Caught (up) in traffic

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Commuting conveniences in Singapore

My recent trip to Singapore allowed me to get reacquainted with its efficient and convenient public transport system. The first thing I did when I arrived at Changi was to proceed to the SMRT station beneath the airport to take a train to the city center where our hotel was located. There I got me a tourist pass for unlimited 2-day commuting over the weekend we were there. I also decided to get a new EZ link card as I saw they released a design for the Chinese New Year (Year of the Monkey). I missed getting myself a Star Wars card, which the staff said were immediately sold out.


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IMG_1067Escalator to the SMRT Station beneath the Changi Airport Terminal 2

IMG_1068Heading down, you realize that the station is way under the airport terminal

IMG_1069After a second long flight of escalators, you reach the station level for the N-S line (green)

IMG_1070Ticket machines for purchasing tickets, cards or topping up (reloading) your card

IMG_1071Ticket office where you can purchase a pass or EZ link card

IMG_1072N-S line platform at Changi Airport Terminal 2

Singapore along with Hong Kong provides very good examples of how public transport should be and the benefits these can provide to people. Tourist passes and the EZ link card gives us a good example of how convenient commuting can be in terms of fare payment/collection.

“New phenomenon” in traffic?

I read in the news recently that the government official currently acting as traffic czar for Metro Manila. The news item may be found at the following link:

http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/536851/news/nation/almendras-cites-new-phenomenon-in-edsa

Apparently, the government official found what he claimed as a “new phenomenon” along EDSA. To quote from the article:

“Sa gabi, your honor, may bagong phenomenon na we’re still trying to understand: Bakit ang daming naghihintay ng bus pauwi?” Almendras told senators during the Senate Committee on Economic Affairs’ hearing on the traffic in Metro Manila.

The secretary added that while commuters are having a hard time getting a bus ride in the afternoon, EDSA is packed with passenger buses in the morning.

Almendras has been personally monitoring EDSA since the police’s Highway Patrol Group took over traffic management on the main thoroughfare.

He said somebody told him that passenger buses are no longer going out in the afternoon or in the evening because they have already hit their quota during daytime.

“This is not fact yet… Somebody told me that when the buses hit their minimum targets, the drivers decide, ‘Bakit pa ako magpapakahirap magbiyahe?'” he said.

“I have that question. Why do I see a lot of people on the streets waiting to go home in the afternoon than in the morning?” he added.

It boggles the mind on how our officials are making assessments of the transport and traffic situation around Metro Manila and particularly along EDSA. The statements taken directly shows how detached our officials are from the realities of commuting that most people face on a daily basis in the metropolis. Such statements reinforce calls for public officials to take public transportation themselves in order for them to experience first-hand and understand how most people feel during their daily travels between homes, workplaces and schools. But while people do not deserve such hardships of commuting, there is the lingering (philosophical) question of whether the same commuters deserve the leaders they elected who appointed these same officials who have been and continue to be inutile and insensitive to the plight of the commuting public. Hopefully, the coming 2016 elections will yield officials who will be more sensitive and responsive to the plight of commuters in this country.

Misleading information on comparing modes of transport

A major media network sponsored an experiment pitting a bicycle, bus and rail in a race from Trinoma to De La Salle University along Taft Avenue. The bicycle won but under conditions that are favorable to the cyclist even considering Metro Manila’s road conditions that are not bike-friendly (and not pedestrian friendly, too, in many areas).

Would the bicycle have won against a motorcycle where both riders were of similar skills and experiences? Probably not considering the speed of a motorised vehicle even given congested roads.

Would a lot of people consider cycling between, say, Trinoma and DLSU? Most likely not, even if you provide the necessary infrastructure and facilities like bike racks, showers, etc., short of building exclusive bikeways (e.g., elevated).

I have nothing against bicycles and cycling. I have a bicycle myself and I have cycled between my home and the universities when I was studying and a visiting scientist in Japan. However, I have to caution people into thinking and oversimplifying that one mode is better than all others. If we pursue this line of thinking, then perhaps we should include walking in the discussion. I would like to think that there will also be a lot of people who would state that walking (and even running) is better than other modes including cycling. When comparing these two non-motorized modes, however, the advantages of one over the other become obvious – cycling is faster and requires less energy per person traveling using the mode. Such would extend to the motorized modes and comparisons should clearly show the suitability of certain modes of transport over others once distance and capacity are factored into the equation. Thus, we have rail systems as more appropriate over longer distances and are able to carry much more passengers per hour compared to, say, jeepneys. These are even more efficient in terms of energy on a per passenger basis. Further, we have to appreciate that we have to establish a clear hierarchy of transport systems and provide the necessary infrastructure to enable people to have all the options for traveling and especially for commuting.

Some thoughts on Uber in Metro Manila

I had wanted to write something on Uber the past weeks but couldn’t because I wanted to have some visuals to go with the text. And so one time we decided to use Uber, I consciously took some screenshots for the photos that are shown in this post.

After opening your Uber app, you can indicate your pick-up point and you destination. You can see how many Uber drivers are nearby based on the map and the quick reference on screen. You can also check for a fare estimate as well as select the service you want. There are currently only two types of services available in Metro Manila – UberX and Uber Black. UberX is the default service and involves a regular car. Uber Black is a bigger and more ‘luxurious’ vehicle. Of course, you pay more for a better vehicle. Once you have inputted the necessary information for your itinerary, you can put in the request. Success in getting a ride is immediately shown on your phone.

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The screen shows that the driver is en route to your pick-up point. Details on your ride are provided including the name of the driver, the vehicle make, model and plate number. The vehicles I have rode on so far are recent models and most have no license plates yet – an indication of how new these vehicles are. Uber is supposed to be screening both the drivers and vehicles being registered to provide their services. One criteria for vehicles is that these are supposed to be recent models and well maintained, what’s perceived to be the opposite of vehicles used as conventional taxis.

During the trip, you can get updates on your progress through the map onscreen. This includes the estimated time of travel until you reach your destination. Information on the driver is also shown including his average rating. Our driver in this example had a 4.6 star average rating. I guess this is good given the star rating scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the highest rating.

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At the end of the trip, you can receive a receipt on your email. The receipt includes details on your fare, the start and end times of your trip, the travel distance and the route taken in map form. Information on the driver and a note for rating your driver is at the bottom of the receipt. Of course, you can save this for future reference and perhaps print it out in case you will be reimbursing the cost of your trip.

Receipt

After rating your driver, you will receive another message thanking you for rating your driver. Our driver that afternoon was good and drove safely. He wasn’t talkative but was polite and could strike up a conversation (My companion asked a few questions about his driving for Uber in an interview-like manner.).

Rating

What you don’t see is how your driver rated you. Uber also asks drivers to rate users and I would guess that this will have repercussions on passengers with bad attitudes. The ratings work both ways as Uber customers should be wary of their potential drivers as well as their own behavior. I suppose that drivers get information on whether a potential passengers is a rude one and may opt to avoid such passengers.

My take so far on Uber is that it is what conventional taxis are supposed to be. I find Uber drivers to be better in terms of politeness and safety in their driving habits. Fare-wise, Uber has been less expensive than Grab Taxi or conventional taxis as you don’t have to bid to get an Uber ride. The Grab Taxi app basically formalizes the bidding process as it asks you how much gratuity (tips) you are willing to give for a ride. I feel that this gratuity feature is a major determinant for taxi drivers choosing their fares and leads to more expensive fares. Of course, I haven’t experienced Uber’s surge pricing yet but friends who use Uber have informed me that this can be quite steep and can hurt your pocket or wallet. Still, I think Uber provides good service but it is not for everyone especially those on a budget or going to a place where roads are generally congested.

Health and commuting

Why is good public transportation especially transit important? Perhaps transport engineers and planners often get lost in trying to explain this from the perspectives of travel efficiency (e.g., reduced travel times, fuel efficiency, more capacity in terms of people carried, etc.) and environmental concerns (e.g., reduced emissions, reduced noise, etc.). Perhaps, too, there’s a need to articulate the importance of good public transport from the perspective of health. How many people do running, jogging or walking in the mornings, afternoons or evenings just to lose weight? How many go to gyms to workout? Perhaps the key to health lies in just walking everyday and integrating that healthy walk in your daily commutes. Here is a nice article from the Wall Street Journal on the link between the way you commute and a healthy life:

Your Commute Could Help You Lose Weight

Somethings I miss from living in Japan and Singapore are my regular walks to and from the transit station. I recall really good walks between the Transport Laboratory in YNU to the Soetetsu Line Kami Hoshikawa Station. You have to walk up a small mountain almost everyday from the station to the university. I also had good walking buddies back then during my 3 years in Yokohama. Later, I also enjoyed walking or cycling between the Transport Lab at Saitama University and the International House. Often, too, I would walk or cycle to the supermarket, the transit station or just around the neighborhood during free times. In Singapore, our home and the office were also near transit stations so we could take nice walks between them aside from the four flight of stairs to our apartment on the fourth floor. Such healthy commutes can be realized in Philippine cities if proper planning is undertaken and transit projects are implemented not just from the perspective of efficiency but, importantly, from the viewpoint of health. The current state of public transport is not healthy and many, especially those taking the EDSA MRT 3, will say that it is quite stressful to commute in Metro Manila. And stress is definitely not the way to lose weight. Is this true for other Philippine cities as well? Hopefully, we can work out transport solutions that include good public transport to promote healthy lifestyles.

Tales from a jeepney ride

Jeepneys get a lot of flak these days for the poor services they provide including many cases of reckless driving that could cause (if not already have caused) road crashes. Many of these crashes do not involve serious injuries or fatalities. Often, these are sideswipes or rear-end collisions, the latter being the result of aggressive drivers not being able to brake in time partly as they like to tail-gate (tutok) other vehicles. The social side of a jeepney ride is often the subject of many tales that illustrate typical human behaviour. There are the body language involved in passing fares between passengers and the driver or conductor. There are the scents and smell of different passengers. There’s music and there’s talk among people riding the jeepney (e.g., friends or colleagues commuting together). There are even cases of PDA or public displays of affection, including among students who go home together. I think it is still common for males to show their affection by taking their partners home (to make sure they get home safely).

One time during a ride home, I was fortunate to get a jeepney whose driver wasn’t reckless and whose conductor was a jolly fellow who engaged passengers in small talk while we were on our way to Antipolo from Katipunan. One passenger asked him how come it was more expensive to go to Antipolo Simbahan via Sumulong compared to the older route via Junction. He answered correctly that the former was a longer route (Google maps will tell you that the route via Sumulong Highway is 16.1 km while the one via Cainta Junction is 15.0 km.) but quickly added that the route via Junction usually took more time to travel along due to the congestion along Felix Avenue, Junction and Ortigas Extension. The other passengers agreed and joined the conversation, commenting on how many Antipolo-Sumulong jeepney drivers and conductors often try to choose passengers or attempt to cheat passengers on their fares (e.g., not giving back the right change or in some cases not even returning change). The good conductor offered his own observations in an accent that seemed to me as one for a native of Rizal. I wanted to join the candid discussion but decided to just listen in and be a spectator in this exchange.

IMG08801-20140621-1806This jeepney conductor was honest and engaged passengers in conversation. The driver was not reckless unlike many others of jeepneys I have rode on. (He was at least middle-aged but nearing senior status based on his looks.) I thought this was quite rare given the many “patok” jeepneys operating these days and the younger drivers and conductors who don’t care about safety or passengers’ rights like senior citizens’ and students’ discounts.

 I think it wouldn’t have been like this where conductor and passengers were interacting the way they did if this were a “patok” jeepney. “Patok” or “popular” jeepneys often feature loud music (though many people will regard this as noise and no longer music) and passengers can hardly hear themselves talk. Often the loud music is an excuse for the driver or conductor not giving back the right change or any change at all to passengers despite the latter shouting at the driver/conductor. We were also lucky that our driver drove safer than your average driver. That meant a somewhat longer trip but I guess the interaction among passengers and conductor allowed for us not to notice the time. I guess these types of trips and interactions are what distinguished jeepneys from other transport. This is very much how commuting can be romanticised and is certainly something we will perhaps miss should the jeepney be phased out. Will it be phased out and is it necessary to remove jeepneys from our roads? I don’t think it will be phased out completely, and I believe that there is a need for the jeepney to be modernised but at the same time operate within a sustainable framework and hierarchy. And we need more of this conductor and his driver to be part of this system while purging out the reckless, abusive and disrespectful kind who make commuting unsafe and uncomfortable for many.

“Pwede na yan” bikeways?

The recent clamor for bicycle facilities have led to several initiatives in Metro Manila and other Philippines cities (most notable recently is Iloilo) to support the demand for cycling facilities. While Marikina City already has a network of off-street bikeways segregated from motorised traffic, there are few other examples of such facilities elsewhere. The more recent initiatives in Metro Manila involved the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) establishing bikeways in several areas along major roads in the metropolis. I say establish because the MMDA did not construct new bikeways like the ones in Marikina or Iloilo. What the agency did was to designate sidewalks and other existing paths for cycling by painting these over. Unfortunately, these so-called bikeways did not take into consideration the needs of pedestrians with whom cyclists must share this limited space. And so few people use them despite a high profile launch that brought together government officials and NGOs including cycling and mobility advocates and enthusiasts. I guess the big test was really not whether advocates and enthusiasts would really use the bikeways (Don’t count on the officials to use them. They have chauffeur-driven vehicles.). Would the regular commuter use them instead of the roads, despite the risk or dangers posed by motor vehicles?

2014-02-11 16.58.11Commuters waiting for a bus ride along EDSA with suspended bicycle racks behind them. The sidewalks along EDSA have been painted red, designating them for bicycle use. The big question now is how cyclists will interact with pedestrians given the very limited space they should be sharing.

2014-02-11 16.58.18Bicycles hanging on racks attached to the perimeter wall of an exclusive subdivision along EDSA.

2014-02-11 16.58.46Cyclist using the curb side lane of EDSA – these people run the risk of being sideswiped by buses operating along the yellow (bus) lanes of this busy thoroughfare. It is quite obvious in the photo that there is no space on the sidewalks to accommodate cyclists and even pedestrians. Column for the MRT-3 stations are right on the sidewalks and makes one wonder how this flawed design was approved in the first place. MMDA enforcers usually appear as if they are only bystanders and seem to be generally helpless when it comes to managing traffic.

2014-02-11 17.15.47Workers cycling back to their homes after a day’s work. Many people have opted to take bicycles for their daily commutes even if they have to travel long distances in order to save money that would otherwise be paid as fares for buses, jeepneys, UV Express or tricycles. Note that the cyclists use the outermost lane of the road as the sidewalks pose many obstacles including pedestrians as shown in the photo. Some cyclists though want more than a share of the sidewalk or a lane of the road for their use regarding pedestrians and motor vehicles as nuisance for them. Surely, some pedestrians also regard cyclists as nuisance to walking and would prefer to have the sidewalks for themselves.

Cycling is in a way an emancipation from motorized transport commutes, and savings translate to money they could allocate for other needs of their families. While there are raw data for family expenditures from census surveys, there are few studies and publications focused on transport. It would be  interesting to see how much a typical Filipino family spends for transport in absolute terms as well as a percentage of their total incomes. Such information would be essential for understanding the needs of travelers, especially for daily commutes for work and school (other trips include those for purposes of shopping, recreational, social and others). Long commutes are associated with higher expenses (e.g., in terms of fares or fuel costs) and reducing such costs through shorter commutes should free up money for necessities like food, housing and clothing. Ultimately, this would help solve issues relating to poverty and health, which can easily be related to commuting behavior and characteristics.

It is in that context that transport systems should be planned and implemented carefully along with the housing developments. This underlines the essence of the relationship between transport and land use that has been the topic of discussions for quite some time now that apparently, a lot of people in this country, especially officials and the private sector have chosen to ignore or apply selectively (i.e., according to their own advantage and not really for the general welfare of the public). A transport system is not cycling alone, or roads or railways alone. It is, by definition, a network, a set of interacting, integrated elements and each of these components of the system are essential for it to function well. It is the interaction and integration that are the key elements that we often forget as we advocate one transport mode over others as if they are independent from each other. They are not and we should complement rather than compete in our advocacies for transport so we can finally achieve an efficient, effective system for everyone.