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Good intentions and knee jerk reactions

August 2015
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Social media is again abuzz with stories about Uber and how Philippine government agencies like the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) are hassling Uber, Grab and similar companies into complying with government regulations covering their services. Is it really a hassle and are these “Transport Network Companies” or TNCs the real deal in terms of solving part of Metro Manila’s transport woes?

I believe Uber and other services like it have good intentions towards providing high quality, on-demand transport services. However, based on what I’ve read about the service in other countries (particularly in the US and Europe), the intention (original?) was to take advantage of surplus or excess capacity of vehicles being driven by “owner-drivers” between origins and destinations such as their homes and offices. That means an improvement of sorts for traffic as, instead of having one vehicle per person, two or more can share a single car. The main differences with conventional carpools is that the driver and his passengers practically do not know each other, and the passengers pay the driver a fee that is agreed upon at the start of the transaction. This works well in car-oriented cities as well as those with less than satisfactory public transport services especially when it comes to taxis.

The last sentence seems to be the right description for Metro Manila and other rapidly growing Philippine cities. And so, Uber, Grab Car and other shared service attracted many users who can afford them and providers willing to share their rides with total strangers. I stated “owner-drivers” in the previous paragraph as this was supposed to be an essential part of the set-up where Uber and others didn’t add to the cars already on the roads. Problem is, apparently and allegedly, some enterprising people who had the resources thought it would be a good idea to deploy all their vehicles (and even purchase additional ones) by hiring drivers they could register with Uber or Grab Car. That way, they thought they could bypass the typically bureaucratic process of getting a franchise for taxi or rental car franchises that also include all those business permits and, of course, taxes. The result of this would not be the utilization of excess capacity but the addition of more cars on the roads and therefore contribute to worsening congestion.

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As far as the LTFRB is concerned, like it or not, they are just doing what they are mandated to do and are supposed to do with any transport service provider that is not purely private (i.e., services with a fee). It just so happens that the DOTC and LTFRB have been on the receiving end of a lot of flak from the public and especially in social media for what is perceived as the agencies’ ineptitude in dealing with major issues in public transportation. These include the continuing saga that is EDSA-MRT 3 and the perceived low quality services provided by buses and jeepneys in general that leave people at the mercy of taxis and UV express if they opt not or cannot afford to purchase their own vehicles.

The main issue is not whether DOTC and LTFRB should pay attention to Uber and others like it. The agencies should as per their mandates. However, there are a lot of other more serious and more urgent issues/problems including the much delayed mass transit projects and the low quality of service being provided by buses, jeepneys, UV express and conventional taxis that the DOTC and its attached agencies need to act on and now. I know it is a generalization (There are many good bus, jeepney, UV express and taxi drivers and operators out there who are also working their butts off to earn a living.) but then when you combine unsafe driving, with high fuel consumption and a lot of harmful emissions then you get a cocktail that’s definitely bad for all travelers.

How many people use Uber or Grab Car or taxis? Do they outnumber those taking the LRT/MRTs, buses, jeepneys and UV express? They don’t and therefore only represent a small percentage of the trips being taken everyday in Metro Manila and adjacent areas. And so the more pressing issues are really those pertaining to mass transit and the dire need to construct these systems once and for all in order to achieve a more sustainable and inclusive transport system for this still growing megalopolis.

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