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A tale of transport costs for a commuter

March 2012
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When I was in high school, the minimum fare was 1 peso and my daily afternoon commute from school cost me an average of 3 pesos per day. If we didn’t have to go to school for extra-curricular activities on a Saturday, that meant I usually spend 15 pesos per week or about 60 pesos per month. I remember that my parents paid 200 pesos for the school service, which only covered the morning trips from home to school. This brought my monthly transport cost total to 260 pesos and this was back in the 1980’s. At the time my weekly allowance was 100 pesos (~400/month); more than enough for my lunch and snacks, and which allowed me to save some money that I usually deposited in my savings account. Of course, my actual total allowance was 600 pesos per month factoring in the amount my parents paid for the school service. These figures meant transport accounted for 43.33% of what was my income back then (15% if the school service component was not included).

At university in the early 1990’s, my allowance was up to 300 pesos per week. Transport fares, however, increased with a minimum fare of 2 pesos (for the first 4 kilometers) and my two rides one way to the university cost me a total of 5 pesos per trip. This could easily be multiplied by two if I was able to get an easy ride home from Katipunan but traffic was already worsening at the time and I, together with a few friends who had similar commutes, often found myself going to Cubao where the terminal was so I could get a sure ride home. This meant I had to shell out an additional 6 pesos on certain days. I estimate that my weekly total could average around 80 pesos, bringing my monthly average up to 320 pesos. That translates to 26.67% of what can be considered as my monthly income at the time.

By the time I was in graduate school in the mid 1990s, commuting in Metro Manila was a whole different animal with congestion along my route really becoming terrible. It was so terrible that the conditions then resulted in the birth of what was called FX services. The then newly introduced Asian Utility Vehicles (AUV), particularly the Toyota Tamaraw FX’s, that originally were registered as regular taxis started contracting passengers (illegally) in order to maximize their fares. It was actually the other way around as passengers who were exasperated at the very long queues in Cubao decided to contract FX taxis as groups and offering the drivers fares they just couldn’t refuse given that their being taxis allowed for flexible travel routes bypassing congested roads. By the time, the going rate was 10 pesos per passenger for an FX taxi starting from Cubao and ending at Cainta Junction. I was among the people willing to pay for this luxury, considering it saved me a lot of time and the ride then was comfortable due to the airconditioning on these vehicles. Perhaps it was also my way of applying what I understood from my transport economics lessons from my Japanese professor back then.

My daily commute during my grad school days cost me around 30 pesos for a total of about 200 pesos per week counting Saturdays and other side trips during the week. This to me was quite acceptable considering I had a scholarship grant at the time that gave me 3,000 pesos per month excluding other allowances that covered research expenses. The significant increase in my income was actually just enough to retain the percentage I spend for transport. Due to the corresponding increase in my transport costs, the percentage I spent for transport remained at 26.67%!

Taking post grad studies in Japan a few years later, I estimate that my average monthly transport costs amounted to around 20,000 yen (I traveled practically everyday using trains and buses.) This didn’t include the very occasional taxi on late nights when trains and buses were no longer available from the city center to the dormitory. My monthly allowance though was a very generous 185,000 yen so transport only accounted for 10.81% of my monthly income. This meant I had money available for a comfortable life abroad after accounting for my needs (e.g., food and shelter) and factoring in savings towards my estimated disposable income at the time.

The above examples are illustrations of how much transport costs become significant considerations in our typical expenses. Transport costs like the fares I paid when I was a student ate up a significant part of what was considered my income at different times. My case can probably be considered as fortunate since my parents were able to provide for me during my high school and university days, and I was able to get generous scholarships during my grad and post grad schooling. It is not the same for may others who would have to shell out more to be able to travel between home and school and do not have the choice, given limited resources (i.e., allowances), to select transport with a higher level or quality of service. There are those who have to walk (and even swim) to and from school simply because they have no other means.

I relate my personal experiences as I try to understand the plight of many commuters who have to bear the provisional fare hikes that the LTFRB approved today. This is in part a reaction to the clamor of public transport groups for transport fare increase in relation to the alarming increase in fuel costs. Unfortunately, there is little difference between transport during my time as a student and transport today. In fact, we still are very dependent on tricycles and jeepneys where buses and perhaps rail transport is the more appropriate modes for travel.

Perhaps our continued dependence on transport that is too dependent on fossil fuels whose prices are susceptible to many factors makes us quite vulnerable not just to price changes but also to the whims of a public transport system that has been proven to be inefficient and ineffective. It goes without saying that we need to have the necessary public transport infrastructure built in order for commuters to once and for all be relieved of the constant threats of oil price hikes and fare increases. Too long have been the delays for rail lines and BRTs, and it is costing us billions of pesos that could have instead already paid for these systems that we are hesitant to put up. Only then will we be liberated from those who claim to be concerned about the welfare of commuters but fail to deliver safe and efficient transport services as they put revenue first contrary to their commitments when they got their franchises.

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