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What is the context for electric tricycles in the Philippines?

July 2013
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The NEDA Board recently approved six projects that included one that will be promoting electric vehicles throughout the country. Entitled “Market Transformation through Introduction of Energy Efficient Electric Vehicles Project” (formerly Market Transformation through Introduction of Energy Efficient Electric Tricycle (E-Trike) Project), the endeavor seeks to replace thousands of existing conventional motorized 3-wheelers (tricycles) with e-trikes and to develop and deploy charging stations for these vehicles. While I have nothing against electric vehicles and have supported their promotion for use in public transport, I am a bit worried about the context by which electric tricycles are being peddled especially the part about equating “transformation” with “replacement.”

First, it is a technology push for an innovation that has not been fully and satisfactorily tested in Philippine conditions. The deployment of e-trikes in Bonifacio Global City is practically a failure and a mode that was not suitable from the start for the area it was supposed to serve (i.e., while there were already jeepneys serving the area, there were also the Fort Bus services and plans for a BRT linking the Ayala CBD and BGC. There are now few (rare sightings) of these e-trikes remaining at the Fort, as most of these vehicles are no longer functioning due to problems regarding the batteries, motors, and issues regarding  maintenance. Meanwhile, the e-trikes in Mandaluyong, a more recent model, have also been difficult to maintain with one case reportedly needing the unit to be sent back to China for repairs.

Second, the e-trikes are a whole new animal (or mode of transport). I have pointed out in the past including in one ADB forum that the 6 to 8 seater e-trike model is basically a new type of paratransit. Their larger capacities mean one unit is not equivalent to one of the current models of conventional tricycles (i.e., the ones you find in most city and municipality around the country). Thus, replacement should not be “1 e-trike : 1 tricycle” but perhaps “1:2” (or even “1:3” in some cases). This issue has not been resolved as the e-trike units continue to be marketed as a one to one replacement for conventional trikes. There should be guidelines on this that local government units can use, particularly for adjusting the number of franchises or authorized tricycles in their respective jurisdictions. Will such come from the Department of Energy (DOE)? Or is this something that should emanate from Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC)? Obviously, the last thing we like to see would be cities like Cabanatuan, Tarlac or Dagupan having so many e-trikes running around after they have replaced the conventional ones, and causing congestion in the cities. Emissions from the tricycle may have been reduced but emissions from other vehicles should be significant due to the congestion.

Third, the proliferation of e-trikes will tie our cities and municipalities to tricycles. Many cities already and definitely need to upgrade their public transport systems (e.g., tricycles to jeepneys or jeepneys to buses, and so on). Simply replacing tricycles with electric powered ones does not effect “true” transformation from the transport perspective. Is the objective of transformation mainly from the standpoint of energy? If so, then there is something amiss with the project as it does not and cannot address the transport, traffic and social aspects of the service provided by tricycles (and other modes of transport).

So what is the context for the e-trikes or conventional tricycles? They are not even under the purview of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) as they are regulated by LGUs.  Shouldn’t the DOTC or the LTFRB be involved in this endeavor? Shouldn’t these agencies be consulted with the formulation of a framework or guidelines for rationalizing and optimizing transport in our cities? These are questions that should be answered by the proponents of this project and questions that should not be left to chance or uncertainty in so far as the ultimate objective is supposed to be to improve transport in the country. I have no doubt that the e-trikes have the potential to improve air quality and perhaps the also the commuting experience for many people. I have worries, however, that its promise will not be kept especially in light of energy supply issues that our country is still struggling with and deserves the attention of the DOE more than the e-trikes they are peddling.

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