Caught (up) in traffic

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City bus layout

At the European Motor Show last weekend at Bonifacio High Street in Bonifacio Global City, there were obviously a lot of European made vehicles on display including the usual attractions from Italy and Germany. What also caught my attention was the new MAN bus currently being used Froehlich Tours for their P2P bus services. Here are some photos of the interior of the bus.

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Note the low floor for entry and exits and the layout of the seats that could maximise the number of passengers carried by the bus. The layout maximises the space for standing passengers and seats can be assigned to those with special needs such as persons with disabilities, pregnant women, and senior citizens. Those traveling over longer distances can be seated at the back in order for them not to block those who would be boarding and alighting over shorter distances (i.e., with the likelihood for more frequent movements). This layout should be the standard for city buses in Metro Manila and other cities considering bus services (e.g., Cebu and Davao). In fact, I think the DOTC and LTFRB should seriously consider coming out with a policy/memo requiring bus companies to transition into these buses. That means replacing non-compliant buses over a grace period (i.e., to account for the investments of bus operators/companies). This is one way of modernising bus fleets as most buses for city operations you see now, especially along EDSA, are configured for long distance (provincial?) trips with their narrow aisles and maximising the number of seats as well as the baggage compartments at the buses’ bellies.

Consultation on EDSA decongestion – September 24, 2015

There will be a public consultation tomorrow entitled “EDSA Decongestion Consultation” at the GT Toyota Auditorium at the Asian Center of the University of the Philippines Diliman from 1:30 – 3:30PM. The consultation will tackle transport and traffic in Metro Manila but particularly along EDSA. The consultation will be facilitated by the TWG headed by Sec. Almendras who is the cabinet secretary put in-charge of addressing (solving?) the traffic mess in Metro Manila. The TWG includes DPWH, DOTC, DTI, MMDA, LTO, LTFRB, and the PNP-HPG.

This would be a good venue for stakeholders to articulate their concerns as well as offer their ideas towards alleviating transport and traffic problems. Invitations are supposed to have been extended to academic institutions, transport groups and other interested parties. Hopefully, this event will be a productive and constructive one. Pointing fingers and playing the blame game will not get us anywhere.

Good intentions and knee jerk reactions

Social media is again abuzz with stories about Uber and how Philippine government agencies like the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) are hassling Uber, Grab and similar companies into complying with government regulations covering their services. Is it really a hassle and are these “Transport Network Companies” or TNCs the real deal in terms of solving part of Metro Manila’s transport woes?

I believe Uber and other services like it have good intentions towards providing high quality, on-demand transport services. However, based on what I’ve read about the service in other countries (particularly in the US and Europe), the intention (original?) was to take advantage of surplus or excess capacity of vehicles being driven by “owner-drivers” between origins and destinations such as their homes and offices. That means an improvement of sorts for traffic as, instead of having one vehicle per person, two or more can share a single car. The main differences with conventional carpools is that the driver and his passengers practically do not know each other, and the passengers pay the driver a fee that is agreed upon at the start of the transaction. This works well in car-oriented cities as well as those with less than satisfactory public transport services especially when it comes to taxis.

The last sentence seems to be the right description for Metro Manila and other rapidly growing Philippine cities. And so, Uber, Grab Car and other shared service attracted many users who can afford them and providers willing to share their rides with total strangers. I stated “owner-drivers” in the previous paragraph as this was supposed to be an essential part of the set-up where Uber and others didn’t add to the cars already on the roads. Problem is, apparently and allegedly, some enterprising people who had the resources thought it would be a good idea to deploy all their vehicles (and even purchase additional ones) by hiring drivers they could register with Uber or Grab Car. That way, they thought they could bypass the typically bureaucratic process of getting a franchise for taxi or rental car franchises that also include all those business permits and, of course, taxes. The result of this would not be the utilization of excess capacity but the addition of more cars on the roads and therefore contribute to worsening congestion.

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As far as the LTFRB is concerned, like it or not, they are just doing what they are mandated to do and are supposed to do with any transport service provider that is not purely private (i.e., services with a fee). It just so happens that the DOTC and LTFRB have been on the receiving end of a lot of flak from the public and especially in social media for what is perceived as the agencies’ ineptitude in dealing with major issues in public transportation. These include the continuing saga that is EDSA-MRT 3 and the perceived low quality services provided by buses and jeepneys in general that leave people at the mercy of taxis and UV express if they opt not or cannot afford to purchase their own vehicles.

The main issue is not whether DOTC and LTFRB should pay attention to Uber and others like it. The agencies should as per their mandates. However, there are a lot of other more serious and more urgent issues/problems including the much delayed mass transit projects and the low quality of service being provided by buses, jeepneys, UV express and conventional taxis that the DOTC and its attached agencies need to act on and now. I know it is a generalization (There are many good bus, jeepney, UV express and taxi drivers and operators out there who are also working their butts off to earn a living.) but then when you combine unsafe driving, with high fuel consumption and a lot of harmful emissions then you get a cocktail that’s definitely bad for all travelers.

How many people use Uber or Grab Car or taxis? Do they outnumber those taking the LRT/MRTs, buses, jeepneys and UV express? They don’t and therefore only represent a small percentage of the trips being taken everyday in Metro Manila and adjacent areas. And so the more pressing issues are really those pertaining to mass transit and the dire need to construct these systems once and for all in order to achieve a more sustainable and inclusive transport system for this still growing megalopolis.

Some thoughts on the EDSA MRT 3 problem

A lot of people reacted when the current Philippine President practically absolved the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) from any fault regarding the issues on the EDSA MRT Line 3 during his recent State of the Nation Address (SONA). The main message in some articles appearing on mainstream and social media is that the President should blame DOTC for the mess. I have the opinion that both DOTC and the private entities involved (MRT Corporation, MRT Holdings) are responsible for the problem and its being continuously unresolved.

A week ago, I got the following question in my email:

Who is it that we could blame for the current state of the rail system? What do you suggest that the government or the private partner do in order for them to improve the line?

Quite frankly, I thought the first question was too direct and blunt as to ask who we can blame for the MRT3 mess. It is also very awkward to answer the second question because it assumes that I am an expert on the legal issues on this matter. I am NOT a legal expert nor would I want to pretend to be one. Here was my reply:

That’s actually a very tricky question. We can’t really blame a specific person or persons but perhaps entire organizations that are supposed to be responsible for the mess that is MRT3. The main or root issue seems to be legal and not at all technical. The technical problems experienced are manifestations of a contract that is a textbook case for how NOT to do a PPP. I am not privy to the details of the discussions between the government and the people involved and behind MRTC so it is awkward to make comments specific to this matter of the contract and all its complexities. Perhaps the DOTC wants to follow “Daang Matuwid” by not budging to the terms laid out by MRTC? Perhaps MRTC is aware of the stakes (plight of the riding public) and is using this to force DOTC into a deal that is not favorable to government? We can only speculate on this without firsthand knowledge of their discussions.

However, from the perspective of transport as a service and as a public good, I would say that MRTC indeed is aware of the public’s clamor for improvement. This is all over the news and social media in the form of commentaries, images and even videos of the undesirable experiences of those taking the MRT3. In the end, DOTC must decide whether it is all worth it to maintain the stalemate with MRTC considering that the public interest is at stake here and things will just become worse with inaction. Perhaps the government should move towards the best compromise they can live with considering the urgency of addressing the problem at hand.

I would like to think that my reply was quite cautious. There have been many allegations and claims from both sides of the table regarding how to resolve the impasse and the conflicts that seem to be interwoven with the contract on the MRT3. Perhaps such cases test the limits of “Daang Matuwid”? Much was and is expected from DOTC considering its battery of lawyers including top officials of the department. Aren’t they supposed to have been involved in discussions and negotiations aside from strategic planning for our transportation in this country? I guess the general public especially those who take the MRT3 for their commutes already know who to blame for their plight…

On the new transport categories by the DOTC

An article came out recently about the four new transport categories introduced by the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC).

These are:

  • Transportation Network Vehicle Service (TNVS),
  • Premium Taxi,
  • Airport Bus, and
  • Bus Rapid Transit

To quote from the article from Rappler, TNVS are:

“Vehicles of application-based, ride-sharing service providers, like Uber, GrabTaxi, Tripda, and EasyTaxi, will now fall under the category TNVS.

TNVS will cover vehicles that provide pre-arranged transportation services for compensation, using an online-enabled application or platform technology to connect passengers with drivers using their personal vehicles, Abaya said.

These new rules will also allow ride-sharing service providers to accept regular passengers heading to any point of destination in the country, Abaya added.

Operators of TNVS, called Transportation Network Companies, are also required to screen and accredit drivers and register them with the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB).

All TNVS vehicles will also be required to install and use global positioning system (GPS) tracking and navigation devices. Only sedans, Asian Utility Vehicles, Sports Utility Vehicles, vans, or similar vehicles will be allowed, and these should not be older than 7 years.

The new framework makes the Philippines the first country to have nationwide rules on ride-sharing, according to both the Philippine transport department and Uber. Previously, only local and city governments have regulated the services…”

Premium Taxis are described as:

“…vehicles with a 7-year age limit under this new category will be equipped with GPS, online and smartphone booking capability, and cashless transactions through credit or debit card payments.

Like TNVS, premium taxis will be allowed to accept regular passengers heading to any point of destination in the country…”

And Airport Buses are:

“…should have fixed schedules and off-street stops, low-floor height and adequate luggage space, CCTV cameras, GPS device, free WiFi, and must run on Euro V or clean alternative fuel.”

Abaya pointed out that Green Frog has expressed interest in the airport bus service that would ply three areas including Makati City, Mall of Asia (MOA) as well as Bonifacio Global City (BGC) or Ortigas business centre…”

I won’t mention the BRT anymore. It deserves its own feature (as if the previous ones on it are not enough to describe the system), and is the only mass transit among the 4 categories “introduced” by the DOTC.

These new transport categories are obviously a step in the right direction. These are not new ideas and the institution of these categories by the DOTC is long overdue considering that the agency had to go through this process in order to address legal issues pertaining to such services. In the case of TNVS and Uber, for example, much has been mentioned about franchise issues and how Uber was illegal under the prevailing set-up. It is good to have another option to the regular taxis but then weren’t GrabTaxi and EasyTaxi were supposed to have enhanced services?

As for airport buses, such limousine services have been in operation in many other countries. Unfortunately, in Metro Manila’s case, these buses would have to contend with worsening traffic conditions along most major roads connecting the airport terminals to the various points of interest mentioned in the article (e.g., Makati CBD, BGC, Ortigas CBD, etc.). It is good though that Green Frog was mentioned in the article as the new category provides an opportunity for cleaner and more efficient technologies to be applied to transport services. Still, if these services will be operated by reckless drivers then they won’t be much better than what we already have at present.

Still on license plates

I can’t seem to get over this pet peeve of mine that is the earlier move of the Land Transportation Office (LTO) for all new vehicles to adopt the same license plate design. It was an illogical move even as the LTO claimed the new plates had security features that allowed easy verification of vehicle registration. Common sense tells us that the easiest verification of whether a vehicle is for private or public utility is by simple vision. You don’t need high tech equipment to tell you that a van sporting a private plate and picking up passengers for fares is operating illegally. You didn’t need to exert a lot of effort to read the very small lettering on the new license plate for where the vehicles is registered because the first letter of the old license plates already indicated the region (i.e., the first letter corresponds to a region – ‘B’ for Region 2, ‘F’ for Region 6, and so on).

IMG10592-20150415-2206Two UV Express vehicles bearing plates that are supposed to be for private vehicles. The one on the left didn’t even make the cut for the new plates, being issued the older green plates.

I really hope that this is corrected ASAP considering that the LTO has rescinded the earlier policy and is supposed to issue yellow plates again for public utility vehicles.

Resistance is futile? The case against electric jeepneys

There is a strong sentiment against electric jeepneys along the route where the COMET is currently operating. This opposition has always been there even before the COMET came about. I would like to think that this is partly due to the perception among many operators and drivers that conventional jeepneys would be phased out and replaced by e-jeepneys. But then isn’t this replacement supposed to be an upgrade in terms of having a more energy efficient and therefore economical vehicle that had a significant bonus of being low emission as well.

I finally got a photo of the sign Katipunan jeepney operators and drivers put up at the terminal below the Aurora Blvd. flyover.

IMG10352-20150322-1704Protest against electric jeepneys written on Manila paper and posted on overpass column at the Katipunan jeepney terminal

Given the recent innovations and the rapid advances in electric and other fuel vehicles, it should come as no surprise that more reliable and more efficient models of these vehicles will be available in the market. In the case of the Philippines where the thrust for e-vehicles is focused on public transport, there will eventually be a model that will comprehensively beat conventional jeepneys in every aspect. That is, if there is not yet a model that good. Arguably, the COMET and the latest e-jeepney model (BEEP) are already better than conventional jeepneys. However, their acceptability is pending with operators and drivers who seem uninterested with the case against conventional jeepneys. Perhaps these people are being fed false information by another party? Hopefully, they will open their eyes and mind to the reality that will eventually catch up with them if they do not embrace change.

Another example of mismatched plates

My most recent post was on the inappropriateness of the new license plates issued by the LTO to public utility vehicles. New taxis, UV express and jeepneys suddenly had the back and white license that’s supposed to be issued only to private vehicles. This meant that it would be difficult to distinguish the legitimate PUVs from colorum or illegally operating ones. In the last post, I was able to show an example each for these license plates on a taxi and a UV Express van. Yesterday, I was able to get a photo of a jeepney bearing this “anomalous” plate as I was caught in an unexpected traffic jam along an otherwise free-flowing road in Rizal.

IMG10533-20150409-1113Jeepney bearing the black and white license plate issued to private vehicles

End game: flyover frenzy

The Manila Bulletin featured news on the Japanese government extending a loan to the Philippines for road projects in Metro Manila that include the construction of several major interchanges. An excerpt from the article is as follows:

The Japanese government will be providing some P4 billion to the Philippines for road projects aimed at decongesting monstrous traffic jams in Metro Manila.

Noriaki Niwa, chief representative of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), said the loan will cover major interchanges to address traffic congestion in Metro Manila, including flyovers, and road links.

Among them are the interchanges on EDSA/Roosevelt/Congressional, EDSA/West/North, and C-5/Green Meadows and North/Mindanao Avenue.

“This is to help Metro Manila sustain growth and develop it as an attractive investment destination,” said Niwa.

While these interchanges have been recommended many years ago and are also reiterated in the recent transport roadmap for Mega Manila, one cannot help but make the observation that these projects will not alleviate congestion over the long term. Instead, it will likely encourage more vehicle traffic (with the availability of more road space – part of a vicious cycle).

Other major projects that are ongoing in Metro Manila include the NAIA Expressway, which is an elevated tollway connecting to the Skyway. A friend commented that this is basically a glorified flyover project as I will explain later in this post.

IMG10495-20150401-0636NAIA Expressway construction in full swing – a column rises near NAIA Terminal 3

IMG10498-20150401-0642NAIA Expressway elevated sections nearing completion across from Terminal 3

The term of the current administration concludes next year (2016) and so we are almost in the endgame, to borrow a term from chess. What seems to be a frantic move for the government to build all these flyovers (and elevated tollways) can be interpreted as a way to compensate for the underspending and underachieving ways of the government in putting up the necessary infrastructure to address transport and traffic problems in urban areas. Unfortunately, all the funding (public and private) seems to be going to road projects instead of to mass public transport systems like rail and BRT that should be the priority because these could provide the positive impacts over a longer term than what road projects could deliver in terms of mobility and sustainability.

A friend reminded me of a similar situation back in 1991/92 when government embarked on a slew of flyover projects in an effort to leave a legacy in transport. That administration’s excuse for failing to deliver any mass transit project was that it was transitioning from a dictatorship. However, it also failed to deliver on power projects, which led to the energy crisis that had to be solved quickly (but with costly PPP power plant projects). There is a looming energy crisis now but more worrying is a transport crisis as we continue to procrastinate about public transport infrastructure. Should we be hopeful of transport with the next administration? That is still a big question as of now.

Legit or kabit? Follow-up

I wrote about the “kabit” system last February. I mentioned that the EMBC bus I saw was actually operated by another company (RRCG) that seems to have also engaged another company (Jasper Jean) to provide bus units operating the EMBC routes. Unfortunately, I was not able to get a photo showing information on the original operator of this bus company and its lines to Rizal and Laguna via the eastern route through Antipolo. I was finally able to get a photo of an EMBC bus bearing information on the original operator/company for comparison with the information on the bus in the previous post. It clearly states here that EMBC is the operator of this bus.

IMG10351-20150321-1422Information printed on the bus as required by law