Caught (up) in traffic

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Monthly Archives: February 2014

Luggage

We recently got the wife’s grandfather’s old steamer trunk. It is a metal trunk with a tray that served as storage for what we now term as personal effects. It has an old lock that’s now corrodedThe trunk has a lot of history associated with it. The original owner was probably among the first Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) after the Second World War. He worked in Guam for many years, establishing himself as an air-conditioning technician at a time when air-conditioning was not a household appliance. It was a skill he would later pass on to his sons, my uncles-in-law, who would put up their own air-conditioning shops.

2013-12-28 11.30.05Grandfather’s old steamer trunk is made of steel and what looks to me like aluminum.

2013-12-28 11.30.57There’s a plate bearing his name and the town and province he was from. Note the reference to the Philippines at the time as P.I. – Philippine Islands. This was a term used by the U.S. even after we gained independence after the war and became a republic.

Trunks were the luggage of yester-years. Old or period movies often show such trunks and other types of luggage in the old days when galleons, steam ships, locomotive-driven trains and carriages were the vehicles for long distance travel. These were heavy even without anything in them so those who could afford to, likely had porters to carry these containers. Nowadays, with baggage weight limits and faster travel with aircraft, lightweight luggage is the way to go especially when one plans to go on some shopping while away. Still, these steamer trunks are part of travel history and shows how far we’ve advanced in the way we travel.

Transport and traffic purgatory, paradise and inferno

A lot of people have been referring to the traffic congestion and other derivative issues that will be the result of the construction of several transport projects around Metro Manila as “traffic armageddon.” Some friend have appropriately (I think) referred to it more as “car-mageddon.” This seems to be the case since it is perceived to have the most impact on car users than public transport users, cyclists or pedestrians. This is far from the truth as there are more people taking public transport, cycling or walking than those driving their own cars. In fact, estimates for Metro Manila indicate that 70-80% of travelers take public transport while 20-30% take private vehicles. These mode splits do not include bicycles or walking, which obviously will further decrease private car shares.

I would rather refer to this period of construction as a sort of “purgatory” though it has nothing to do with the cleansing that’s associated with it. There is still the suffering involved while improvements are being implemented. But, most importantly, there is hope at the end of this process. This “hope” is not necessarily the “light at the end of a dark tunnel” kind of thing as surely population and the number of vehicles will surely increase over time even as the transport projects are being implemented. By the time these are completed, there are sure to be more people, more vehicles, as well as more of other developments that will put our transport system to a stress test. We can only hope that the designs of these infrastructure we are building now are based on honest to goodness trip or traffic forecasts. Otherwise, we’ll end up with congested or saturated systems by the time they start operating.

Unfortunately, most projects mentioned and those we know have the green light and would likely be proceeding with construction in the near future are basically road projects. It’s ironic considering that what Metro Manila urgently, and maybe desperately, needs now are public transport systems including the much delayed MRT 7, LRT 2 Extension and LRT 1 Extension. The proposals for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) seem to be in a limbo, too, despite extensive studies and surveys to support BRT along corridors such as Ortigas Avenue and Circumferential Road 5. These are blamed on institutional and legal impediments including allegations of shortcomings among officials of agencies responsible for these infrastructure.

I am aware of an initiative led by an environmental lawyer seeking to effect the redistribution of road space in favor of public transport users, cyclists and pedestrians. I think such actions are useful from the perspective of getting the attention necessary to push government and private sector players to have a sense of urgency not just in words but also in actions in as far as transport infrastructure programs and projects are concerned. We are already lagging behind our ASEAN neighbors with regards to infrastructure and at this pace, it is likely that less developed countries like Cambodia and Myanmar might just overtake us in the foreseeable future. From another perspective, it is hard to push for sharing the road when people really don’t have better options for commuting. Walking and cycling are not for everyone and many people have turned to the motorcycle to solve their transport woes. In the latter case, motorcycles are perceived as a vehicle that’s fuel efficient and allows the users to zip through congested streets often at high risks of being involved in a crash or spill.

We can only achieve “paradise” in our highly urbanized cities if we build these mass transit systems along with the pedestrian and cycling facilities that will complement each other. Those for whom car travel is a necessity would also benefit from reduced road congestion so it will eventually (hopefully) play out well for most people.  Meanwhile, we would have to endure transport and traffic hell (some more and longer than others) as the government and private sector embark on this round of infrastructure projects implementation. It helps to look back at our experiences with the last major batch of projects in the latter part of the 1990’s when the number coding scheme was first implemented. At the time, it was implemented as a temporary measure to alleviate congestion while projects where being implemented. What was a temporary measure is now still being implemented along with a truck ban that has also been evolving the past years with the latest being the one implemented by the City of Manila starting last February 24. Will these vehicle restraint schemes be modified to cope with the traffic congestion expected from projects like the Skyway connector? Will these be relaxed or removed after all these projects have been completed? Your guess is as good as mine.

Harbinger of change for public transport?

Comets have been viewed as signs, omens or harbingers of something that will happen. I like the word “harbinger” more than “omen.” It brings about a certain mystery to it that does not necessarily imply something bad or evil. In this case, the comet is a vehicle and “Comet” stands for City Optimized Managed Electric Transport, an electric jitney that is being touted as a replacement for the ubiquitous jeepney that has evolved from its WW2 ancestor. It does have the potential of being a game changer if there is an enabling environment for it and if (a big “if”) it addresses fundamental issues with electric vehicles such as those that are technical (battery life, range, speed, etc.), pertaining to after sales (maintenance, technical support) and operational (suitable routes, fares, charging stations, etc.).

[All photos taken by Engr. Sheila Javier of the National Center for Transportation Studies]

comet1Prototype Comet at the NCTS parking lot – notice that it is larger than the AUV on the other side of the vehicle. The Comet will utilize a tap card for fares, similar to the card that is proposed for use in the Automated Fare Collection System for the LRT/MRT system.

comet2Inside the vehicle, one immediately gets a feeling of space. In fact, a person can stand inside the vehicle unlike the case of jeepneys where people need to bend so as not to bump their heads at the ceiling.

comet3The vehicle has a side entrance and exit unlike the rear doors of typical jeepneys.

comet4The Comet looks like a mini-bus from behind. Proponents have stated that drivers will be trained for road safety as well as operations for designated stops and scheduled services.

The Comet is being touted as a replacement for the jeepney and is being promoted via an initial route that would connect SM Megamall in Ortigas Center, Pasig City to SM City North EDSA in Quezon City. The route will be counter-clockwise from SM Megamall to SM North EDSA via Circumferential Road 5 including E. Rodriguez Avenue and Katipunan Avenue, UP Diliman, Commonwealth Avenue, Elliptical Road and North Avenue. From SM North to SM Megamall, it will take EDSA. While I am not sure if the Comet has been granted a franchise and how many units they can deploy, this proposed route will overlap with existing jeepney and bus routes including direct competition with UP-Katipunan and UP-North EDSA routes, and buses plying routes that cover the stretch from North EDSA to Ortigas Center. I think that this route is mainly for publicity considering there are probably other, more suitable routes for the Comet. It has not been subject to rigorous tests (just like the e-jeepneys before it), which is not a good thing, considering the experiences of the e-tricycle in Taguig and the e-jeepneys in Makati. Hopefully, they have learned the lessons from these past efforts and that they already have the answers hounding EVs as applied to public transport.

From FX to UV Express – a story of evolution

For those not familiar with its evolution, the UV Express has an interesting history. It started as a contracted taxi service utilizing the new Asian Utility Vehicle (AUV) model released by Toyota that they called the FX (The same model is known as the Kijang in Indonesia.). I can say that I witnessed the birth of FX services in the 1990s when taxis were approached by commuters having common destinations. I was among those who were desperate enough to get home and tired of getting into those long lines of people waiting for jeepneys in Cubao. The lines were not all that bad though as it used to be worse when people had to box out one another to board a jeepney as they arrived near Ali Mall.

Taxis had the advantage of not having fixed routes so they could bypass congested road sections. They could take alternate routes that despite covering longer distances, incurred shorter travel times. Passengers negotiated with the drivers for a common destination and a fare that’s typically higher than what would be charged if the meter was used. I remember that there were times when passengers (like me) negotiated with the driver with the dare to run the meter just to prove that he’d be better off with the money we would be paying rather than wait for regular fares. Of course, this practice of negotiating was illegal as taxis in Metro Manila were metered. But passengers were quick to help out the cabbie in case he gets caught, with everyone claiming that he or she knew the others and that they were traveling as a group. One use of a running meter was that they were a group paying regular fare.

Taxi operators and drivers quickly caught on to the idea and many eventually became enterprising. These were mostly FX drivers who could carry 5 to 7 passengers depending on the seat configuration for the vehicles. Toyota took full advantage of government incentives for AUVs by introducing what was claimed to be 10 seater vehicles, maximizing space at the middle and rear to seat a total of 8 people in addition to 2 in the front. This also translated into a maximization of revenue per load of 10 people and soon, “standard” fares were being established for certain routes like Cubao-Cainta Junction, which I remember cost 20PhP per person regardless of whether you were alighting before Cainta Junction. Eventually, issues were raised regarding their operations as contracted vehicles as they were still classified as metered taxis and should have not refused single or few passengers. There were also issues regarding their competing directly with jeepneys as some FX plied routes similar to jeepneys especially when traffic was more manageable. Eventually, the DOTC and the LTFRB moved to regulate this emergent transport service and formalized (fixed) routes and franchises rather than retain their flexibilities like taxis. In effect they became express shuttle services and fares and rules were also set accordingly, also to protect the interests of the riding public.

IMG07705-20140217-1133Toyota Revo AUV UV Express vehicle plying the Pasig-Ayala Center route

It became known as Garage to Terminal (GT) Express during the last administration. There was a joke then that the term used was according to the nickname of the then Chairman of the LTFRB. It’s name again was changed into Utility Vehicle (UV) Express after the change in administration.

IMG04064-20120824-0824Nissan Urvan van UV Express at the Puregold at the NLEX Valenzuela Exit

UV Express now proliferate around Mega Manila and come in different vehicle types and sizes. Most are AUV’s like the Toyota Revo, Isuzu Crosswind or Mitsubishi Adventure. There are also vans like the Toyota Hi-Ace and Nissan Urvan. But there are also custom made vehicles like those utilizing the Mitsubishi L300 prime mover and fitted with a cab that seats 14 to 16 passengers. The latter types have capacities similar to jeepneys and airconditioning is somewhat weaker compared to the legit AUVs and vans. I think the UV Express vehicles are here to stay and they do serve a certain segment of commuters. However, while I also think their numbers are excessive (and government through the LTFRB needs to address this) there is really not much to argue about if more efficient and higher capacity and good quality transit systems cannot be realized in our cities. People deserve options for commuting and for those taking public transport, these UV Express services provide good quality transport that they are willing to pay for. Many of these services might just meet a natural death or decline once a better transport system is in place along main corridors but that seems a long way off from now given continued failures in mass transit project implementation.

Manila’s truck ban experiment

The City of Manila has announced that it will implement a truck ban from February 10, Monday. Trucks of at least 8-wheels and 4,500kg gross weight will not be allowed to travel in Manila’s roads from 5AM to 9PM. Manila’s City Ordinance No. 8336 calls for the daytime truck ban in the city in order to reduce traffic congestion that is perceived to be brought about by trucks. 8-wheelers are likely 3-axle trucks with a 4-wheel, 2-axle prime mover pulling a 1-axle, 4-wheel (double-tired) trailer. I am not aware of the technical basis for the ordinance. Perhaps the city has engaged consultants to help them determine the pros and cons of this daytime truck ban. I hope it is not all qualitative analysis that was applied here as logistics is quite a complicated topic. And such schemes in favor of passenger transport (and against goods movement) actually creates a big problem for commerce due to the challenges of scheduling that they have to deal with. To cope with this ordinance, companies would have to utilize smaller vehicles to transport goods during the daytime. This actually might lead to more vehicles on the streets as companies try to compensate for the capacity of the large trucks that will be banned from traveling during the restricted period by fielding smaller trucks.

IMG02153-20120411-1609Trucks parked along Bonifacio Drive near the DPWH Central Office in Manila’s Port Area.

The latest word is that Manila has postponed implementation of the ordinance to February 24. This was apparently due to the reaction they got from various sectors, especially truckers and logistics companies who would be most affected by the restrictions. It was only natural for them to show their opposition to the scheme. Reactions from the general public, however, indicated that private car users and those taking public transport welcomed the truck ban as they generally stated that they thought trucks were to blame for traffic congestion in Manila. The truck ban will definitely have impacts beyond Manila’s boundaries as freight/goods transport schedules will be affected for the rest of Metro Manila and beyond. The Port of Manila, after all, is critical to logistics for the National Capital Region, and its influence extends to adjacent provinces where industries are located. Such issues on congestion and travel demand management measures focused on trucks bring back talks about easing freight flow to and from the Port of Manila to major ports in Subic and Batangas. There have been studies conducted to assess the decongestion of the Port of Manila as Batangas and Subic are already very accessible with high standard highways connecting to these ports including the SLEX and STAR tollways to Batangas and the NLEX and SCTEX to Subic. Perhaps it would be good to revisit the recommendations of these studies while also balancing the treatment of logistics with efforts necessary to improve public transport. After all, trucks are not all to blame for Manila’s and other cities’ traffic woes as buses are repeatedly being blamed for congestion along EDSA. In truth, there are more cars than the numbers of buses, trucks, jeepneys and UV Express combined. And the only way to reduce private car traffic is to come up with an efficient and safe public transport system. –

Preventable tragedies

Last Friday, a provincial bus plunged into a ravine somewhere in the Mountain Province. The bus rolled several times  before coming to a stop, instantly killing 14 people. Among the fatalities in this crash is a popular comedian/media personality who went by the name Tado and part of a group doing civic work in the area. Foreign visitors were also killed in the crash, leaving many to wonder if perhaps the Department of Tourism (DOT) should also get into the act as it is in the interest of the department to also establish that “It’s safer in the Philippines!” as part of its “It’s more fun in the Philippines!” tagline.

According to initial reports, the driver lost control due to defective brakes but later one report suggested that the driver had dozed off and awoke too late to bring the bus back in control. The slope of the road was downwards and there was significant curvature. This combination is definitely a challenging one for most drivers, even professionals who, like the bus driver, would probably have encountered such combinations of slope and curvature many times, even on a daily basis along mountain routes. One has to be awake and focused on maneuvering a vehicle for such sections. It didn’t help that probably, and I base this on photos of the section I’ve seen online, the road’s barriers were not up to standard in as far as stopping large vehicles like the bus from falling off and into the ravine.

These are preventable incidents, preventable tragedies that occur on a daily basis around the country. It is clear to many that the LTFRB needs to address these problems by taking steps to insure that public transport vehicles such as provincial buses are properly maintained and drivers are fit and in the best condition to drive these vehicles. To do that, they have to be proactive in evaluating bus, jeepney, UV express, and taxi and other franchises under them. These evaluations should delve into involvements in road crashes as well as the frequencies and types of traffic violations drivers have been involved in. Such records of crashes and violations should form part of a set of criteria to suspend and ultimately revoke franchises of public transport entities.

The LTO also has a responsibility here because they are the agency in-charge of licensing drivers. They should make sure that those applying for professional licenses are indeed qualified and not just to drive any vehicle. Therefore, perhaps there is a need to have different types of licenses for different types of professional drivers. Public utility vehicles differ in size and maneuverability so a different skill set and experience is required for buses compared with taxis. Another type of license should apply for those seeking to drive trucks as well as heavy equipment such as payloaders and bulldozers. The TESDA has certification programs for these that are sought out by people who want to drive professionally abroad. These should also be made as requirements for those seeking to drive professionally here. These would ensure that drivers will be qualified and competent as they are responsible for lives and property.

It is also clear that the DPWH and local authorities in-charge of road safety along roads should look into how to make travel safer by investing more into safety devices such as barriers. Crash or accident prone sections can be identified and sturdier barriers designed to keep vehicles on the road should be constructed/installed in order to prevent such types of fatal crashes (i.e., barriers would not prevent head-on collisions, etc.). That is why the DPWH and local governments need to have capacity and capability to assess road safety along national and local roads. These actions address vulnerabilities. These actions save lives.

What can you do to help in this effort? You don’t have to be part of an organized group or a lobbyist to be involved in promoting road safety. You can be involved in simple ways. Be aware of your rights on the road and your being among those vulnerable to road crashes. I am sure you don’t want to be involved in a crash nor would you like a loved one to get injured or, God forbid, perish in a crash. If your bus, jeepney, UV express or taxi driver drives recklessly, be firm in reminding him of his responsibility. You may enjoy a fast ride but are you sure your destination isn’t the afterlife? Think about it. Act on it. Save lives!

About me?

Looking at the data on which articles on this blog have been read lately, I couldn’t help but notice a lot of hits on the “About” feature of the blog. I don’t have my name there and there are only subtle hints as to who I am so I guess researchers like students are disappointed to find that they cannot quote a name of some person writing about transportation and traffic in the Philippines. I like to keep it that way so I remain somewhat anonymous while I continue to write about issues we have faced, are facing and will be facing for the foreseeable future. At times, I catch my material being used by our students at the university and others. I am flattered when I hear people talking to me about someone writing on a blog about transport problems and offering solutions and then learn that they were referring to my blog.

I know that one implication of this preference of mine is that my opinions will remain mine and unattributed except perhaps to the few who know who is really writing these articles. That’s okay with me and I am comfortable about my somewhat anonymous identity online. That way, I can write more freely though I am aware of my responsibilities as a writer. I try my best to be fair while being firm in my opinions in my writings. I’ve known many persons who have served and continue to serve in government and to be honest, everyone did good in one way or the other so credit should be given where and to whom its due. Problem is that we continue to suffer a lot from decisions, policies and actions made over a long period and not the past few years and sadly many of those people responsible for such are very much around in government or in the private sector. Even worse, nadadagdagan pa as we have seen in more recent times.

I know that there are many others who are more experienced and can write better than me. Unfortunately, many of them don’t use this medium for getting information and factual opinions out there. Many prefer to publish in technical journals or present in academic venues like conferences and symposia, and would likely only make an occasional comment on Facebook (if they’re on FB) about transport/traffic-related articles posted there. Then there are those who feel like its their responsibility to reply or comment on whatever is written by others that they don’t quite agree with. One such person even wrote a multiple-part article in reply to an opinion article that he didn’t agree with. Now that’s what I call overkill!

It is unfortunate and frustrating for me that if I were to look back at some of the stuff I’ve written, I could just copy and paste the entire article today and it won’t matter because we haven’t gone anywhere near a solution to certain problems that have been lingering for quite some time now. Yes, that’s how serious our problems are in this country! And that’s what makes me keep on writing in my own way and writing about transport and traffic, not about me.