get a cocktail that’s definitely bad for all travelers.

How many people use Uber or Grab Car or taxis? Do they outnumber those taking the LRT/MRTs, buses, jeepneys and UV express? They don’t and therefore only represent a small percentage of the trips being taken everyday in Metro Manila and adjacent areas. And so the more pressing issues are really those pertaining to mass transit and the dire need to construct these systems once and for all in order to achieve a more sustainable and inclusive transport system for this still growing megalopolis.

Construction of pedestrian overpass at Masinag

What’s been causing a lot of traffic jams the past week emanating from the Masinag area is the installation of the pedestrian overpasses (or footbridges, if you prefer the term) at the junction. Components of the overpasses were constructed and installed intermittently over several months already. Last Sunday, major works were undertaken including the raising of the main girders that are also to be the walkways for pedestrians. The work entailed closing sections or parts of the intersection and resulted in monstrous traffic jams along both Marcos Highway and Sumulong Highway. The congestion spread to local roads that were used to divert traffic as work was underway during the daytime. Yes, daytime! I found it unusual that such works would be undertaken when traffic was already significant for the two major roads here even if it were a Sunday. Most people had little or no information about this including residents of Antipolo and Marikina who were the most affected by partial closures.

IMG12041-20150812-0916The still unfinished pedestrian facility at Masinag Junction

The pedestrian facility at Masinag junction has four spans that are supposed to cover crossings across all four legs of the intersection. Thus, theoretically, pedestrians may cross any time despite the busy traffic at ground level. I haven’t seen the stairs yet but if they are much like other footbridges including recent ones of similar design, then I would say that they are not that friendly to senior citizens, persons with disabilities and those who want to cross with their bicycles. Then there are those who are just too lazy to use the overpass and instead would just risk it by braving traffic as they cross at ground level. Already, many pedestrians choose to cross the roads a few meters from the intersection (it used to be that they crossed at the intersection) and it will take a lot of education and enforcement to make most people use the footbridges. Meanwhile, Antipolo should ensure that vendors do not set up shop at the overpasses. This facility is for walking and not shopping.

Among the implications of the four overpasses is the need to re-install traffic signals at the intersection as the current set-up is already obscured by the pedestrian structure. Incidentally, that it also why Antipolo City had to assign personnel to manage traffic at the intersection for much of the day. It is expected that the signals will be installed where motorists can easily see them. The pedestrian facility is also expected to enhance safety at the intersection especially for pedestrians as well as ease congestion for vehicular traffic. Call it car-oriented but it is a necessity given the steadily increasing volume of traffic at the junction. Until there is a good public transport system to help reduce the number of motor vehicles on roads such as Sumulong and Marcos Highways, cars and the like will continue to rule our road space. Ultimately, the provision of pedestrian facilities (hopefully, appropriately designed) is a people-oriented endeavor that should be promoted.

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