Caught (up) in traffic

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Monthly Archives: May 2011

Is it “Commonwealth” or “Commondeath” Avenue?

There is an excellent article appearing today in the Philippine Star written by Arch. Paulo Alcazaren aptly titled “‘Commondeath’ Avenue.” I stumbled on when it was shared by a friend, Dr. Dayo Montalbo, who is a faculty member of the UP School of Urban and Regional Planning. It provides a rare insight into the history of our highways and streets in Metro Manila. It is required reading for planners and engineers with backgrounds in civil engineering, architecture, urban planning, etc., and, I must say, for anyone who can appreciate history and how we seem to not have learned (or refused to learn) from it. It certainly should be required reading for students who want to become future planners and engineers.

When the MMDA “discovered” plans where it was indicated how wide the RROW for Commonwealth should be and started acquiring land left and right from those who were supposed to have been encroaching on the avenue, including UP Diliman, it apparently didn’t study the old plans and the context by which the capitol, Commonwealth, UP and other institutions where laid out back in the day. That interpretation translated into what we see now as probably the widest highway in the country.

I see the article as something that can be used by the DPWH and the MMDA as an input to whatever planning or engineering they plan along Commonwealth. The avenue is just too wide and definitely not friendly to people. Perhaps it should be transformed into the parkway it was meant to be in the first place.

Traffic congestion in Metro Manila: Is the UVVRP still effective? – Part 2

In the past decade, there has been a sharp rise in the motorcycle ownership around the country and especially in Metro Manila. From about 1 million motorcycles registered in 2000, the number has increased to 3.2 million in 2009, a 320% increase over a period of 10 years. Motorcycles have become associated with mobility, in this case the motorized kind, and have become the mode of choice for many who choose to have their own vehicles but cannot afford a four-wheeler. These people also choose not to take public transport for a variety of reasons but mainly as they perceive their mobility to be limited should they use public transport services that are available to them. This rise of the motorcycle is also a response to the restrictions brought about by UVVRP with the scheme not covering motorcycles. In fact, should motorcycles be included in the UVVRP, it would be a nightmare for traffic enforcers to apprehend riders considering how they maneuver in traffic. Add to this the perception and attitude of riders that motorcycles are practically exempt from traffic rules and regulations (and traffic schemes!). One only needs to observe their behavior to validate the argument.

To understand UVVRP, it must also be assessed in the context of its original implementation when Metro Manila had to contend with congestion due to infrastructure projects being constructed everywhere during the 1990’s. EDSA MRT was being constructed, interchanges were also being put up, and a number of bridges were being widened to accommodate the increasing travel demand. Road widening projects generally benefit private vehicle users more than public transport users. In the case of Metro Manila, many areas are already built-up and acquisition of right of way for widening is quite difficult for existing roads. As such, it is very difficult to increase road capacities to accommodate the steady increase in the number of vehicles.

In transportation engineering, when traffic/transport systems management (TEM) techniques are no longer effective or yield marginal improvements we turn to travel demand management (TDM) schemes to alleviate congestion. In the former, we try to address congestion by tweaking the system (i.e., infrastructure) through road widening, adjustment of traffic signal settings, etc. while in the latter, we go to the root of the problem and try to manage the trips emanating from the trip generation characteristics of various land uses interacting with each other. By addressing the trip generation characteristics through restrictions, we influence travel demand and hopefully lessen traffic during the peak periods while distributing these to others.

This is the essence of UVVRP where the coding scheme targets particular groups of private cars (according to the end number on the license plate) each weekday. Meanwhile, the scheme is not implemented during weekends due to the perception that, perhaps, travel demand is less or more spread out during Saturdays and Sundays. However, there is a problem with this approach as the traffic taken away from the peak hours are transferred to other times of the day, thereby causing in some cases the extension of what was originally a peak hour unto a longer period. What was before a morning peak of say 7:30 – 8:30 AM becomes spread out into a peak period of 7:00 – 9:00 AM. The problem here is when you have major traffic generators like central business districts (e.g., Makati and Ortigas) where congestion is experience for more than 2 hours (e.g., 7:00 – 10:00 AM or 4:00 – 7:00 PM).

The UVVRP is not implemented in all of Metro Manila. Several LGUs, particularly those in the outer areas like Marikina City and Pateros. This is simply due to the information and observations of these cities that their roads are not affected by the build-up of traffic since most traffic is bound for the CBDs located in Makati, Pasig, Mandaluyong, Quezon City and Manila. This is the case also for LGUs in the periphery of Metro Manila like the towns in the province of Rizal, which is to the east of the metropolis, where the typical behavior of traffic is outbound in the morning and inbound in the afternoon. The great disparity between inbound and outbound traffic is evident in the traffic along Ortigas Avenue where authorities have even implemented a counterflow scheme to increase westbound road capacity.

There have also been observations of traffic easing up during the mid-day. As such, the MMDA introduced a window from 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM to allow all vehicles to travel during that period while retaining the restrictions of the number coding scheme from 7:00 – 10:00 AM and 3:00 – 7:00 PM. However, while many LGUs applied the window, some and particularly those found in central part of the Metropolis like Makati, retained the 7:00 AM – 7:00 PM ban. This stems from their perspective that traffic does not ease up at all (e.g., try driving along Gil Puyat Ave. during lunchtime) along their streets during the window period.

Nowadays, there seems to be the general perception that one can no longer distinguish between traffic during the coding period and the window. Traffic congestion is everywhere and there are few opportunities for road widening. Traffic signal control adjustments are limited to those intersections where signals have been retained (mostly in Makati) since the MMDA replaced signalized intersections with U-turn slots during a past administration where the U-turn was hailed as the solution to the traffic mess.

Regular salary or commission?

Still related to the topic of the road crash that claimed the life of a UP Professor last week are current discussions on the compensation of public utility vehicle drivers – particularly drivers of buses. The boundary system is the one that is predominantly employed by many operators or companies with their drivers. It is quite a simple system where the driver practically rents the vehicle from the operator for a certain amount that is related to the characteristics of the route that he or she will be plying. Thus, the longer routes with the higher passenger demands typically pay more than shorter ones or those with less demand.

What a driver would earn during his shift (in a day) would include the amount he would be spending for fuel and maintenance costs. This means that the driver would have to earn significantly more than what he plans to take home because from the gross income for a day’s work he would have to subtract the boundary (vehicle rental) fee, fuel costs and maintenance costs. Should he be apprehended for any traffic violation, he may also have to shell out more money for fines or, in certain cases, bribes to crooked traffic enforcers. Theoretically, however, if a driver is able to cover more round trips in a day he has the potential earn more in terms of net income. Thus, it can be inferred that traffic congestion would be among his main problems if he is to reach his goal of a decent take home pay. As such, the objective for any driver is to maximize his passengers for every trip that he makes and maximize the number of trips that he makes in order to maximize his income.

Meanwhile, the salary type of compensation involves a fixed payment for services rendered by a driver regardless of the number of passengers he is able to pick up or of even maybe the number of round trips per day that he is able to make. The latter parts of that last sentence is probably the most significant difference in the characteristics of the two compensation schemes that we are now attempting to compare. These are the characteristics that are often mentioned whenever inefficiencies and inconveniences in road public transport services are discussed since it is argued that scheduled services and behavior change, ergo better public transport services, will be possible if drivers won’t have to compete against each other for passengers or recklessly speed up in order to cut travel and turnaround times.

But can a fixed salary or a system much like those in most conventional or regular companies be acceptable in the first place to both driver and operator? What are the views from the drivers and operators themselves? What would be the implications and impacts of having salaried drivers much like employees of a conventional company?

The theoretical answer to the first question, and one that would most likely be provided by proponents of regular salaries, is a resounding yes. However, the response to the second question would be problematic once one realizes that the answers to number three seem to be unfavorable to both driver and operator while appearing to be beneficial for commuters. For the first question, a fixed salary may not necessarily be acceptable to drivers since  it is not necessarily advantageous to them. A fixed salary means they will lose the potential of earning more income that is possible from the current practices of driving aggressively and pursuing as many passengers as possible.

The idea of putting a cap on their income is one thing, the prospect of having a paper trail for a regular salary is another. If, as proposed, drivers would have regular salaries like most employees working in offices, then companies may have to employ a system similar to that in other business where they will now be withholding taxes and other dues for benefits like social security and healthcare. While the BIR might end up happier with this set-up, surely the drivers who until now perhaps do not even pay their taxes at all will oppose a system where they will end up with potentially less net income.

On the part of the operator or company, having drivers with fixed salaries would also mean less potential income at the end of the day as revenues may be reduced. The reduction would be mainly due to less passengers as drivers are no longer pressured to take as many passengers as they can. They are, after all, assured of a fixed salary and do not have to stay longer at stops just to maximize the number of passengers they could pick up. Such result would definitely be welcome to passengers who would benefit from shorter dwell times (delays) and faster travel speeds. But from the perspective of operators or companies, it is bad business and they may end up being exposed for their financial incapacity.

This perspective of the operators and drivers is validated by the recent interviews by news crews of the former group where they practically opposed regular salaries for drivers. Operators reasoned that drivers would be on the losing end of the deal while not discussing how it would affect them and how the prospect of salaried drivers may lead to increased efficiencies of public transport services and even alleviate traffic congestion. On the part of the drivers, there are basically mixed views on regular salaries with one group saying it is acceptable to them and another saying it is disadvantageous in their cases. The impression for both groups, however, is that they are basically ill-informed and do not fully understand the implications of having regular wages. Perhaps their understanding is limited also by the fact that many of these drivers might feel beholden if not loyal to their operators/companies.

While the jury is still out on salary vs. commission, it should be noted further that salaries may only be applicable to companies or operators with several units of PUVs (perhaps something that resembles a fleet). As such, the preceding discussions and arguments may not be applicable to drivers of jeepneys or AUVs and perhaps even tricycles and pedicabs, most of which are individually owned. This becomes a weakness of the proposal for regular salaries as it becomes clear that only buses will be affected and their operations influences. In Metro Manila, perhaps the impacts would be marginal since jeepneys comprise much of the public transport supply and would pose more unique problems pertaining to driver compensation.

Traffic congestion in Metro Manila: Is the UVVRP still effective? – Part 1

I was interviewed last week about the traffic congestion generally experienced along major roads in Metro Manila. I was asked whether I thought the Unified Vehicular Volume Reduction Program (UVVRP) more popularly known as the number coding scheme was still effective, and I replied that based on what we are experiencing it is obviously not effective anymore. The reasoning here can be traced from the fact that when the scheme was first formulated and implemented, the main assumption was that if the number of license plates on registered vehicles were equally distributed among the 10 digits (1 to 0), then by restricting 2 digits indicated as the end/last number on a plate we could automatically have a 20% reduction in the number vehicles. This rather simplistic assumption was sound at the time but apparently did not take into consideration that eventually, people owning vehicles will be able to adjust to the scheme one way or another.

One way to adjust when the number coding scheme was implemented was to change traveling times. Everyone knew that the scheme was enforced from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM (i.e., there was no 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM window at the time) and so people only had to travel from the origins to their destinations before 7:00 AM. Similarly, they would travel back after 7:00 PM, which partly explains why after 7:00 PM there is usually traffic congestion due to “coding” vehicles coming out to travel. In effect, the “coding” vehicle is not absent from the streets that day.  Instead, it is only used during the time outside of the “coding” or restricted period.

Another way that was actually a desired impact of the coding scheme was for people to shift to public transport, at least for the day when their vehicle was “coding.” That way, the vehicle is left at home and there is one less vehicle for every person who opted to take public transport. This, however, was not to be and people did not shift to public transport. Perhaps the quality of services available or provided to them were just not acceptable to most people and so they didn’t take public transport and a significant number instead opted for a third way.

That third way to adjust was one that was the least desirable of the consequences of number coding – people who could afford it bought another vehicle. This was actually a result that could have been expected or foreseen given the trends and direct relationship between increases in income associated with economic growth where people would eventually be able to afford to buy a vehicle. Actually, there is no problem with owning a car. The concern is when one uses it and when he opts to travel. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that people started buying new cars outright, making this something like an overnight phenomenon. It happened over several years and involved a cycle that starts when the wealthier people decide to purchase a new vehicle and discards their old ones. These used vehicles become available on the “second hand” market and are purchased by those with smaller budgets. Some of these may have even older vehicles that they will in turn discard, and eventually be owned by other people with even less budget. Note that in this cycle, very few vehicles are actually retired, if at all considering this country has no retirement policy for old vehicles. The end result? More cars on the roads and consequently, more severe and more frequent congestion.

Below is an excerpt from the news report on News TV Channel 11:

National EST Strategy Formal Launch

The National Environmentally Sustainable Transport (EST) Strategy of the Philippines was formally launched yesterday, May 20, 2011. The formal launch event was held at the Columbus Room of the Discovery Suites along ADB Avenue in Ortigas Center, Pasig City. It was graced by the presence of top government officials including Secretary Jose “Ping” P. De Jesus of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and Presidential Assistant on Climate Change Elisea “Bebet” Gozun, who was a former Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The DOTC came full force with Undersecretary for Planning and Policy Ruben Reinoso, Assistant Secretary for Planning George D. Esguerra, Office of Transport Cooperatives Chair Leticia Z. Gorrospe, consultant and former Assistant Secretary Alberto Suansing, and senior technical staff of the DOTC and its line agencies including the Land Transportation Office (LTO) and  the Land Transport Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB). The DOTC and the DENR are the national focal agencies for the project and will be expected to lead in the operationalization of the national strategy.

The supporting agencies and organizations were represented by Mr. Choudhury Rudra Mohanty of the United Nations Centre for Regional Development (UNCRD), Ms. Sophie Punte of the Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities (CAI-Asia), and Mr. Akio Isomata, Minister of the Embassy of Japan to the Philippines, who represented his country’s Ministry of Environment. Development agencies and banks were also present with representatives from the World Bank (WB), the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Also present were stakeholders led by the Partnership for Clean Air (PCA), Philippines – Global Road Safety Partnership (PGRSP), and the Firefly Brigade, and participants from local government units led by Quezon City and Marikina City. The national collaborating center was well represented by the study team from the National Center for Transportation Studies (NCTS) of the University of the Philippines Diliman.

The formal launch even began with the Opening Remarks from the UNCRD delivered by Mr. Mohanty and was followed by a Message from DOTC Sec. De Jesus. The formal messages were followed by a presentation of the highlights of the national strategy by D. Jose Regin F. Regidor, NCTS Director. Afterwards, a panel discussion with the theme “Operationalization of EST in Support of Sustainable Development in the Philippines.” The discussion was facilitated by Ms. Punte and Mr. Herbert Fabian of CAI-Asia. Panel members included DOTC Asst. Sec. Esguerra, WB Lead Transport Economist Baher El-Hifnawi, ADB GEF focal person Bruce Dunn, and Mactan Cebu International Airport Manager Nigel Paul C. Villarete, who is also a former City Planning Coordinator of Cebu City and who is an advocate of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in the Philippines. The formal launch event concluded with congratulatory messages from the Government of Japan and the Presidential Assistant for Climate Change, followed by a photo op for all in attendance that day.

Mr. Mohanty of UNCRD delivering the Opening Remarks

DOTC Sec. Ping De Jesus delivering a message from the Department

NCTS Director Regidor presenting the highlights of the national EST strategy

CAI-Asia’s Bert Fabian and Sophie Punte facilitated the panel discussion

DOTC Asst. Sec. George D. Esguerra responding to the key questions during the panel discussion

MCIAA’s Nigel Paul Villarete making his comments during the panel discussion

Bruce Dunn explaining about the ADB’s initiatives

The WB’s Baher El-Hifnawi stressing a point during the panel discussion

Embassy of Japan Minister Isomata delivering a congratulatory message from the GOJ

Presidential Asst. on Climate Change Bebet Gozun delivering the concluding message

Group photo showing participants to the national EST strategy formal launch

The messages and the panel discussion were one in conveying a challenge to all stakeholders to use the framework provided by the national strategy to come up with action plans and implement these in order to realize sustainable transport in the country. It was also clear from the proceedings of the event that there should be a strong, collaborative effort among national agencies, local government units, NGOs, and development agencies if EST is to be operationalized and for programs and projects to succeed. Significant impacts would then be realized and perhaps lead to the alleviation of transport and traffic problems and their derivatives. It was emphasized that everyone should carefully consider the co-benefits that may be reaped from the implementation of EST.

For more on the national strategy including the reports and other resources, all these are available from the NESTS Web Portal hosted by the NCTS.

Told ya so! And more irony

I was watching the news on TV after having dinner at home and caught one segment where the report featured an assessment of traffic schemes along Commonwealth Avenue. Prominently shown was an interview of the DPWH secretary where he is quoted relating the assessment of Australian and Korean experts about their assessment of safety along Commonwealth Avenue. What struck me about the assessment by foreign experts was that they were practically the same things pointed out by local experts from the NCTS and TSSP back in the day when Bayani Fernando was Chair of the MMDA. At the time, that agency was embarking on what the Chairman called the “Grand Rotunda Scheme” more popularly known as the U-turn Scheme that was to replace most of Metro Manila’s traffic signals with U-turn slots that were supposed to function much the same as roundabouts. This obsession with the U-turn as the ultimate solution to Metro Manila traffic culminated with the construction of the twin U-turn flyovers along C5-Kalayaan that was the subject of a protracted argument between the MMDA and the DPWH. From what I gathered in the news report, the DPWH and MMDA are currently discussing how to come up with an effective scheme for Commonwealth, showing that the two agencies are now quite receptive to alternatives and are keeping their options open, a flexibility that was absent in the past decade.

The Australian and Korean experts mentioned in the report are consultants for the International Road Assessment Program (iRAP) that is to be implemented through the DPWH and is supported by the road safety program of the World Bank. I have mixed feelings about the reception of their assessment particularly because I have seen the same thing happen where the so-called neutral or objective assessment of foreign experts seem to weigh more than those of local experts.

Don’t get me wrong about this feeling as I am also truly happy that their assessment is the same as those made by local experts early last decade and repeated to whomever had the time to listen or pay attention to their assessments. In fact, I am on the Steering Committee of this iRAP project and would be eager to see how the souped-up van that will run through more than 3,000 kilometers of Philippine roads will assess these infrastructure according to the star rating system iRAP has developed and calibrated to become an international standard for road safety assessment. Perhaps the outcomes of this project will allow us to compare with other countries’ roads including those in Malaysia, which the DPWH secretary mentioned earlier this year would be the benchmark for the Philippines. I am hopeful that the outcomes of iRAP Philippines will allow the DPWH and other agencies concerned including the tollway operators to improve the safety features of our highways. After all, the bottomline is not really who made the assessments or the recommendations but whether these would be implemented at all, and if we are able to save lives in the end.

Some opinions on safety and public transport

I’m re-posting below some opinions I’ve stated on Facebook reflecting things coming to mind since Friday’s tragic incident along Commonwealth. A lot of the ideas I posted and the comments made by friends are actually old ones that have yet to be realized given the apprehensions of those who have the power or authority to once and for all bring order to traffic along our highways and streets.

– Perhaps we should cap bus and jeepney speeds along Commonwealth to 40kph. These should also be limited along the 2 outermost lanes and not allowed to race or overtake each other. The MMDA and HPG /QCPD should work 24 hours to ensure speed limits and other rules are strictly enforced and violators should be penalized immediately. PUV drivers involved in crashes should have their professional licenses revoked. They are engaged in a public service, and safety is non-negotiable!

– I think it’s time to hit where it hurts to send a clear message that authorities are serious about the matter of public safety. Revoke the franchise when an operator’s unit is involved in a fatal crash 3 times. Suspensions seem to be only a slap on the wrist.

– Simplify is a word that needs to be appreciated in as far as public transport in the Philippines is concerned. The routes are too complex and the service sucks. It seems that while there are calls for fare increases all the time, there are no calls from people to have safe efficient service in return.