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It’s not that simple: the math on vehicle sales and registration

I read the statement of a government official about vehicle sales, and the subsequent responses it got. He cited math and seemingly joked about not being good at it while trying to make sense of the numbers. It is not as easy as he supposes. And I think that is partly why we fail to address the transport problems. For one, we think it is just about road capacities. For another, it may be about public transport supply. These are not mutually exclusive but rather intertwined along with so many other factors.

Housing, for one, (i.e., its availability, affordability and location) is among the most important factors that affect or influence how we commute. I have been asking the question about housing affordability in CBDs such as Makati, Ortigas and BGC. Lucky for those who already reside at or near those places but most people working there have to contend with expensive mortgages, leases or rents. How much is a condo unit in BGC, for example? If you have a family of 4, you certainly can’t and won’t opt for a studio unit just because its near your workplace. It’s obvious here that you also would have to consider where your children will be going to school as well as the workplace location of your partner if he or she is also working. No schools for now but imagine how it was and would be once our children go back to physical school. Such facts of life seem lost to many pundits commenting or offering opinions about transportation.

I think to be fair this should also be framed from various perspectives. For example, those vehicle purchases don’t necessarily mean additional vehicles on certain roads. like what one MMDA official claims. These will be distributed across the network of roads, and these will be operating during certain times of the day. Some of these vehicles were purchased by new car owners. Others as replacements to older or unserviceable units (e.g., upgrades). It would be nice to see, for example, the stats from 2008, 2009 & 2010. Thousands of vehicles were doomed by Ondoy in the greater Metro Manila in 2009 resulting in their replacements late that year until 2010. Then there was the boom in sales in the following years as people ventured into TNCs (Uber and Grab). The recent surge in private car use and what seems to be strong sales of these vehicles in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is more out of necessity (why do you think people aren’t taking to cycling for their commutes as much as is desired?)

The question why people still prefer to purchase and use their own vehicles has not been answered in the most honest way because different people with their own agenda tend to paint different pictures of the car owner. In some cases, car owners are being portrayed as ‘evil’ while those taking the more environment-friendly modes as ‘good’. Again, it should be obvious that this is not a ‘good’ vs. ‘evil’ discussion nor is it something that is black and white. We should pay (a lot of) attention to the grays, which can have so many different shades when it comes to transportation. No one really wins a “holier than thou” exercise where people on opposite sides tend to take hard line stances and close their minds to constructive ideas from either side.

On people’s reactions to the pandemic – more cars?

There is this article that argues that one result of the pandemic and the scare that it caused to a many is that people have resorted to car use during and after the lockdowns:

Vanderbilt, T. (2020) “People Are Buying Cars Because of the Pandemic. Cities May Change as a Result, Medium, https://gen.medium.com/people-are-buying-cars-because-of-the-pandemic-cities-may-change-as-a-result-e0657584f45e [Last accessed: 6/20/2020]

It was amusing for me to read the reference to cars as a sort of PPE but it comes as no surprise. It is psychologically like a suit of armor to some people and I guess this affects them the same way as some people’s personalities change when behind the wheel.

Whether this is true for the Philippines’ case we are now seeing somewhat but I say ‘somewhat’ because of the deficiencies in public transportation especially in Metro Manila. Government agencies in-charge of transportation seem to have found the perfect situation to roll out and push for both route rationalization and modernization. Major public transport routes have resumed operations but with buses instead of jeepneys. And slowly but somehow surely the “modern jeepneys” are being allowed but following the terms and conditions of the DOTr and the LTFRB.

What if Ondoy happened today?

With the news of the devastation of Houston by Hurricane Harvey comes articles about transportation in that city. An interesting articles is this one:

Davies, A. (2017) “Hurricane Harvey Destroys Up to a Million Cars in Car-Dependent Houston“. Wired.com.  September 3, 2017. https://www.wired.com/story/harvey-houston-cars-ruined?mbid=nl_090317_daily&CNDID=%%CUST_ID%% (Last accessed 9/4/2017).

The article reminded me of a very personal experience back in 2009 when Typhoon Ondoy (international name: Ketsana) submerged much of Metro Manila and its adjoining provinces in what was believed to be at least 100-year floods. Greater Metro Manila or Mega Manila is not too dependent on private cars for transportation with an estimated 70% of trips taking public transport (about 30% use private vehicles including motorcycles and taxis). Much of this public transportation, however, is road-based and so the floods did much to affect transportation in the area for the weeks after Ondoy. Car-owners rebounded quite quickly and car sales surged afterwards with many people purchasing SUVs in response to the likelihood of floods.

But what if Ondoy happened today? What if people were as unprepared as in 2009? Perhaps the damage would have been even greater than back in 2009. Mega Manila has become more dependent on cars since then with the current estimates of private vehicle mode shares at around 35%. The increase includes not only taxis and motorcycles, which have enjoyed steep increases in the past decade, but also ridesharing services (i.e., Uber and Grab).

Uber and Grab vehicles are predominantly comprised of vehicles purchased for the main purpose of being driven for income instead of the original concept of ridesharing where the vehicles are already owned and operated only during the free times of their owners (i.e., they provide services only on a part-time basis). Their proliferation and popularity means a lot more vehicles could have been damaged by Ondoy and that the owners of these vehicles likely would not have recovered from the loss even despite their auto insurance coverages.

Metro Manila and other Philippine cities under the threat of similar severe weather systems such as typhoons should build resilient transportation systems. Not surprisingly, among the more resilient modes of transport are non-motorized such as walking and cycling. Pedicabs where almost immediately back on service in Tacloban after Yolanda practically destroyed that city. But then again, an efficient public transport system is also necessary and buses and trains may provide relief from flooded cities. Maybe, a proposed subway system can also contribute if it includes the construction of subterranean drainage systems similar to that of Tokyo’s. These are not easy to develop or build with infrastructure costing much over the long term. However, Metro Manila needs to start building them now as these won’t get cheaper in the future.