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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.

Interviews

I had quite a busy week last week with several meetings for a couple of projects I am doing. It became a hectic week after a major media company featured a paper I wrote last year on its 9PM new program anchored by an award-winning, popular media personality. I was quite surprised as the reporter went over key points of my paper but I am glad that he seemed to have read the paper and understood the main points. The following day, our office fielded a few calls from a major daily and two other major TV stations.

The paper was one I wrote after delivering my Professorial Chair Lecture in last year’s colloquium at our college at UP Diliman. It is something I regard as a tool to initiate discussions about the state of our transportation system. And so requests for a copy of the paper were entertained by our librarians/information managers whom I provided a digital copy of the paper that they could give to those asking for a copy of the material. Meanwhile, there were also requests for interviews including one interview for TV the day following the news report on the news channel. I am no stranger to such interviews and rather than have the reporter insistently follow-up on when he can interview me, I agreed to give the interview the same day. To be fair, I granted 2 more radio interviews yesterday (Friday) morning and another this (Saturday) morning.

Yesterday’s interview was quite special as it was on prime time AM radio with the former Vice President of the Philippines who is among the top media personalities in the country. I learned the previous day that the person mentioned my paper on his program and so was making a follow-up feature of the topic on his Friday program. That went very well as the right questions were asked and I was able to explain clearly about the loss of productivity we are experiencing in Metro Manila that colleagues first estimated in 2000. I was quite happy to say something about sustainable transport and the promote walking and cycling. More importantly, I knew that the interview would be heard by a lot of people including government officials and decision-makers, and somehow be able to send the message about sustainable transport and the need for transport infrastructure in metropolitan areas.

This morning’s gig was quite different as I was a “guest” in a radio program co-hosted by a newly re-elected Senator. I guess it was something that one could consider a virtual guesting since I was on the phone while they were in the studio of a major AM radio station. It was also a long discussion that I engaged in as I was on air for about 40 minutes and was part of a nice exchange with the hosts. It was also another productive interview as again good questions were also asked about transport problems and what was required to address them. I must admit though that I was caught a bit off-guard when they asked about “grading” the 17 cities of Metro Manila and I had to draw on some stock knowledge and experience about the cities. It was a difficult question and an awkward one given that I would always like to think that all these cities probably are giving it their best with the resources that they have in solving their problems. This last interview left me hopeful as I thought the Senator was honestly concerned about the state of traffic and transport in our cities (not just Metro Manila) and would likely include something on transport and traffic on his legislative agenda once the 16th Congress opens in July.

Sound bites on transport and traffic

If there was one thing I both dreaded and enjoyed during my 6-year stint as head of UP’s National Center for Transportation Studies, it is granting interviews to the media. My predecessors warned me about how some media outfits have been notorious for editing interviews to suit their needs. In certain cases, they are alleged to have spliced recordings that if taken as is would have been boring or not quite informative in order to have material that were more sensational. There are features, for example, where it seems interviewees were responding to the each other’s opinions making it look like they were arguing. And then there are those where certain statements are taken out of context when cut from a long explanation in the actual interview that took place.

I think I tried my best to be careful about what I said and how I explained or related things in my interviews. I looked at interviews as a way the Center could reach out and advance its advocacies. These were opportunities to spread the message of sustainable transport, to educate and inform officials and the public about what we should aspire and work hard towards achieving in transport and traffic. I think we had to be both progressive and aggressive with our messages because it was our duty, our responsibility not just to do research and train people but also to inform and educate people about sustainable transport. Popular mass media is an effective way to do this and we should be engaging but careful about our messages in order to be constructive and fair.

The last news interview I had before finally being relieved of being holdover Director for a month after my term ended was with GMA News. I like this interview about traffic congestion because I was able to put in some of the ideas that people in the forefront of sustainable transport have been preaching and practicing. These include the truth that in developed countries and cities, the wealthy take public transportation and that in order to improve public transportation, decision makers should themselves experience commuting.

These are not new ideas and I have to be clear that these were not my original ideas but those that I have come to embrace and advocate. I truly believe that if we don’t take public transportation, walk or cycle, we can’t really have a clear picture of what our cities need in order to solve the traffic mess and come up with services that are safe, efficient, inclusive and equitable.

The feature appearing on Jessica Soho’s State of the Nation on Channel 11 from the GMA News website.

The same report that appeared in the primetime 24 Oras:

Taming the beast(s) of traffic

An article came out of Rappler last weekend referring to addressing one of the most persistent problems in Metro Manila – traffic. It is a problem that is the result of years of neglect, poor planning, inconsistencies and a lack of foresight for future transport needs.

“Perhaps there are more than one beast to talk about considering that there is not one cause of the transport and traffic problems we experience everyday in Metro Manila (and elsewhere). We love ranting about how traffic is bad and how other people should leave their cars at home and yet we do little ourselves to pitch in to improve the situation. And so we are beasts ourselves in this manner. The discussions on public transport and road infrastructure have been going on since perhaps the author decided to practice transportation engineering. What has changed? Have things improved or have they worsened? It is really difficult to effect change when decision-makers and policy-makers are short of memory or have no memory or understanding at all of what’s going on. It seems that we are always starting on a clean slate every time someone new is at DOTC, DPWH or whichever agencies are supposed to handle transport and traffic in MM (and the country). Perhaps some criteria should be applied to whoever will be in-charge of transport and traffic, and one should be that the person or persons should be someone taking public transport to the workplace. At the least, we can be assured that he/she has first-hand experience of the painful way we travel each day and lead the person to really work towards improving transport in this country.”

I don’t usually write replies or comments on material posted online. I believe it is a very public platform and nowadays, when there’s a lot of talk on items like plagiarism, transparency, freedom of information, etc., it seems so easy to solicit opinions and comments from anyone who would care or dare post one. And transport and traffic seems to be a topic where everyone has his/her own opinion so much so that some people tend to project themselves as experts on the topic. Nevertheless, I thought that an opinion was necessary in order to offer another perspective on the matter of the “beast.” I would like to believe that in our case, we probably have had one too many “thought leaders” in transport and traffic. It is time that we also have “action leaders” who would do rather than simply say or write. We need people who will practice what they preach and actively and willingly contribute when called upon for help in solving this traffic mess we are in.

Who’s to blame?

I first saw this report about one motorist driving his car straight into a flooded section of a street in Quezon City on GMA 7’s prime time news program 24 Oras last night. I also saw it again on New TV 11’s State of the Nation with Jessica Soho. Friends and former students have posted the video from GMA 7 as well as from YouTube. The guy blamed everyone including the MMDA, the media and the tambays in the area for not warning him about the flood. He never even thought twice about getting angry and virtually berating everyone else. Perhaps it would have served him better if he had an ounce of common sense in him that could have spared him (and his car) from the incident. Now, he is all over the net thanks to the viral video of him spreading around and showing everyone else what many of us have become. He’s practically a poster boy for citizens who do nothing except blame everyone else.

The GMA7 news report may be found here.

Interviews

A lot of people have asked me how it felt when one is interviewed by media. It is not an easy thing and certainly not a comfortable experience considering that I must be wary of the statements that I make considering my position at the University and my being head of a research and training center. I must be well informed about the topic and usually require whoever was requesting an interview to provide the topic and perhaps guide questions in advance. This is to allow for some preparations especially to get sufficient data on things I may be asked.

Data should be current and reliable such that it will be factual, informative. After all, interviews are also opportunities to promote the advocacies of the Center as well as the Center itself. And the best way to do so is to project the Center as an institution of honor and excellence, in the tradition of the University it represents. I must also be mindful that we are actually part of the government and that we have many linkages with government agencies including those that have often been under attack for the mess we have to deal with in Philippine transport and traffic. Yet being part of the University and the academe in general, one must also maintain objectivity while being fair, not resorting to uncalled for criticisms or government bashing that has been the signature of some so-called experts in transport and traffic. Thus, it is also a tough balancing act as one is being called upon to comment and provide opinion on a variety of topics, mainly those that are the talk of the town like a recent road crash or a controversial traffic scheme being proposed.

Interviews, however, despite the required preparations are definitely enjoyable and, after one is shown on TV or printed in the newspaper, something one would be proud. This is especially true if the interview went well and one is not quoted out of context. Colleagues at the Center including previous heads have always nixed interviews because of their experience on TV, radio and print where careless (and maybe even reckless) reporters have quoted them out of context. I have had my share of similar experiences despite my preparation and I guess it is something one should expect if one grants one too many an interview. Based on this experience I have enlisted the help of my staff to screen those who are requesting for interviews including setting up a system where they have to write to the office (an email would be enough).

I have turned down many requests and my staff have done so, too. Mostly, these are ones that obviously are in conflict with my schedule (lectures, meetings and other appointments) or those that violate time I have reserved for myself and my family (i.e., no interviews after 6:00PM and definitely none on weekends). I have made very rare exceptions to these rules and then only when the topic is a hot issue and one that requires expert opinion from a scholarly perspective.

In future posts, I will try to write about specific experiences and some of my favorite interviews and interview topics.