An acquaintance announced that his company is planning to sponsor an event aiming to attract developers to come up with apps that could help alleviate transport problems in Metro Manila (and probably and potentially, elsewhere). This reminded me of a similar event a few years ago that was sponsored by an international institution that sought to have people come up with applications (apps) that would enhance transport using transport data they have compiled. While the event attracted a healthy number of app developers and arguably came up with some useful software, the impact of such apps on commuting is at best marginal. For one, some apps attempted to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, as one app developed was too similar to the well-established Waze but with an inferior interface. Then there were those which probably could be useful if only most people had smart phones and were dependent on them for their trips.
Metro Manila is at the point when most major arterials are already saturated. Stricter traffic management (as it should be) can only do so much to address congestion along thoroughfares such as EDSA and Circumferential Road 5. Apps that are aimed at enhancing commuting would ultimately be limited as the transport infrastructure is lacking and those proposed or under construction would take time to complete. Yes, carpooling can probably help and an app enabling people to find travel/commuting companions would probably help. But it does not assure participants (both drivers and passengers) of their safety or security and so isn’t for everyone. Apps and similar or related technology pushes are categorized along with other stop-gap or band aid solutions. It might have some positive impact but these are short lived and eventually will not be productive. It definitely though will satisfy a lot of geek or nerdy egos in terms of what they can create that they think can help improve transport or traffic. And I suddenly recall a term used by one of my friends chiding others one night we were engaging in some academic discourse about transportation theory as applied to traffic problems in Metro Manila – “intellectual masturbation” – which seems an apt description for this (app development, etc.) type of exercise. One colleague even made the observation that such efforts only provide an excuse for government not to act on the urgent matter of traffic. Innovation may be welcome but it seems such a waste of time and talent to be solving the unsolvable through apps. (Can someone develop an app to fix MRT trains? Or perhaps solve contract issues of the PPP kind? I think you get my point.)
The main reason why people buy and drive their own vehicles is because these cars and motorcycles enable them from being dependent of public transport, which is generally perceived as having low service quality. While there is a need to manage the demand for private vehicles, restraint without the suitable public transport alternatives (think Singapore or Hong Kong for best practice examples) will not make sense as these punish people for something the government is not able to deliver in terms of transport services. This is a message I have seen in many papers that are the outputs of many studies presented at the recently concluded 11th International Conference of the Eastern Asia Society for Transportation Studies. In fact, this has been a message in past conferences as well. You can find the technical papers in their searchable site at the following link: www.east.info