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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.

Back to the old normal?

As traffic continues to worsen after, The MMDA has reinstated the number coding scheme albeit from 5:00 to 8:00 PM on weekdays for now. This is in recognition of the worsening traffic congestion brought about by people returning to their workplaces and the easing of travel restrictions across the entire population. People are now moving about as can be seen in transport terminals and commercial areas (e.g., shopping malls, markets, etc.). With the return of severe traffic congestion, it begs the question whether we are back to the ‘old normal’.

Jeepney with 4 ‘sabit’ passengers

I thought the photo above pretty much describes how it was before Covid-19. The problem is that this photo was taken earlier today and we are still technically in a pandemic. Does the photo show the people’s renewed confidence in using public transportation? Or is it a matter of necessity (i.e., commuters having no choice but to risk it in order to get to their workplaces or home)? If they had motorcycles, these people would likely use them instead of taking the jeepney. I will also dare ask why don’t they bike instead? They seem able bodied enough to try cycling instead. Is it because their commuting distances are long? Or are there other reasons that evade us? If these are the same reasons and Covid-19 is not a major factor for their choice, then perhaps we are back to the ‘old normal’ and have not progressed significantly despite claims by various groups that we are experiencing a paradigm shift in favor of active transport. All the more that we need to urgently revisit and reassess how transport should be in order for us to transition to a more sustainable future.

On roadway expansions and induced demand

We start December with another shared article. Here is another excellent article from Todd Litman about roadway expansions and induced demand:

Litman, T. (November 28, 2021) “The Roadway Expansion Paradox,” Planetizen.com, https://www.planetizen.com/blogs/115395-roadway-expansion-paradox?utm_source=newswire&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=news-12022021&mc_cid=89cc0b2638&mc_eid=9ccfe464b1 [Last accessed: 12/3/2021]

Note the list of references at the end of the article for further reading.

On ‘electric cars’ still being ‘cars’

With the current climate talks in the background, there is also a parallel discussion on the impacts of electric vehicles and self-driving cars. Will they help solve our transport or traffic problems? Perhaps e-cars will contribute to the reduction of emissions and greenhouse gases. Perhaps they can also help in reducing dependence on fossil fuels. But can they alleviate congestion? Or will they just promote more car-dependence? Here’s a nice article from early this year that discusses the “big problem” with electric cars:

I also read another article about the issues concerning the batteries (e.g., lithium batteries) used by these e-vehicles. We are only beginning to see how difficult it is to deal with the waste of used batteries not just from e-vehicles but from other sources as well. Renewables like solar, for example, requires batteries for storage. These are issues that need to be addressed ASAP. Otherwise, it will be a losing proposition for people in general as they end up with modes of transport that are not sustainable for the future. Perhaps we can just walk or bike?

On housing and transportation

I’ve written about how we should not be trying to isolate transportation as if it is singly at fault for the transport and traffic mess many of us are in at present. There are many factors affecting travel behavior including mode choice. Travel distances, travel times and mode choices are not a consequence of transportation system (including infrastructure) alone. Land development and pricing especially those pertaining to housing are critical in how people decide where to live. These are intertwined with transportation and can be quite complex without the proper data or information to help us understand the relationship. That understanding, we are to assume, should lead us to the formulation of policies intended to correct unwanted trends and perhaps encourage more compact developments that are closer to desirable concepts such as the 15-minute city.

Here is an interesting article to enrich the discussion on this topic:

Dion, R. (October 28, 2021) “Coupling Housing and Mobility: A Radical Rethink for Freeways,” Planetizen.com, https://www.planetizen.com/features/115126-coupling-housing-and-mobility-radical-rethink-freeways?utm_source=newswire&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=news-11012021&mc_cid=85ec2b565f&mc_eid=9ccfe464b1%5BLast accessed: 11/3/2021]

The first thing that came to my mind are residents of northern and southern Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces. Many chose to buy houses there and beyond (i.e., Bulacan, Laguna and Cavite) and yet work or study in Metro Manila CBDs like Makati, Ortigas and BGC. And they do use the tollways (e.g., NLEX, SLEX, CaviTEX, Skyway) to get to their workplaces and schools.

This is also a relevant and timely topic in the Philippines as many cities are already headed for sprawls that will inevitably put more pressure on transportation infrastructure development that usually leans towards car-oriented projects (e.g., road widening, new roads, flyovers, etc.) rather than people-oriented ones (e.g., modern public transportation systems, bikeways, pedestrian infrastructure). Note that only Tokyo has developed an extensive enough railway system to cover the sprawl that is the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, which if interpreted loosely also includes Yokohama, Kawasaki and Chiba in the sprawl. No, we cannot build as fast to have as dense a railway network as Tokyo’s or other cities with similar rail systems. And so we have to figure out another way to address this problem.

On an ‘induced demand calculator’

Induced demand or traffic is a popular topic these days thanks to the proposal of a private company to build an elevated tollway along the Pasig River. The topic is also much in circulation the past few years as the DPWH’s part in the government’s Build, Build, Build program has road widening as a major component. There are many completed, ongoing and planned projects across the country that involves road widening, particularly increasing the number of lanes of typical national roads from 2 to 4, not counting the shoulders (paved or unpaved). The results are mixed as there are roads that definitely required capacity increase in the form of additional lanes, and there were roads that did not require them. The latter were still expanded and perhaps the agency did so because their key performance indicators basically obliged them to undertake such projects regardless of the need. Somehow, these were justified and yet there were and are many questionable road widening projects especially those that involved the cutting of decades if not century old trees (e.g., the Kamatchile and Acacia trees that used to line up long sections of national roads in Tarlac are no more) or the demolition of heritage structures such as houses.

A came upon this article about an “Induced Demand Calculator” developed in the US. I have not gone through the calculator itself but such a tool could be quite useful in quantifying the impacts of road widening while pushing for other options to improve transportation and traffic that is not the typical “solving traffic” type of approach. Here is the article in Streets Blog:

I am not aware if there are similar tools being developed here. Such a calculator will require data from various sectors including construction costs, operations and maintenance costs, value of time and current and projected vehicular and person trips that can be translated into traffic volumes.

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.