The NEDA Board chaired by the Philippines’ President approved last week a number of major infrastructure projects. One project is particularly important as it seeks to introduce an innovative public transport system in the Philippines. The Cebu Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project was finally given the green light and is projected to be completed and operational by 2017. I remember that the Cebu BRT was conceptualised while we were doing a social marketing project for Environmentally Sustainable Transport (EST) that was supported by the UNDP. That was back in 2006-2007 and right before we embarked on the formulation of a national EST strategy that was supported by UNCRD. I remember, too, that sometime in 2009, Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia who has championed the BRT cause visited the Philippines to give some talks in Cebu and Metro Manila about public transport and pursuit of better quality of life through good transport systems. From that time onwards, a lot of work has been put into the studies to support this system including social marketing for stakeholders to understand what such a system will require including its impacts on existing transport modes. It took sometime for this project to be approved but that should no longer be an issue and focus should now be on the detailed design and implementation of the project.
There are many detractors of this BRT project. While I respect the value engineering work that was supposed to have been conducted by NEDA, I would like to speculate that perhaps it was unclear to them how important a functioning, operational BRT in Cebu is as a strategic accomplishment in transport in this country. For most people, the idea of bus transport is what they have seen along EDSA in Metro Manila. The impact on commuting behaviour of a high quality public transport system like a BRT would be very hard to quantify and the criteria and metrics used would be quite tricky considering the strategic and behavioural aspects of the system. Such evaluations can also be tricky depending on who were doing the study in the first place as the outcomes could easily be affected by the biases of those who undertook the evaluation. Thus, it is important that value engineering exercises be done by open-minded, flexible if not disinterested parties to the project of interest.
Many of those who have expressed skepticism about the BRT are likely pining for a rail transit system that was earlier proposed for the city but which has failed to gain the critical support. For one, the LRT that was proposed for Cebu City was simply too expensive and financing would have been difficult for a system that would have been less flexible in operations compared to an at-grade bus system. The numbers supporting the LRT were also in need of much updating as the study on that system was already quite dated and had not considered the major developments in Cebu and its surrounding cities that loosely or informally comprise what people refer to as Metro Cebu. These realities would need a new and more robust study that could surely result in a recommendation for a rail system but upon close comparison with a BRT option should lead to a conclusion that Cebu will be better off with BRT at this point and in the foreseeable future.
The truth is that while rail transport remains as an ultimate goal for high demand corridors in highly urbanised cities, it is an expensive proposition and ones that will take more time to build. We don’t have that time in our hands as our cities are rapidly growing both in terms of economy and population. We cannot sustain this progress if our transport system remains primitive. And strategically, too, a BRT system may just pave the way for a future rail system in Cebu. This model for transport system development can be replicated in other cities as well including Davao, Iloilo, Bacolod, and Cagayan de Oro, to name a few. But we should always not forget that building this system requires holistic development of complementing infrastructure such as pedestrian walkways and bikeways, and the rationalisation of jeepney and multi cab services with respect to the mass transit system. I believe those behind the Cebu BRT project have these covered and it is now a matter of time before the country’s first BRT becomes operational in the “Queen City of the South.”