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On leaders and decision-makers taking public transport or bikes to commute

There has been clamor for our leaders and decision-makers, especially those in the transport and highway agencies, to take public transportation. This is for them to experience how most commuters fare for their daily grinds. And no, having an entourage including bodyguards or reserving your own train car does not count. Dapat pumila o maghintay sa kalye. Makipagsisikan o makipag-habulan sa bus, jeepney o van para makasakay. Many if not most of these officials have their own vehicles or are even driven (may tsuper o driver) to and from work. One even had the gall to transfer his department to where he comfortably resides so he won’t commute but that’s another story.

You see articles and posts about Dutch politicians and even royalty riding the bicycle to work.

The Dutch Prime Minister bikes to work

Then there are politicians regularly taking public transport while in office. Here is an article about the newly inaugurated POTUS, Joe Biden, who took the train for his regular commutes:

Igoe, K.J. (May 4,2020) “Where Did “Amtrak Joe,” Joe Biden’s Nickname, Come From?”, Marie Claire, https://www.marieclaire.com/politics/a32363173/joe-biden-amtrak-joe-meaning/ [Last accessed 2/14/2021]

Do we have someone close to such an example? Commuting by private plane between your home in the Southern Philippines and your office in Manila surely won’t let one have an appreciation of the commuting experiences of typical Filipinos.

What to look forward to Philippine transportation in 2021

I usually wrote a year-ender for transport but somehow never got to it. I’ve spent much of the break working on projects that have been extended due to the pandemic’s impacts on their implementation. Two of these projects are being implemented in Zamboanga City where we are lucky to have hard-working counterparts and a very cooperative city government. I think given what have transpired in 2020, there’s much to expect in 2021. I also want to be hopeful and optimistic about the outlook for this year. So positive thoughts for now. Here are things to look forward to in 2021:

  1. More bike lanes around the country – these include the bike lanes to be constructed using the billions of pesos allocated for Metro Manila, Metro Cebu and Metro Davao. Is there a plan? None yet unless you count the sketch mapping exercise people have been doing. Sure, the DPWH came up with guidelines for bike lanes designs but these are a work in progress at best if compared to the existing guidelines from countries that have built and maintained bike facilities for a very long time now (e.g., Netherlands, Australia, even Singapore).
  2. Construction of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Cebu – this is a much delayed project (more than a decade in the making already) that needs to be implemented already. This year might just be the year? We certainly hope so. That EDSA carousel is still far from being the BRT the Philippines need to be a model system for its cities. I still think Cebu can be a better model for other cities than Metro Manila. And so a BRT success there has a better chance of being replicated in other cities that need a mass transit system now.
  3. More rationalized public transport routes in major cities – by ‘rationalized’ I am not limiting this to the government’s original rationalization program but also to the other reforms that are being introduced this year including service contracting. Whether the latter will work wonders, we’ll get a better idea of it this year. Will services be better? Will drivers improve the way they drive? Will this be cost-effective in the long run? These are just some of the questions that need to be answered, with some of those answers hopefully coming this year.
  4. Full scale construction of the Metro Manila subway – would you believe that there’s actually little work done for this project aside from the preparatory and PR work that have been the focus the past few years. It seemed like they’ve been doing realignments and groundbreakings every year. Meanwhile, they haven’t even started tunneling yet. To be honest, I don’t think there will be an operational subway by 2022. I’ve seen subways being built in Tokyo, Singapore and Vietnam, and you can’t do even a demo project in 1.5 years time.
  5. More air travel – as the vaccines are delivered and administered, there should be a feeling of more safety and confidence for people to travel again. Much inter-island trips are actually done via air travel. Airlines have lost a lot in the last year and are certainly going to come up with nice deals (I already saw a lot of promos from various airlines that I usually book for my flights – PAL, Cebu Pac, JAL and SIA.) Hotels and resorts, too, are welcoming tourists with great deals. So perhaps it will be a rebound year for tourism and…air travel.
  6. More rail transport in general – hopefully this year will be the year when the Line 2 extension becomes operational. Meanwhile, other projects like the PNR and Line 3 rehabs, the Line 1 extension, and Manila-Clark railway line construction continues. Perhaps this year will also see the construction of Mindanao Railways.

What do you think are things to look forward to in Philippine transportation in 2021?

PNR Espana Crossing

Prior to the lockdown, I was able to take a few photos of the PNR line crossing Espana Avenue in Manila. These now appear to be somewhat nostalgic as I am unsure when I can go around again without (or with reduced) fear of getting infected by COVID-19.

Commuter train crossing Espana Avenue towards the Espana Station of the PNR line

Crossing the PNR line towards UST, I got this photo of the PNR line showing the informal settlements along it

On the way back, I made sure I had the opportunity to take this photo of the PNR Espana Station

The PNR was supposed to have resumed operations, and implementing physical distancing and other measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection. Here’s a photo they posted prior to the resumption of operations when Metro Manila went into GCQ status:

The photo shows where passengers may sit or stand inside a PNR train. I have yet to see a photo of the actual conditions inside the train.

Infographics: Infection Risk Classification of Transport Modes Post-ECQ

The infection risk table I posted a few days ago was improved into the following infographics:

On the DOTr GCQ Guidelines for Public Transport Operations – Rail Sector

I had previously posted for information and reference the Department of Transportation’s (DOTr) guidelines for road public transportation. Here are the guidelines for rail public transportation:

While I said that I will refrain from commenting or critiquing these guidelines starting from the previous post on road public transport, I could not help but say a few things about the case for rail. In particular, I am most concerned about the reduced capacity of trains based on the infographics above. The particular infographic states that passenger capacities for Line 1, Line 2, Line 3 and PNR would be 12, 10, 13 and 20 percent, respectively. These are very low numbers that are not even comparable to the 30 to 50% passenger capacities that road public transportation may be able to achieve. Would it be worth it (and I’m talking about financial terms here) to operate at these capacities? Or are there solutions that could increase train passenger capacities while ensuring physical separation. I use the term “physical separation” here instead of “physical distancing” because it may be possible to design not just a layout but barriers that would also be effective in minimizing if not eliminating the possibility of infection of the virus should any passenger turn out to be infected. People, after all, will be required to wear masks and even gloves. Others may opt to wear face shields. And there are also measures vs infection at the stations or terminals as well as the workplaces. What do you think?

On public transport services during the pandemic

I’ve read a lot of discussions and recommendations pertaining to public transportation services (mainly its lack thereof) during the Enhanced Community Quarantine aka lockdown in most parts of the Philippines. Problem is, a lot of people had their mobility curtailed as most people did not have their own private vehicles (cars or motorcycles) to do essential trips (i.e., for groceries, market, drugstores, hospitals, etc.). These include so-called frontline workers, most especially those working in hospitals or clinics. Even the use of tricycles on a limited basis while adhering to physical distancing guideline was not allowed in many cities and municipalities. What do we really need to do now and in transition to address the lack of public transport services?

Here is a concise yet very informative article on transit:

Walker, J. (2020) “Cutting Transit Service During the Pandemic: Why? How? And What’s Next?”, Human Transit, https://humantransit.org/2020/04/cutting-transit-service-during-the-pandemic-why-how-and-whats-next.html [Last accessed: 4/23/2020]

Most of the points discussed and recommendations presented are applicable to our case in the Philippines. We should also accept the fact that we cannot go back to the situation prior to the ECQ, and that the new normal calls for a reduction in car use. Meanwhile, we still have to address the pressing issues and come up with a plan or maybe strategies for public transport that involved not just buses and trains but other modes as well like the jeepneys, vans and tricycles.

Whatever happened or is happening to the Metro Manila Subway?

There is an article that came out today stating issues and concerns about the Metro Manila Subway Project. I will not summarize the article here but leave it to the reader to click on the link and read the article himself/herself. The writer has been attacked for his sharp criticisms of this administration and has had his share of being branded a liar. What is lost in the attacks vs him (many if not most by organized trolls) is that he is usually on target and factual despite the denials by those who are the subject of his exposes and criticisms. Also, note that he has been a consistent and persistent critique of any administration. This is important as he is being objective rather than protective of vested interests. He represents the interests of a lot of people who are considered the silent majority.

Bondoc, J. (2020) Subway works at standstill since realigned to fault line, The Philippine Star, https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2020/02/14/1992947/subway-works-standstill-realigned-fault-line?fbclid=IwAR2yN_qpwTJ9AHfJaws_3VXztVu6etZsxOBkSj-Zw2KS7v7Tv9hcnJc1K-s&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook&utm_term=Autofeed [Last accessed: 2/14/2020]

While I am still hopeful about this project, I already feel some disappointment for something that I have supported from Day 1. The delays and escalation of costs are serious matters. It can only get worse during construction.

National Transport Policy is out!

The National Transport Policy is out and there’s a lot of buzz about the wording of the policy. NEDA released the following infographics on their official Facebook page:

Definition of what the policy is about

Hierarchy of transport modes (note the emphasis on walking and cycling)

Checklist for programs and projects: I am already anticipating what proponents will be writing to justify projects according to this checklist.

I will reserve my commentaries for future blogs. There is really a lot to discuss about this policy and how it will implemented (properly or improperly), There are lots of different ideas, advocacies, interests and agendas on transportation that come into play here. And we can only hope that the policy and its implementing rules and regulations will be clear enough (not vague as to have so many loopholes) for this policy to effect transformation and inclusive and sustainable development.

Comments on current transport issues – Part 3: On the obstacles to the PNR trains

2) On the obstacles to the PNR operations

We have done studies before when studies on the PNR were not considered fashionable. People who did research on rail transport were more interested in Lines 1, 2 and 3, and dismissed the PNR as a lost cause. There were many transportation experts who ridiculed it and even taunted PNR about their poor service. And yet we did our studies because we had an appreciation of the importance of this line and how it could play a major role in commuting if given the resources to improve their facilities. It was shown that the line could be more advantageous for commuters particularly those traveling between the southern parts of Metro Manila and Makati and Manila. These would be both workers and students who will benefit from the shorter travel times and less expensive fares. The downside then (and still at the present time) was the long headways between trains. That is, you can only catch a train every 30 minutes.

This photo taken more than a decade ago show the typical conditions along many sections of the PNR. It is pretty much the same today and the agencies involved (DOTr and PNR) have done little to reduce the informal settlers along the line. No, they didn’t just appear now, and are throwing garbage, rocks and other debris on the trains. This was already happening years ago.

Fast forward to the present and they seem to be getting a lot more resources than the last 30+ years. A Philippine Railway Institute (PRI) has been created. New train sets have just been delivered and went into operation. Unfortunately, the new trains were met with rocks and other debris as they traveled along sections occupied by informal settlers. The incident damaging the new trains puts further emphasis on the need to the need to address the squatter problem along the PNR line. Should fences be built to protect the trains and passengers? Should people be relocated? I think both need to be done in order to secure the line and in preparation for service upgrades including more frequent train services (i.e., shorter intervals between trains). And we hope to see the DOTr and PNR working on this as they attempt to attract more passengers to use their trains.

Comments on current transport issues – Part 1

I end the year with commentaries on transport issues. I recently responded to a request for an interview. This time, it was not possible to do it in person so we corresponded through email. Here are my responses to the questions sent, which are mainly about the public utility vehicle modernization program of the government.

· Will old-school jeepneys finally disappear on Philippine roads before the term of President Rodrigo Duterte ends, barely three years from now? What is a more realistic timeline of jeepney modernization?

Old school jeepneys won’t disappear from Philippine roads. For one, the modernization program has slowed down a bit and even the DOTr and LTFRB have stated and admitted that it is not possible to have 100% modernization before the end of term of the current administration. It’s really difficult to put a timeline on this because of so many factors that are in play including social, political, institutional and economic ones. The technical aspects are not issues here as there are many models to choose from and suitable for replacing jeepneys in terms of capacity.

· What are the bumps on road to jeepney modernization?

As mentioned earlier, there are many factors in play here. Economic/financial-related bumps pertain mainly to vehicle prices. The new models are quite pricey but it should be understood that this is also because the new ones are compliant with certain standards including technical and environmental ones that most ‘formally’ manufactured vehicles must pass unlike so-called customized local road vehicles (CLRV) like the conventional jeepneys. The financial package is not affordable to typical jeepney operators/drivers. The cost of a modern jitney (the technical term for these vehicle types) is close to an SUV and revenues may not be able to cover the combination of down payment, monthly payments, and operations & maintenance costs of the vehicle.

· Should local government units dictate the pace of jeepney modernization, not national agencies such as the Department of Transportation and the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board? Why?

I think the word “dictate” may be too strong a term to use. Instead, I prefer the word “manage”. After all, LGUs are supposed to capacitate themselves to be able to rationalize and manage public transport operations. That is why the DOTr and the LTFRB are requiring them to formulate and submit for evaluation and approval Local Public Transport Route Plans (LPTRP). Though the deadline was supposed to be 2020, the agencies have relaxed this deadline after few submissions from LGUs. Few because there were only a few who were capable or could afford consultants to prepare the plans for the LGUs. These plans should be comprehensive covering all modes of public transport including tricycles and pedicabs that are already under the LGUs. Buses, jeepneys, vans and taxis are still under the LTFRB. Plans may also contain future transport systems that are being aspired for by LGUs such as rail-based mass transit systems and other such as monorail or AGT.

· Transport groups like PISTON are against drivers and operators merging into cooperatives. Is consolidation into cooperatives unworkable? Why?

I think consolidation into cooperatives is workable and should be given a chance. Unfortunately, there are still few examples of successful transport cooperatives. And the success also depends on the routes served by their vehicles. And that is why there is also a need to rationalize transport routes in order to ensure that these are indeed viable (i.e., profitable) for drivers and operators.

Another angle here is more political in nature. Note that while PISTON and other like-minded transport groups oppose cooperativism, there are others that have embraced it and even went corporate to some extent. Perhaps there is a fear of a loss in power that the leaders of these opposition transport groups have wielded for a long time? Perhaps there’s a fear that success of cooperatives means the drivers and operators will turn to cooperativism and leave those transport groups? Surely there are pros and cons to this and groups should not stop being critical of initiatives, government-led or not, that will affect them. This should be constructive rather than the rant variety but government should also learn to accept these rather than dismiss them or be offended by them as is often the case.

More comments in the next year!