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On being constructively skeptical on transport and traffic

Social media is full of news or what is being passed off as news about various transport projects or initiatives. These include a proposed subway line for Metro Manila, road sharing initiatives, inter-island bridges, gateway airports and others major infrastructure projects that are being conceptualized, planned, studied or designed. Too often, people who support the projects/initiatives brand those who do not share their enthusiasm and interest as skeptics and even simply “nega” or negative people. These supporters and their opposites are most likely those who fall under one or more of the following categories:

  • Overly optimistic
  • Unaware of the process towards a project’s realization
  • Troll
  • Naive

Hopefully, he/she is not of the third kind who basically are posting against anyone and don’t really have any valuable opinion or constructive comment to offer. There are many groups and individuals out there including those who claim to be fanatics of urban planning, railways and other things on transport. Some even get to write in mainstream media. Unfortunately, to the untrained minds their opinions passed on as expert advise appear to be legit and that can be especially true to people who are more inclined to believe them such as very fanatics and trolls I mentioned. It is very important that proper research is undertaken before any article is written. Otherwise, there will always be bias. Of course, some articles are written with bias a given and with the objective of misleading people.

When government officials (or candidates) claim something and offer nothing as concrete proof (e.g., numbers to support a claim of improving traffic), one has to think twice about believing them. One has to be critical of such claims. Promises are often just that – promises. It is important to ask how certain programs or projects will be delivered, how infrastructure will be implemented (i.e., through what mode of financing, timelines, etc.), and what would be its impacts (i.e., social, environmental, traffic). Of course, it should be expected that officials provide suitable answers to these queries.

It should also be expected for officials to understand that institutions such as the academic ones are there to provide objective criticism. Unfortunately, there are those in the academe who themselves have some agenda they are pushing and can be deliberately misleading and misinforming with their flawed assessments and statements. Then there are experts who offer nothing but negative comments. To these people, any idea not coming from them are essentially wrong and it is often difficult to deal with such people among whom are experienced engineers and planners. Being a skeptic is one thing but being a constructive skeptic. That is, one who offers solutions and also willing to tread the middle ground or some reasonable compromise based on the situation and conditions at hand.

This is why an evidence-based approach is needed and should be mainstreamed in many government agencies, particularly those that are involved in evaluations.  National agencies like the NEDA, DOTr and the DPWH have the capacity and capability to perform quantitative analysis using recent, valid data. The quality of data tells a lot about the evidence to back up analyses, evaluations and recommendations. One must not forget that with quantitative analysis it is always “garbage in, garbage out”. That is, if you have crappy data, then you will have flawed analysis, evaluations and recommendations.

Progress in promoting and realizing sustainable transport in the Philippines

There is a very good article that came out of Rappler last March 28, 2016:

Creating sustainable transport systems: PH’s progress so far

The article caught my attention as I have lost track of what should be the monitoring of sustainable transport initiatives anchored on the pillars of EST as described in the National EST Strategy and the article. The formulation of the national EST strategy started under the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (DOTC Secretary Leandro Mendoza) and was completed under President Benigno C. Aquino III (DOTC Secretary Jose Dela Cruz). The formulation was initiated and supported by the United Nations Centre for Regional Development (UNCRD) and is unique partly because it is the only one to be completed among similar projects across ASEAN. The other countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia were only able to get to the baseline and consultations stages of their own national EST strategy formulations. The Philippines National EST Strategy document eventually became an input for the formulation of the National Transport Policy Framework (supported by AusAID) as well as the National Transport Infrastructure Framework (supported by the WB).

Misleading information on comparing modes of transport

A major media network sponsored an experiment pitting a bicycle, bus and rail in a race from Trinoma to De La Salle University along Taft Avenue. The bicycle won but under conditions that are favorable to the cyclist even considering Metro Manila’s road conditions that are not bike-friendly (and not pedestrian friendly, too, in many areas).

Would the bicycle have won against a motorcycle where both riders were of similar skills and experiences? Probably not considering the speed of a motorised vehicle even given congested roads.

Would a lot of people consider cycling between, say, Trinoma and DLSU? Most likely not, even if you provide the necessary infrastructure and facilities like bike racks, showers, etc., short of building exclusive bikeways (e.g., elevated).

I have nothing against bicycles and cycling. I have a bicycle myself and I have cycled between my home and the universities when I was studying and a visiting scientist in Japan. However, I have to caution people into thinking and oversimplifying that one mode is better than all others. If we pursue this line of thinking, then perhaps we should include walking in the discussion. I would like to think that there will also be a lot of people who would state that walking (and even running) is better than other modes including cycling. When comparing these two non-motorized modes, however, the advantages of one over the other become obvious – cycling is faster and requires less energy per person traveling using the mode. Such would extend to the motorized modes and comparisons should clearly show the suitability of certain modes of transport over others once distance and capacity are factored into the equation. Thus, we have rail systems as more appropriate over longer distances and are able to carry much more passengers per hour compared to, say, jeepneys. These are even more efficient in terms of energy on a per passenger basis. Further, we have to appreciate that we have to establish a clear hierarchy of transport systems and provide the necessary infrastructure to enable people to have all the options for traveling and especially for commuting.

Some thoughts on the EDSA MRT 3 problem

A lot of people reacted when the current Philippine President practically absolved the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) from any fault regarding the issues on the EDSA MRT Line 3 during his recent State of the Nation Address (SONA). The main message in some articles appearing on mainstream and social media is that the President should blame DOTC for the mess. I have the opinion that both DOTC and the private entities involved (MRT Corporation, MRT Holdings) are responsible for the problem and its being continuously unresolved.

A week ago, I got the following question in my email:

Who is it that we could blame for the current state of the rail system? What do you suggest that the government or the private partner do in order for them to improve the line?

Quite frankly, I thought the first question was too direct and blunt as to ask who we can blame for the MRT3 mess. It is also very awkward to answer the second question because it assumes that I am an expert on the legal issues on this matter. I am NOT a legal expert nor would I want to pretend to be one. Here was my reply:

That’s actually a very tricky question. We can’t really blame a specific person or persons but perhaps entire organizations that are supposed to be responsible for the mess that is MRT3. The main or root issue seems to be legal and not at all technical. The technical problems experienced are manifestations of a contract that is a textbook case for how NOT to do a PPP. I am not privy to the details of the discussions between the government and the people involved and behind MRTC so it is awkward to make comments specific to this matter of the contract and all its complexities. Perhaps the DOTC wants to follow “Daang Matuwid” by not budging to the terms laid out by MRTC? Perhaps MRTC is aware of the stakes (plight of the riding public) and is using this to force DOTC into a deal that is not favorable to government? We can only speculate on this without firsthand knowledge of their discussions.

However, from the perspective of transport as a service and as a public good, I would say that MRTC indeed is aware of the public’s clamor for improvement. This is all over the news and social media in the form of commentaries, images and even videos of the undesirable experiences of those taking the MRT3. In the end, DOTC must decide whether it is all worth it to maintain the stalemate with MRTC considering that the public interest is at stake here and things will just become worse with inaction. Perhaps the government should move towards the best compromise they can live with considering the urgency of addressing the problem at hand.

I would like to think that my reply was quite cautious. There have been many allegations and claims from both sides of the table regarding how to resolve the impasse and the conflicts that seem to be interwoven with the contract on the MRT3. Perhaps such cases test the limits of “Daang Matuwid”? Much was and is expected from DOTC considering its battery of lawyers including top officials of the department. Aren’t they supposed to have been involved in discussions and negotiations aside from strategic planning for our transportation in this country? I guess the general public especially those who take the MRT3 for their commutes already know who to blame for their plight…

Bad P.R. for road sharing

A few articles came out of Sun Star Cebu recently regarding an activity over the weekend that was supposed to promote road sharing. I read four articles by different opinion writers. These may be found in the following links:

The first three articles seem to be more like reactions of motorists to activities that seek to promote road sharing and cycling in particular. The writers missed the point in so far as road sharing is concerned and are definitely biased towards the status quo in terms of road usage. However, some of their observations need to be qualified as certain roads seem to have been closed with little advise to the general public, many of whom take public transport. The last article is the more grounded one and explains the perspective of non-bikers who are public transport users. This is the calmer opinion among the four and expresses his points in a more objective manner.

I was not there and I haven’t read yet any articles from the organizers or participants to the activity. I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt in so far as their advocacy is concerned. But then one also has to consider the valid points raised by other road users whenever road sharing is equated to cycling rather than a more balanced mix that is focused towards maximising the number of people or amount of goods transported. It is not only a question of space but of efficiency of movement. Bicycles might be efficient in energy but unfortunately it is not the most efficient in terms of the number of people carried between origins and destinations. And we can never decongest our streets in order to make more space for cyclists and pedestrians if we cannot come up with efficient public transport systems that will encourage people to leave their cars or not to buy one in the first place. It can be argued that people are actually opting for motorcycles than bicycles for commuting – another trend that needs to be understood from the perspective of people making these choices for their transport needs.

Some good reads on rural roads

A couple of articles came out recently on Rappler that focuses on rural roads:

Farm to market roads: a farmer’s journey, March 5, 2014

The future of rural roads, March 8, 2014

Both are solid articles and places our attention to rural roads and particularly farm to market roads (FMRs). There’s a wealth of information in the articles as well as the links embedded that allow us to see past and present efforts on rural roads. It is good that government with the help of international agencies are investing resources on these roads and we hope that this will be sustained in order to effect what has been touted as inclusive growth.

IMG_0337Rural road connecting to a national highway in Palawan

Rural roads are an important and integral part of of our transportation system. Often, attention is placed on national roads, which are under the jurisdiction of the DPWH. Local roads, however, are under various entities including the Department of Agriculture and various levels of local government (e.g., provincial, city, municipal). Of course, there are roads that are rural but are national and therefore under the DPWH. But most roads are classified as local and therefore would not be directly under that national agency. In fact, 85% of our roads are considered local and those classified as rural comprise perhaps more than 70% of the total roads in the country (i.e., national roads can be urban or rural, and city roads include those in the rural parts of cities). Rural roads including FMRs are essential as they provide basic access to jobs, education, health services, markets and other services that could help alleviate poverty and promote development in rural areas.

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.