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Simplify

December 2010
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I still remember what our calculus teacher told us while discussing a problem in integration. At the time, I believe he was setting up the working equation for a problem involving trajectories. He was reminding us that in problem solving it was very important to remember how to “kiss.” As we were practically in awe of him, he followed up by asking us what “kiss” meant. He called on one of our classmates and then another, all the while smirking like a child who thought he alone knew the answer to his question. “Kiss,” he said, meant – keep it simple, stupid. Of course, the last word was intended to drive home the point with a little sarcastic humor to a class of sophomores, most of whom were engineering students. Years later, perhaps its time we realize and accept that we do indeed need to “kiss.” This time, we need to apply the same principle to public transport.

In the past few weeks as I and my colleagues pondered the development of public transport planning support system that would include, among others, a franchising module specifically for Mega Manila and generally for other Philippine cities, I came to the obvious conclusion – “kiss.” It seems that based on the secondary data we got from the LTFRB and the DOTC, and the primary data derived from field surveys validating routes and allowing us to estimate both supply and demand that Mega Manila public transport has become so complicated due to the overlaps and tangles that are the bus, jeepney and AUV routes in this mega city. Through the years and despite opportunities to untangle the mess of routes, there was no strong effort to do so and today, there seems to be little interest in rocking the boat that is the current state of public transport in this country.

It is often asked why, despite having EDSA-MRT, have the numbers of buses along EDSA seemed to have increased instead of the logical decrease as the rail system covered much of the demand along its corridor of operation. One answer seems to be related to provincial buses since continuously increasing populations outside Metro Manila coupled with better roads have led to more economic activity that translates into more travel (and person trips).

The same is true for origins and destinations within the National Capital Region and thereby affects the supply side for buses for city operation. Yet, there is always the specter of colorums or illegally operating buses that are often difficult to catch and to distinguish from the legitimate units. There are even allegations that some unscrupulous operators allow colorums among their ranks in order to generate more revenue.

However, such situations are not exclusive to EDSA. There are the similar questions pertaining primarily to jeepneys along corridors already served by LRT 1 (since 1984) and LRT 2 (since 2004). Why have authorities allowed most jeepneys to continue plying routes along these two lines? Why are there no strong efforts to rationalize (a word very much abused when referring to public transport in Philippines) routes to complement established mass transport systems rather than to compete with them? Is it really a matter of political will among our leaders especially those in-charge of our transport agencies? Are there conflicting interests, some probably vested, among politicians, transport groups and operators themselves? And are we dead serious about addressing, once and for all, the challenges of putting in place a public transport system that is both modern and sustainable?

Why is it that transport systems in cities such as Tokyo, Singapore, Hongkong and those in Europe and the US appeal to us? What is different about the transport systems in these countries especially those cities that have similar if not larger populations and sprawl? Is it their high tech attributes? Is it their fare systems? Or, if we look close enough, is it their simplicity? It should be noted and emphasized that these cities follow closely the ideal hierarchy of public transport services. In a nutshell, this is where high capacity modes form the backbone of the transport system while lower modes complement these, acting as feeders from the main lines. This is simplicity as applied to public transportation.

Mathematicians, scientists and chess grandmasters then and now have often invoked the principle of simplification to solve problems of different magnitudes. It is quite a common approach for the most complex predicaments since it is also believed that a system that is too complex and requiring so many inputs is impractical and unmanageable – precisely the descriptions for public transport systems in this country. Perhaps one city should show the way in coming up with a proof of concept for simplicity. Maybe that will be Cebu once it builds what is touted as the country’s first BRT line. Maybe that will be Davao should it implement possible recommendations pertaining to sustainable transport from an ongoing study. But I hope it will be Metro Manila, not necessarily at a grand scale but something that will show signs of life in an otherwise deteriorating system.


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