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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 – is 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 phantom congestion

I’ve talked about phantom congestion in my class lectures and training modules but have always explained it through figures and diagrams I usually draw on the board as I discuss the topic with my students or trainees. Here is a very informative, very visual explanation of what typically happens along many roads and how there is congestion when there seems to be no reason at all for these traffic jams:

Have you experienced these phantom traffic jams yourself?

Is there a supply problem with public transport in NCR plus?

I initially wanted to use “Philippines” or “Metro Manila” instead of “NCR Plus” for the title of this post. I dropped “Philippines” in order to be more specific and also because I am not so aware of the situation in other cities outside Mega Manila. I also decided vs. “Metro Manila” because transport for the metropolis is tightly woven with the surrounding areas where many people working or studying in MM actually reside. These include the towns of Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite.

So, is there a supply problem with public transport in what is dubbed as NCR+? The photos in social media appear to describe a lack of public transport vehicles with many people lined up along major roads, queued at terminals or train stations. These photos do not lie where they were taken. Indeed there is a big problem about supply along certain corridors due to certain factors such as limited number of public utility vehicles (mainly jitneys and buses) allowed operation and health protocols that limit the passenger capacities of vehicles. The latter also applies to rail services where despite rolling stocks being back to pre-pandemic operations, are limited to the number of people they can carry. Crush loads are a no-no during these times.

Traffic congestion and its effects on PUV turnaround times, however, is another major factor for what may seem like a lack of supply. Most road-based public transport operate in mixed traffic. As such, their operations are susceptible to traffic conditions along their routes. So it is very likely that during the peak periods, PUVs get stuck along the peak direction and take much time to return despite the lighter traffic along the return trip. The problem for some routes though is that during peak periods both directions are congested. This further exacerbates the situation for public transport as vehicles would have to go through a two-way gauntlet of sorts, resulting in a lot of people taking longer to get their rides. And so for those who have access to private transport do go back to using private vehicles.

Definitely and obviously, there is a mode choice issue here because many people appear to have taken private transport as their mode of choice instead of public or active transport modes. This is mainly attributed to the perception that public transport is unsafe or less safe compared to your own vehicle in the context of the current pandemic. We qualify the current health situation here since that seems to be the main driver for people choosing to take their cars apart from that other perception of the poor quality of service provided by public transport in general. For active transport, the reality is not everyone or not a lot of people will choose to walk or cycle along roads that are generally regarded as unsafe despite efforts to put up bike lanes. Those who are having problems commuting are those dependent on public transport also because of their long commutes between the residential outside or in the outskirts of Metro Manila and the CBDs in the metropolis.

The dilemma here is determining which routes would actually require additional vehicles. While the general perception and temptation is to add vehicles everywhere, it’s the actual numbers that need to be estimated based on the information that needs to be collected (as against available data, which can be unreliable). The situation and the data for different routes varies much.

Case in point is the experience along the Antipolo-Cubao route that used to be served by jeepneys. Buses now serve that route after the government rationalized the service. Initially, there were fewer buses operating along the route that had a large catchment area for passengers. Additional buses were deployed in order to address supply issues (again many passengers were not able to get their rides for the same reasons we mentioned earlier). Now, there seems to be enough buses for the peak periods but a surplus during the off-peak. Passengers along other routes are not as lucky as those served by the Antipolo-Cubao buses.

Public transport operations will not survive such variations in demand if they continue to operate under the old “boundary” or rental scheme. So, there has to be a subsidy somewhere for them to operate under these conditions. And that’s where service contracting comes in. While I agree that this is essential for transport reform, we still have limited resources, and it will not be sustainable in the long run if we cannot make people take public transport over private vehicle options.

Traffic is back to “normal”

Traveling to the office last Monday, I could not help but notice the long lines of cars along Ortigas Avenue’s westbound lanes and Katipunan’s southbound lanes. Without adequate public transportation, people have few options for their commutes. Walking from home to workplaces is feasible only for those who live relatively near their workplace (perhaps up to 5km distance?). Cycling may be considered but not everyone can bike beyond 5km, what more for 10km+ commutes. And for both cases, there are just so many obstacles (and I’m not just fault-finding here) like a lack of sidewalks and bike paths to ensure safe walking and cycling.

Traffic congestion along Felix Avenue in Cainta towards Cainta Junction (with Ortigas Avenue Extension) – these are mostly outbound traffic likely coming from the residential subdivisions along Felix Avenue and heading to workplaces in Pasig, Mandaluyong, Makati and Taguig. They will likely take Ortigas Avenue to connect with other major roads such as C-5 and EDSA to get to their destinations.

 

The DOTr and the LTFRB have released guidelines for safety and the prevention of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Yet, they have moved quite so slowly to bring back public transportation to address the demand for it and to be able to discourage or restrict car usage in the “business-as-usual” or “old normal” sense. Public transportation is critical if we are to transform transportation during this transition from the lockdowns. Granted, the government probably wants to use the situation to effect its modernization plans but it is one thing to take advantage of the opportunity and another to be an opportunist considering the vulnerabilities of the transport sector after it endured 3 months of shutdown. The moral and right thing to do is to bring back public transport and give incentives for it to thrive and perhaps transform or upgrade by themselves rather than force the situation at the expense of commuters.

On empty malls and what’s in store for us under the new normal

I took the following photos inside a mall that’s close to my residence. One had to go inside to get to the drugstore located at the second level of the mall so you can see what it looks like during the lockdown. Not surprisingly, it is deserted but it looks clean and orderly. It seems that mall’s doing maintenance work and I did see a couple of janitors inside. They are probably the skeletal staff of the mall in-charge of making sure the building does not deteriorate during the lockdown period.

This used to the a very busy area leading to the supermarket and the appliance shop. The area also usually was at the events venue and often set-up here are the weekend stalls selling local items including our favorite cashew butter and sylvanas.

A look back at what was usually a crowded area at the center of the mall as I moved up the working escalator

The second level was also practically deserted with only a few customers going to the drugstore and the occasional janitor or security personnel going around

Across from where I was walking was another crowded area as this is the food court with the cinemas just beside it.

View of the ground floor as I descended on the non-functioning escalator on the other side of the second level.

I saw the photos posted on social media and the news yesterday as people crowded at mall entrances on the first day after the lifting of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) in many cities. Of course, they are still under the General Community Quarantine (GCQ) but more people are allowed to go outside their homes with businesses like the malls starting to resume operations. I sure hope this ‘excitement’ and the resulting crowds will not lead to a worse second wave of Covid-19 infections. That will surely lead to the reimposition of ECQ in those areas. There are lessons to be learned from the reopening of businesses like shops and restaurants once quarantines have been relaxed. Those are lessons that are mostly from the experiences of other countries that we should carefully and meticulously consider in order to avoid the mistakes that have led to a second wave of infections. Let us not lead ourselves towards recklessness or irresponsible behavior that can spell disaster to many. Let us not think that things will go back to the ‘normal’ we used to live.

Is traffic congestion like a virus?

An article came up where the author explains the similarities of the coronavirus spread to the spread of traffic congestion. It is basically about modeling (and simulating) the spread while considering factors like the characteristics of the virus that are similar to traffic. I’m posting/sharing it here for future reference/reading:

Simon, M. (2020) “Turns Out, Traffic Spreads Like the Coronavirus”, wired.com, https://www.wired.com/story/traffic-spreads-like-disease/?bxid=5bd6761b3f92a41245dde413&cndid=37243643&esrc=AUTO_OTHER&source=EDT_WIR_NEWSLETTER_0_DAILY_ZZ&utm_brand=wired&utm_campaign=aud-dev&utm_mailing=WIR_Daily_040720&utm_medium=email&utm_source=nl&utm_term=list1_p2 %5BLast accessed: 4/8/2020]

 

On changes in traffic patterns after the pandemic

We start April with a nice article from Cities of the Future. The article explains how traffic patterns will be changing due to Covid-19. They have already changed for most of us who have to deal with quarantines and lockdowns. And we should not expect things to go back to normal. “Normal” here, of course, is “Business As Usual” or was that. It is quite clear that we cannot and should not go back to BAU and it is probably going to be good for most of us. There will definitely be a lot of adjustments and sacrifices especially for commuters who have been dependent on cars for travel. The transport industry, too, will have to deal with the new supply and demand dynamics. And government should be up to the task of engaging and rethinking how policies and regulations should evolve to address issues coming out of the “new normal” in transportation.

Valerio, P. (2020) Traffic patterns are going to drastically be very different, says Micromobility expert , Cities of the Future, https://citiesofthefuture.eu/traffic-patterns-are-going-to-drastically-be-very-different/ [Last accessed: 4/3/2020]

SLEX congestion

En route to Batangas the other day, we had to endure severe traffic congestion along C5 and SLEX. C5 was at its worst as it took us about 2 hours from Blue Ridge until SLEX. Descending from the flyover to SLEX, we were greeted by crawling traffic along the tollway, which was to us a slight surprise for the southbound direction. Normally, traffic would already be lighter compared with the northbound side that carried peak hour travelers inbound for Metro Manila.

Much of the ‘additional’ congestion along SLEX is attributed to the ongoing construction of the Skyway extension. Traffic management is particularly criticized and congestion very atrocious at Alabang on ground level beneath the viaduct. Buses are prohibited from using the viaduct and the traffic schemes have contributed to severe congestion. Through traffic along both sides of the tollway have been affected, too, with queues reaching Laguna.

Preview: Passing the Alabang area, we observed that the queue from Alabang already stretched beyond what is visible to the eye.

No end in sight: this is what we usually describe as a traffic jam condition with the density reaching its maximum value and speed at its lowest. Volume approaches zero for this case.

Horizon: The queue that morning reached the Southwoods exit of the SLEX. Approaching northbound travelers would have to endure severe congestion until Alabang.

On hindsight, I thought that we should probably have opted to fly between Quezon City and Lipa City. My colleague said that the contact person offered that option to us but that he turned it down because he gets dizzy riding helicopters. I wouldn’t know as I’ve never ridden on one. However, we also thought it wouldn’t be prudent for us to ride a helicopter from the university. It would seem to be the transport of VIPs and easily attracts unwanted attention. Yet, it would have been the more practical and speedy if not the less expensive option for the trip that day.

The problem with public transport in the Philippines…

There is a collage of two photos, one taken in 1975 and another in 2019, showing buses that managed to squeeze themselves into a jam. The 1975 photo was taken at the ramp of the overpass near Liwasang Bonifacio (Quiapo, Manila). There is a commentary describing the photo that attributes ‘monstrous daily traffic jams’ to the behavior of Filipino drivers. Special mention was made of public transport drivers and the photo showed proof of this. This was 1975 and motorization had not reached the levels we are at now so the arguably, traffic congestion was not as bad as the present we experience daily.

The problems pertaining to driver behavior persist today and probably even worsened along with the general conditions of traffic in Philippine roads. I say so since the volume of vehicular traffic has increased significantly from 1975 to the present and there are much more interactions among vehicles and people that have led to a deterioration of road safety as well. Traffic congestion and road crashes are asymptomatic of the root causes of most of our transport problems. And so far, it seems we have had little headway into the solutions. The photos speak for themselves in terms of how many people can easily put the blame on poor public transport services despite the fact that cars are hogging much of the road space. And what have authorities done in order to address the behavioral issues that lead to these incidents?

Someone joked that the guy in the 1975 photo who appeared to be posing in disbelief of what happened is a time traveler. The 2019 photo shows a similar guy with a similar pose though with more people around. Maybe he can tell us a thing or so about what’s wrong with transportation in the Philippines and provide insights to the solutions to the mess we have.

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!