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Cities and Automobile Dependence: What Have We Learned?

We end the year with an article from Todd Litman via Planetizen. The topic is something that we really need to ponder on as we or if we are to move towards more sustainable transportation for our cities and municipalities. The experiences during this Covid-19 pandemic should have provided us glimpses of how it could be if we put active and public transport above automobile dependence or car-centricity.

Source: Cities and Automobile Dependence: What Have We Learned?

The main article may be found here (in proper citation for academic/researchers reading this):

Newman, P. and Kenworthy, J. (2021) Gasoline Consumption and Cities Revisited: What Have We Learnt?. Current Urban Studies, 9, 532-553. doi: 10.4236/cus.2021.93032.

The case for bike lanes

There is a strong push for more bike lanes to be developed along both major and minor roads. Many pop-up bike lanes that were implemented and permanent bike lanes constructed in 2020, mostly during the lockdowns, to address the needs of ‘frontliners’ who opted to bike to work have been retained and even upgraded to adhere to guidelines issued by the DPWH. While these bike lanes are not yet as comprehensive as desired and most are not the protected types, recent developments have threatened their existence and consequently the safety of cyclists (especially bike-to-work) and the promotion of cycling as a primary mode of transport.

Biker with a passenger – angkas is not just for motorcycles but can also apply to bicycles as well

We need to transform our streets where it is possible in order to take advantage of the increasing popularity of cycling that has convinced some people to select cycling at least for their last mile trips and hopefully for the most part(s) of their commute. From a transport planning perspective, we should also determine if these mode shifts can be sustained and perhaps increased with proper integration of public transport and active transport thrusts.

The recent removal of protected bike lanes or barriers that serve to protect cyclists using the lanes in some cities are examples of regression rather than progression. These come as a surprise as these cities have made leaps and bounds so to speak in developing their bike lane networks. Where did the orders to do so originate and are staffs of these cities communicating, discussing and coordinating these actions? Apparently, there are internal conflicts and perhaps, I dare say here, politics involved. It is also possible that within LGUs, the concepts, visions and plans for transportation are not harmonized or understood making one project by one clique unacceptable to another or others. I know from personal experiences that LGU traffic engineering & management and operations staff are often not in synch with their planning counterparts. This is not and should not be a given since both need to collaborate in order to address transport and traffic issues that need more comprehensive and progressive approaches compared to what have been practiced before.

LGUs cannot rely on strategies and tactics that are along the lines of “ganito na ginagawa noon pa” or “ganito na inabutan ko”, which only proves these were ineffective (i.e., why not try other techniques, methods or strategies instead?). Transformations and paradigm changes to solve transport problems cannot be achieved by denying the change, innovation or new ideas required for emerging as well as persistent issues/problems.

On the key transformations needed to achieve sustainable, low carbon transport

Also related to COP26, I am sharing material from the Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLOCAT) partnership, of which our center is part of. SLOCAT recently released the 11 key transformations for sustainable low carbon land transport urgently needed to meet the climate targets. Here’s a link to their site:

SLOCAT also has the following Wheel of Transport and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) on the same site. The Wheel illustrates the four cross-cutting themes: equitable, healthy, resilient and green.

SLOCAT Wheel on Transport and the SDG’s – https://slocat.net/transport-sdgs/

In the SLOCAT site, they list the following to support the transformations:

Overarching approaches to apply across transport modes and sub-sectors overtime

  • Put people first, not vehicles and technology 
  • Co-create and communicate a compelling vision and targets 
  • Guide short- and medium-term action with clear, coherent political messages 
  • Combine push and pull measures: Regulate and incentivise 
  • Link policies within and beyond transport for synergies 
  • Prioritise resources by social and sustainable value for money 
  • Engage, empower and coordinate stakeholders across government levels and sectors 
  • Build capacity and improve data 
  • Implement pilots to learn and share, then roll out at scale

We need to do more to reduce transport emissions

I did some work on long term action plans on low carbon transport for the ASEAN region before. We were able identify many of interventions that were being implemented as well as those that can be done to reduce transport emissions. Such reductions for the region would ultimately contribute to alleviating global warming. Unfortunately, while ASEAN is a significant contributor to emissions, it pales in comparison to emissions by individual countries like China and the US. If these two and others in the industrialized world do not commit to reducing their emissions, all work will come to naught. Here is an article that serves as a pre-event write-up for COP26, a major climate summit that will be held in Glasgow in the coming days.

On why people are afraid to bike

There is an interesting graphic shared by a friend on his social media account. I am also sharing it here. The source may be found at the bottom right of the graphic.

I think the graphic speaks for itself. How can we encourage people to bike whether for commuting or other utilitarian purpose if there are nuts behind the wheels of many motor vehicles? All the points raised in the graphic are true for the Philippines and are not limited to drivers of private vehicles. These are also the same for public transport drivers as well. And these cannot be solved or addressed overnight. You have to get to the roots of the problem, which are about the driver and rider education (i.e., training), and the licensing system of the Land Transportation Office (LTO).

While there are driving and riding schools that have proliferated, many seem to just go through the motions of driver and rider education. Prospective motor vehicle drivers and riders often just learn enough to pass a flawed examination to get their licenses. Do they really learn about how to behave properly when driving or riding? It certainly does not show with how they deal with cyclists and pedestrians. As for enforcement, well that’s another topic to discuss in a separate post.

On priority lanes for public transport

I am currently part of an International Research Group (IRG) involved in studies on bus priority. Yesterday, we had a meeting where one professor mentioned the importance of being able to clearly explain the advantages of having priority lanes for buses in order to improve their performance (i.e., number of passengers transported and improved travel times). There was a lively discussion about how the perception is for bike lanes while transit lanes have also been implemented for a long time now though with mixed results.

There are very familiar arguments vs. taking lanes away from cars or private motor vehicles and allocating them for exclusive use of public transport and bicycles. It may sound cliche but ‘moving people and not just cars’ is perhaps the simplest argument for priority lanes.

EDSA carousel buses lining up towards a station

Bike lane along Katipunan Avenue Рis this a temporary thing? a fad because traffic is really not back to the old normal? Katipunan is infamous for being congested with cars generated by major trip generators in the area such as schools/universities and commercial establishments.

The bike lane along Commonwealth Avenue proves there’s just too much space for private motor vehicles. And with the Line 7 in the horizon, perhaps more lanes can be taken and made exclusive to road public transport. [Photo credit: Cenon Esguerra]

On defining the 15-minute city

I have shared articles and briefly written about the concept of the 15-minute city on this blog. Here is another discussing how a 15-minute city is defined:

(February 8, 2021) “Defining the 15-minute city,” Public Square, https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/2021/02/08/defining-15-minute-city [Last accessed: 8/10/2021]

Here is an image from the article:

Again, it is important to contextualize these concepts. I share these as references and topics for discussion. Of course, I have my own opinions about this and I have written about those in previous posts. I guess in the Philippine context, we can include the pedicab or non-motorized three-wheelers in the discussion. These are also very popular modes in many cities and municipalities despite their being also prohibited along national roads like their motorized counterparts. It would be nice to have more visuals in the form of maps that show travel times for essential destinations or places like hospitals, markets, grocery stores, workplaces and, of course, homes. I assume there is at least someone, somewhere who perhaps have made multi-layer maps of this sort and attempted to related them along the lines of this concept of a 15-minute city (or perhaps the even older “compact cities”).

On the BRT gaining popularity

Bus rapid transit or BRT has been around at least since the 1970s when the first ‘real’ BRT systems went into operation in Curitiba, Brazil. Here’s an article presenting the current state of deployment of these systems in the US:

Duncan, I. (July 23, 2021) “Cities are turning to supercharged bus routes to more quickly and cheaply expand transit services,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/transportation/2021/07/23/bus-routes-public-transit-brt/

“There are indications that BRT lines can promote some of the density long associated with rail routes. A new analysis of job and residential growth by researchers at the University of Arizona examined areas around BRT stations in 11 cities between 2013 and 2019. In each case, they found areas close to the stations accounted for a significant share of regional growth.”

The Philippines should have had its first BRT line more than a decade ago if the government had been decisive about it. The first opportunity was under the administration of Macapagal-Arroyo when it was first conceptualized for Cebu City under a UNDP project and picked up by the WB for implementation.* The next opportunity came under the Aquino administration when the Cebu BRT could have been one of those low-hanging fruits for public mass transportation. Now, the same project is nowhere near completion as the Duterte administration has less than a year before it bows out. Meanwhile, there are proposed BRT’s in Metro Manila and Davao that have yet to see the proverbial light of day. The EDSA carousel is supposed to morph into a BRT but has not become so and requires more tweaking for it to be one.

*[Note: The BRT that was supposedly implemented by the MMDA under its then Chair Bayani Fernando was not a BRT or even a BRT light. It is not even at the scale of the current EDSA carousel.]

Another look at the ‘avoid, shift and improve’ framework

The transport and traffic situation during this pandemic has revealed a lot about what can be done and what needs to be done about transportation. Discussions about what and how people visualize their ideal or acceptable transportation system reminded me of the backcasting concepts and the tools. The following diagram is sourced from the SLoCaT homepage: https://tcc-gsr.com/global-overview/global-transport-and-climate-change/

Examples (i.e., non-exhaustive list) of avoid, shift and improve measures

Note the overlaps among the three? Do you think its possible to have a measure that’s avoid, shift and improve at the same time?

Note, too, that if we contextualize this according to the Covid-19 pandemic, these measures even make more sense rather than appear like typical, ordinary measures we have about transportation. The pandemic revealed many weaknesses or vulnerabilities of our transportation system. We are presented with the opportunity to address these and implement certain measures that would have met with a lot of opposition before but can probably be rolled out now such as public transport priority schemes and protected bike lanes. “Work from home” is not really new since the concept has been proposed and implemented before but not as widely as was required by the pandemic situation. So perhaps we should take advantage of this forced reboot of sorts for our transportation system to be able to implement this A-S-I framework.

On car ownership and car use vs. public transport use

Here is another quick share of an article regarding car ownership and car use vs. public transport use. It is written in the first person as a the author relates her experience and what contradictory feelings she’s had with the decision to acquire and use a car.

Noor, D (June 21, 2021) “Buying a Car Improved My Life. It Shouldn’t Have.” Gizmodo, https://gizmodo.com/buying-a-car-improved-my-life-it-shouldnt-have-1847106068 [Last accessed: 7/10/2021]

I think many people in the Philippines (not just Metro Manila or other highly urbanized cities in the country) have similar experiences. They really don’t want to get a car or a motorcycle but their circumstances and the conveniences have outweighed their initial stand. Why do we need to have our own private vehicle anyway? Is it because its difficult to get a ride using public transport? Is it because of the quality of the ride? Is it due to health or safety-related reasons? In that last question, perhaps the fears of getting infected by Covid-19 present a overwhelming justification for car use and not just car ownership.

We also have to distinguish between vehicle ownership, car ownership and car use. ‘Vehicle ownership’ is a more general term that should include both motorized and non-motorized vehicles. Thus, if you have don’t have a car but instead have a bicycle, you are still a vehicle owner. Of course the term is more widely applied to motor vehicle owners but we need to expand this and distinguish between motor and non-motor vehicle ownership. Otherwise, let’s just be specific about the vehicle. ‘Car ownership’ is not equal to or does not correspond with car use. It is possible that one owns one or more cars or vehicles but does not use them at least for his/her regular commute. People in Singapore, for example, have cars. The same for people in Japan. However, most of these car owners choose to take public transportation most days. In their case, owning a car may not have improved their lives considering the excellent public transport services they have and requirements for people wanting to own cars in those places. Elsewhere, such as the Philippines, owning and using a car may provide better transport options depending not the circumstances of the person(s), even considering the costs of ownership and operations.