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Why not rationalize other routes now?

There is an enduring discussion in various forums and platforms about the lack of supply of public transportation. I can’t help but notice though that many discussions consciously or unconsciously leave out the part of public transport rationalisation that calls for phasing out lower capacity vehicles in favour of higher capacity ones. I have written about this and explained the necessity particularly along corridors with high transport demand. Delaying what is required (not necessarily what is inevitable) means we fall short of transforming public transport services in this context.

 

There are definitely missed opportunities here but the current discussions and proposed resources for 2021 including funds for service contracting seems to suggest a status quo in terms of vehicles with the exception of the modernisation part. Perhaps this is because we are still in pandemic mode and survival is still the name of the game? Nevertheless, there should be initiatives and continued dialogue about ‘graduating’ from lower capacity vehicles to higher capacity ones. Of course, this discussion is more urgent for highly urbanised cities than smaller ones.

Tinkering with decentralization of public transportation planning, franchising and regulations

I recall an informal discussion my colleagues and I had about the then Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) more than a decade ago. We were comparing the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH)’s and DOTC’s structures. DPWH has regional offices but also District Engineering Offices (DEO). These DEOs were practically mini me’s of the DPWH with the District Engineer calling the shots. Under him were a Design Engineer, Planning Engineer, Maintenance Engineer, etc. who were the equivalent at that level of the Bureaus. DOTC didn’t have the equivalent even though there were Land Transportation Office (LTO) and Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) regional offices. So if there were regional development council (RDC) meetings, the DOTC’s representatives are usually from the regional offices of LTO and LTFRB plus other offices of agencies under DOTC – Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA), Air Transportation Office (ATO now CAAP) and the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA).

I mention these because perhaps one vision for the future is to have something like Metropolitan, City or Municipal Transit Authorities similar to those you’ll find in other countries. And these should have the capacities for route planning and assessment that are currently centralized in DOTr (i.e., Road Transport Division). But perhaps these transit authorities should not only have road based public transport under them but also rail, too. This is especially applicable to metros like MM, the loosely defined Metro Cebu and Metro Davao and other HUCs that maybe ripe for some form of urban rail transport. In some cases, I would even dare include maritime transport as well since modes like the Pasig River Ferry should also be included.

This idea of decentralization is something worth considering as local government units build capacity and capability for public transportation planning, operations and management. Some are already capable though mainly concern themselves with tricycles and pedicabs. These two modes are not under the LTFRB but are arguable the most in number around the country. There are already best practices about their management including those that have been documented in past studies on sustainable transport (e.g., San Fernando, La Union, Quezon City, Olongapo City, Davao City, etc.). Many of these cities are highly urbanized and would need to deal with all public transport and might just be the most knowledgeable and experienced in their jurisdictions. National government should at least identify pilot cities where bus, jeepney and van transport planning, franchising and management (including operations and enforcement) can be devolved or delegated. That is so we can already have an idea how these local transit authorities can be operationalized. Many already have their Local Public Transport Route Plans (LPTRP) so that is a good starting point for LGUs to establish their transit units around.

Modernized jeepneys in Marikina

Passing through Marikina City on the way home, I chanced upon these versions of the so-called modernized jeepneys plying routes in the city. Marikina has some of the oldest routes I’ve known including those originating from Parang and SSS Village. These were at the edges of the city and back in the day were bordering on rural as compared to the urbanized areas what was then still a municipality. The opportunity presented itself so I took a few photos of the mini-buses posing as jitneys or modern jeepneys.

Jitney/mini-bus turning a corner towards A. Bonifacio Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Marikina City that eventually becomes Sumulong Highway.
The vehicles are manufactured by Hino, a Japanese company that specializes in large vehicles such as buses and trucks.
The ‘Parang-Stop & Shop’ route was served by jeepneys. Stop & Shop used to be a popular supermarket in the Sta. Mesa area of Manila. It is no longer there but the name stuck just like ‘Buendia’ is still the term used for ‘Gil Puyat Avenue’ in Makati. From Stop & Shop, one can transfer to other jeepneys to take you to various destinations in Manila including the University Belt, Quiapo, Divisoria, and Intramuros

Unlike the old, conventional jeepneys, these are closed, air-conditioned vehicles. While there exists concerns about virus spread in such configurations, one cannot argue vs. the improved comfortability of these vehicles over the old ones especially when the Covid threat is already addressed. The vehicles seat 20+ passengers on average with more room for standees, if required and allowed in the future.

These vehicles are operated by transport cooperatives, which are encourage by the government in their PUV modernization program. Cooperatives have many advantages compared to the old set-up of individual operators. These include the personality or modality to engage financing institutions for acquiring fleets of PUVs. As such, modernization (or the replacement of old PUVs) is expedited. Note the logos along the side of the vehicle? These are DOTr, LTFRB, LTO and DBP. DBP is, of course, the Development Bank of the Philippines, which is one of the underwriters of the modernization program.

More on these vehicles, modernization and rationalization in future posts.

On the plastic barriers for jeepneys

The minimum requirements for conventional jeepneys prior to their returning to operations include the installation of barriers so as to have physical separation between passengers. Ideally, such separation should be a distance of at least one meter, which was initially relaxed to ‘one seat apart’, and then further relaxed to just the barrier separating passengers. You see various designs installed in jeepneys. I posted a couple in an earlier post showing examples of customized and DIY barriers. Here is another that looks like there was more effort involved in the making of the plastic barriers:

 Specially made plastic barriers with messages and graphics on social distancing printed on them. 

Jeepney drivers are obliged to reject or unload passengers not adhering to the protocols including those refusing to wear face masks and shields while commuting using public transportation modes. I assume that they are really doing this for their and their passengers’ safety and well-being.

Public transport along Route 8: Cubao-Montalban

I had to go back to my usual commuting route to my workplace via Tumana as Marcos Highway is usually congested in the mornings. As such, I had the opportunity to take some photos of public transport modes along the way.

Bus plying Route 8 – Cubao Montalban along the Marikina – San Mateo – Montalban Road (J.P. Rizal Avenue in Marikina City). Montalban is the old name of the Municipality of Rodriguez in Rizal Province.

A Beep, a modern jitney that is actually a minibus plying to Parang-Stop & Shop route that used to be dominated by conventional jeepneys. That is, of course, a conventional tricycle on the other side of the road. By conventional I mean a motorcycle with a side car, which is the most common type of 3-wheeler in the country.

Recently, I saw G-Liner buses along Route 8. That means the bus company’s fleet is now distributed along 3 routes serving Rizal province and connecting it to Metro Manila. While, capacities are still limited due to physical distancing requirements, these buses should be able to carry a lot more passengers once the situation ‘normalizes’ so PUVs are able to maximize their seating (and standing) capacities.

The return of the conventional jeepneys during GCQ and MGCQ

I spotted more jeepneys along my commuting route yesterday and took photos while we were stopped in traffic (yes, roads are again congested as they were before the lockdowns). Here are the photos showing the barriers required for the vehicles to be allowed to operate. Most jeepneys also have signs at the doorway vs. passengers not wearing face masks and shields. These are required for public transport users, and drivers have to reject people not wearing masks and shields.

Plastic sheets dividing the seating spaces and serving as physical barriers between passengers

Plastic sheets attached to wood frames on this jeepney

Another example of plastic sheets defining the passenger spaces.

Some jeepney seat barrier configurations seem more sturdy or offer more physical separation or protection from others. I have seen versions with metal (wire) and wood frames. And then there are the customized “trapal” types similar to the window covers that are folded for air to flow in the jeepneys and unfolded when it is raining. Instead of passengers being one seat apart though, they are practically beside each other with only sheets of plastic dividing them. For precautions sake, this does not seem to be the recommendation of the medical community. While the open windows allow for better ventilation and air flow compared to the closed, aircon vehicles, the physical distancing is not practiced as it should be, with or without the face masks and shields required when riding public transport. This may pose a problem considering we are not over the hump, so to speak, in as far as COVID-19 infections are concerned.

Requiem for the Antipolo-Cubao jeepneys?

From the time Metro Manila and Rizal transitioned to General Community Quarantine (GCQ), there have been limited public transport services connecting the two considering most Rizal towns are like bed towns to Metro Manila. The term “bed town” refers to towns, or municipalities, even cities, that are basically the place of residence of persons who during the day time usually travel out to workplaces or schools outside their areas of residence. Many who reside in Rizal province actually work or study in Metro Manila. Similar cases may also be found in the other provinces surrounding Metro Manila like Bulacan, Laguna and Cavite. These connections are made mainly by public transport, which for the National Capital Region (NCR) and adjoining areas currently comprise about 70% of total trips. The rest is by private transport. [Note: Not counted are trips mainly by walking and cycling. While everyone walks, walking is usually at the ends of the commutes.]

Current public transport services now comprise of buses plying the Antipolo-Cubao and Taytay-Gilmore routes that were among the first operationalized under the rationalization program of the Department of Transportation (DOTr). For the Antipolo-Cubao route, several companies have shared the load with mostly aircon buses running between Quezon City and Antipolo City. I wrote recently that there are now non-aircon (referred to as ordinary) buses serving this route and that in addition to the main line (Aurora Blvd.-Marcos Highway-Masinag Junction-Sumulong Highway via) there was now a branch going through Cogeo and via Olalia Road.

Aircon bus approaching the Robinsons Antipolo terminal

Non-aircon (ordinary) bus plying the Antipolo-Cubao route along Sumulong Highway past the Masinag Junction

We got a comment about how perhaps DOTr and LTFRB plans to introduce variations to main routes including adding to the route number to distinguish one variation from another. While the original route signs look like the one on top of the windshield in the Aircon bus in the first photo with the white box on the left displaying the route number, the bus in the second photo shows two boxes. The second box to the right of the route name is blank. So perhaps there can be an ‘A’ to refer to the original Route 9 and ‘B’ can refer to the one via Cogeo. Does this mean there can also be a ‘C’ and that can be via the even older route via Felix Avenue, Cainta Junction and Ortigas Avenue. If this becomes a reality, then that probably puts the proverbial last nail on the coffin of the Antipolo-Cubao jeepneys. Jeepneys would have been phased out for the route in favor of the higher capacity buses.

The plight of commuters during GCQ

I write this on the eve of the imposition of Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ). It is another unfinished article that was intended to be a quick post showing the typical conditions for commuters during the GCQ. Public transport supply was slow to return to adequate levels as the government took advantage of restrictions to impose route rationalization and modernization programs. The following scenes were common along my commuting routes:

Commuters waiting for a ride near the provincial capitol

The rains of the wet season added to the misery of the wait.

Long queue at the public transport terminal at Robinsons Antipolo, which is the terminus for buses connecting Antipolo with Cubao and Ortigas Center.

The queue reaches beyond the shaded areas of the terminal.

I think national government should be the one to provide for the public transport needs of frontliners (i.e., health care workers including doctor, nurses, medical technologists, pharmacists, etc.) and other essential workers. My definition of the latter are those required for logistics to function as well as those to ensure the required production or manufacturing for the rest of us who need to stay at home. Not everyone has the same, fair circumstances as there are those who can afford to stay at home and those who need to work for them to live, often on a day-to-day basis.

The pandemic has taken a toll not only on the physical but the mental health of many of us. Government rants and retorts are unnecessary and uncalled for given its dismal performance. I dare say dismal as the evidence shows certain local government units and the Office of the Vice President doing much, much more despite their limited resources. We are not in this quandary because government performed well and to the best of their people’s abilities. If that was their best then they have no business staying in their positions. If our health care system fails, then there is nothing to stop this pandemic from claiming much more than lives.

Alternatives for the delivery of public transport services in the new normal

No, this is not a dissenting opinion on service contracting as proposed by a coalition of transport advocates. Rather, I write about other options or alternatives that can be taken on by the government in collaboration with the different sectors or players involved in transportation. Other options have not been discusses as extensively as would have been desired and ultimately weighed for application.

Allow me to rattle off a few options stated in the position paper by the Transportation Science Society of the Philippines (TSSP):

  1. Service contracting – which some groups have proposed and lobbied Congress for Php110 billion funding. This implies a government selecting a few among hundreds of bus operators and thousands of jeepney operators – a process that is bound to be controversial; whilst needing the mobilization of a performance audit and monitoring unit in a government agency. Economic literature is replete with studies that subsidy to producer (i.e., operator) produce bad outcomes over direct subsidy to consumers (i.e., commuter). In this regime, financial risks are borne by the government or authority.
  2. Fuel subsidy – the government was already implementing the Pantawid Pasada Program before ECQ. It incurred Php2.372 billion subsidies in 2019, up by 243% from Php0.977 billion in 2018. At the pump, the fuel subsidy equates to Php1.00/liter discount. Now, the DoTr is proposing a 30% subsidy which it estimates to be Php1,152/PUB and Php366/PUJ. These amounts are NOT commensurate to the theoretical drop in revenues at 50% load limit. Worse, free fuel leads to bad outcomes, as it would encourage higher fuel use and siphoning off to other modes.
  3. Free Fare – this proposal is intertwined with the service contracting model and may be counterproductive to the objective of social distancing. It is a policy that encourages unnecessary travel and crowding – which the distancing rule seeks to minimize. The government needs only to look on ridership on LRT/MRT on free-fare days against regular working days.
  4. Direct Subsidy to Commuter – in this scheme, the operator is allowed to increase its tariff by an amount sufficient to compensate for the 50% volume cut. However, the passenger only pays the same fare level that he paid before ECQ. The government pays the difference. When paired with the Automated Fare Collection System (which LTFRB has required under MC-2020-019 dated 14-May 2020), it is the most efficient method, and is immediately implementable. Subsidy is targeted, rather than all-encompassing. It promotes the wider adoption of AFCS on all public transport, not just on MRT/LRT. Senate Bill No.1417 seeks to fund, among others, for transportation vouchers; this could be disbursed rapidly via the AFCS card

 

Another idea is the purchase of new model jitneys to replace old jeepneys – this is an idea that I have posted and have discussed with former and current officials of the DOTC/DOTr before (matagal na itong idea na ito). You purchase say 1 modern jitney at 1.6million pesos/vehicle (note: other models are more expensive, exceeding 2M per unit) and replace the old, conventional jeepneys. It will not be free but payment for the vehicle will be deferred until after the transport crisis brought about by the pandemic clears out. The old jeepneys would be part of the collateral and perhaps still have some utility in them to be used for other purposes (freight?). Think about it. How much pork does your typical congressman and senator have? They could probably use this to modernize public transport in their respective constituencies!

It is important to have a lot of ideas out there instead of just one that is being pushed as the only option. In truth, there should be a combinations of solutions as there will not a be single one applicable and effective to all cases and situations. At this time, I am not sure that these options are being considered by the DOTr. The agency and the LTFRB are proceeding with rationalization and modernization simultaneously, at their own pace and at their own terms, taking advantage of the conditions and situations brought about by the pandemic. While it seems to be the ‘perfect’ opportunity to do rationalization and modernization, it might be immoral and inappropriate given the circumstances that doomed a lot of families who depend on public transport operations for their livelihood.

COVID-19 Infection Risk Assessment of Transport Modes

I posted about the work we have been doing to assess the infection risk (i.e., spread of COVID-19) for various modes of transport considering the transition of many areas including the National Capital Region (NCR) to the General Community Quarantine (GCQ). The work was undertaken through the Transportation Science Society of the Philippines (TSSP), which is under the umbrella of the Eastern Asia Society for Transportation Studies (EASTS). Here is the outcome in the form of an “Infection Risk Classification of Transport Modes or Vehicle Types” developed by a core group of public transportation and road safety specialists among its members:

Note again that this is the product of a rapid assessment using the mentioned criteria and factors. It is a qualitative assessment and a quantitative one, given the data, would obviously been preferred. Moreover, this is an assessment for risk of infection rather than for road safety. In the “old normal”, for example, cycling and motorcycle use may have a higher risk in traffic given traffic mix, human behavior and lack of facilities to make these modes safe.