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Some setbacks for sustainable transport

There have been a few setbacks for sustainable transport in the news recently and not so recently. One is the burning of an electric vehicle, a COMET to be precise, that saw one unit burn to the ground near the UP Town Center along Katipunan Avenue. I am not aware of any official or formal findings being released as to what really happened to the vehicle but that is basically a big PR problem now as detractors of e-vehicles will point to the incident as proof that e-vehicles still have a long way to becoming a viable and safe option as public utility vehicles. E-vehicles have a lot to prove especially as an option for public transport and such setbacks only strengthen the argument against them and leaves us with the current conventional options.

Another is the discontinuance of service inside the Bonifacio Global City (BGC) of hybrid buses operated by Green Frog Transport. This one is due to what Green Frog described as exorbitant fees being charged by Bonifacio Estates Services Corp (BESC) for their buses to enter BGC. This is making the rounds of social media but there seems to be no response from BESC nor from the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA), which is supposed to also have a say with policies in BGC. Perhaps BESC thought it best to just give Green Frog the silent treatment for what appears as a trial by publicity approach by Green Frog. One commuter commented that maybe BGC authorities should push for their Fort Buses to be hybrid and phase out the jeepneys in favour of higher capacity transit inside BGC.

There have also been issue on road safety including many incidents of pedestrians getting run over by vehicles. Many of these have been captured on video particularly by the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), which has set-up a network of cameras in many intersections along major roads. Many show vehicles Given that many cases feature jaywalking, it is still the responsibility of any motorist to exercise caution when manoeuvring, especially when turning at intersections. Drivers will always have blind sides or weak sides when they manoeuvre so they should be very careful when in doubt and not immediately proceed when it is not clear that they have a clear path. At BGC (again) one will notice that many motorists do not give way to pedestrians even when the latter are crossing at the right locations and according to the sign clearing them to cross the street. In one case involving two speeding SUVs, one lost control and hit a pregnant woman crossing the street. While a significant number of vehicles in BGC are through traffic, it is still the responsibility of BGC’s traffic enforcers to ensure motorists follow traffic rules and regulations including prioritising safety over haste. Simply attributing such safety issues to through traffic is no excuse for traffic enforcement being as lax as or par with the rest of Metro Manila, especially for a CBD that packages itself as better than the rest of Metro Manila.

Comet – rare sightings

A colleague was saying that he has not seen the Comet, a jitney-type vehicle currently plying the SM North – Katipunan route via Mindanao Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue, for quite some time. I shared the same observation and this is based on my regular commute that includes travel along Katipunan Avenue. The Comet is becoming, if it is not yet, a rare sighting even considering its relatively long and apparently convenient route. The route passes through residential and commercial areas and would be a direct, single ride for students in particular of three major schools in the Katipunan area – UP, Ateneo and Miriam. It also connects to 2 large malls, SM North and Trinoma, and 2 rail stations, LRT 2 Katipunan Sta. and MRT 3 North EDSA Sta. Despite these traffic generators along its route, it seems that the Comet still has less than the desired ridership. I say ‘seems’ because I currently don’t have the hard statistics on ridership but only observations from those who have seen the vehicle along its route.

IMG10028-20150114-1924I saw this one on my way home last December in heavy traffic as our jeepney approached the Katipunan – C.P. Garcia intersection. It had few passengers considering its long route from SM North EDSA to Aurora Boulevard via Katipunan Ave.

IMG10050-20150122-0821An almost empty Comet spotted one morning this January along Katipunan

What is the future for the Comet? It is unclear so far despite the hype and claims that this is supposed to be the vehicle to replace the conventional jeepney. (To be fair, this is what was also said of the e-jeepney that precluded the Comet.) The DOTC does not have a clear and firm policy or commitment to making this work. Its pronouncements have so far been towards deploying the Comet along new routes instead of replacing existing jeepneys on existing routes with this low emission vehicle. I believe that the only way for the Comet to work is for it to be mainstreamed as a replacement for the jeepney and along suitable routes, of course. The DOTC could and should review jeepney franchises to determine how the Comet and other similar low emission vehicles can be phased in over a realistic period in order to modernize public transportation currently being supplied by conventional jeepneys.

I recently noticed that there are jeepneys along Katipunan bearing tarps on their sides stating “No to additional jeepneys.” Underneath are the names of three jeepney groups supporting this call but with the exception of a major jeepney group that’s supposed to be supportive (even owning several units) of the Comet. Are the signs a form of resistance to change? Do the groups know or understand what they are saying and what they stand for? Or are these indicative of disagreements among jeepney groups, operators and drivers regarding the future of their operations using conventional jeepneys?

There will surely be resistance from these sectors if there are changes to be made that will affect their sources of income. It is a very daunting and sensitive task to decouple transport and livelihood in the Philippines. However, the issues coming out of such changes to improve public transport services should be met head on rather than skirt them, particularly in the case of the agencies responsible for these services – the DOTC and the LTFRB. Only then can we have the transformation we need for road-based public transport in this country.

COMET – just another jitney?

The COMET (City Optimized Managed Electric Transport) is a 20-seater vehicle designed along the lines of the jeepneys operating along many streets in Philippine cities and towns. More information on the vehicle, its operations and the organisation behind it may be found in their website. The COMET has been in experimental operation for a few weeks now but has been a rare sighting considering only 20 units are operating along a relatively long route that happens to be have congested sections depending on the time of day (e.g., Katipunan Ave. can be very congested during the day and Congressional Ave. is not necessarily a free flowing corridor given jeepney and tricycle operations along the road).

A good feature of the COMET is the GETPass, which is a card that is used to pay for fares. The card is something that should have been available many years ago and for use in most if not all transport modes (LRT, bus, jeepney, taxi, etc.). At present, it can be reloaded via COMET staff who are assigned to each vehicle or stationed at the designated stops. They help promote the transport as they sell the tap cards to passengers and other potential users of the mode. Here are photos showing the GETPass and the brochure that comes with it.

IMG09298-20140923-0952The GETPass card comes with a brochure on the COMET and how to use the card.

IMG09299-20140923-0952Basic information on the GETPass card.

IMG09300-20140923-0952Illustrative example of how to use the card.

IMG09301-20140923-0953The GETPass card

IMG09302-20140923-0953Instructions at the back of the card.

IMG09303-20140923-0953More information on Global Electric Transport.

IMG09305-20140923-0958Southbound designated stops for the COMET.

IMG09306-20140923-0959Northbound designated stops for the COMET.

IMG09307-20140923-0959Route map included with the tap card brochure.

IMG09573-20141008-1629COMET in operation along the southbound side of Katipunan Avenue (C-5).

The current experimental route of the COMET overlaps with several jeepney routes including Katipunan and Tandang Sora jeepneys. If the objective is simply to demonstrate vehicle performance (and reliability) using this route and with actual traffic conditions, then this would be a very fruitful exercise. However, more suitable routes should be considered for the COMET including possibly new routes like missionary routes or feeder routes that are not yet served by any formal public transport. This is one way for the COMET to be mainstreamed and for the low emission vehicle to have a significant impact on transport and environment. Another way that would certainly be the more challenging one is the prospect of the vehicle replacing conventional jeepneys along established routes. I say this is a challenge because there has been a need to retire or phase out conventional jeepneys in favor of higher capacity modes (i.e., bus) and the jeepney sector (operators and drivers) have always been somewhat averse to proposals modernizing jeepneys due in part to financial implications of transitioning to low emission options like the e-jeepney or the COMET. If these are not considered, the COMET will just be an additional vehicle along Metro Manila’s streets, contributing to the chaotic road public transport, and its hyped benefits will not be realised.

I do hope that the COMET will not be just another paratransit mode that is integrated with all the other land transport modes currently in operation throughout the country. I believe there is a big potential for the vehicle and similar other models like it for cities and towns that are not yet as highly urbanized as Metro Manila or perhaps Cebu. There are corridors or areas where buses are not or will not be viable within the foreseeable future (next 5 to 10 years?) given the demand for this period. These are where jeepneys thrive (assuming tricycle operations are restricted or strictly regulated) and where the COMET would be most suitable.