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On school bus services and the return to face-to-face classes

I did an interview last August with a major business daily but I couldn’t find it as published as part of an article. The topic was a very timely one as children return to schools for face-to-face (F2F) classes. Here are the questions sent to me and my responses as I remember them:

1. How will the transport sector cope with the expected increase in demand as more schools resume face-to-face classes?

For schools located in the cities, what we see is people opting to take private transportation in the form of cars or motorcycles to take their children to school. This is because public transportation supply is still not back to pre-pandemic levels while at the same time, parents and guardians and even students who commute by themselves (e.g., high school and college levels) may be hesitant to take public transportation as well as school service vehicles. The latter may be attributed to concerns about the safety particularly with regards to health (i.e., getting infected or exposed to Covid-19 if they take public transport or a vehicle where they share the ride with many other people). We need more public transportation capacity to be able to address the increased demand brought about by students coming back for face-to-face classes. We also need to have other options or alternatives for their safe journeys including walking and cycling for their commutes.

For schools in the rural areas, there may be little adjustment concerning transport since most schoolchildren walk or take motorcycles or tricycles to school. This is perhaps because most schoolchildren reside within the school district and do not have long commutes like what we have in many cities (e.g., most schoolchildren who study at schools like Ateneo, LaSalle, etc. likely live in another city or town rather than near the schools).

2. How many school buses are expected to resume operations? How many of them have permanently closed?

I currently don’t have the data on that but LTFRB should have reference or baseline data. School service vehicles are required to register with the LTFRB and perhaps a look at the number registered before and during the pandemic could show how many can be expected to resume operations nationwide and per region. LTO doesn’t have these numbers as they only register by vehicle type. We will not know from LTO data which jeepneys, vans or buses are used for school service. Most school service are tied to the schools the student of which they provide transport services to. If the school closed, then chances are that the school service may apply to other schools. That said, the last two years where schools operated online were a backbreaker to many school service and only the registered numbers with LTFRB can tell us just how many are not returning at least for this school year.

3. How does the surge in fuel prices affect the operations of those involved in school transportation? Will this affect the ability of teachers, schools staff and students to travel on-site?

School services might increase their rates, which are usually monthly or semi-monthly. This is to make up for the increase in fuel prices and vehicle maintenance as well. This will likely only affect students’ travel rather than those of their teachers or school staff. The latter group will likely take public transport or their own vehicles for their commutes. In their case, their travel may be affected by transport fare increase or their own fuel expenses if they use their own vehicles. They have little choice though because they have to travel to work. Student though may still enjoy some respite as many schools are adopting blended or flexible schedules that will only require students to do face-to-face classes on certain days of the week.

4. What’s the long term impact of the pandemic on the school bus industry?

People will remain to be apprehensive in letting their children share a school van or bus ride due to the pandemic. We can only promote vaccination and compliance with health protocols to ensure that schoolchildren will have safe journeys as far as Covid-19 is concerned. The return to face-to-face classes this school year will perhaps help determine if the pandemic will have a long term effect on the industry or if people’s (parents and guardians) trust to school bus services will return within the short term.

5. How can school bus drivers and operators cope with the challenges posed by the pandemic and rising fuel prices?

LTFRB issued Memorandum Circular 2022-066, which adds health protocols for school service:
• Regular examination of the drivers and conductors’ fitness to work by checking their body temperature and screening for symptoms related to COVID-19.
• Regular disinfection of frequently-touched surfaces, such as but not limited to seats, armrests, and handles.
• Mandatory wearing of face masks at all times by drivers and conductors, including passengers.

School transport services must comply with these protocols and demonstrate the safety of their mode to convince people to return to using or subscribing to school service vehicles. Meanwhile, there is really no escaping rising fuel prices but collective transport in the form of school service vehicles are still more efficient and cheaper per passenger compared to using private vehicles; not to mention contribute to reducing traffic congestion along school routes. This must also be promoted (i.e., people made aware of the advantages) vs. private vehicle use.

A Bike Master Plan for Metro Manila, Metro Cebu and Metro Davao

Before Active Transport Week concludes this weekend, I would just like to share this collage from one of our staff at the National Center for Transportation Studies of the University of the Philippines Diliman. It is about the Master Plan developed for the three metropolitan areas in the country – Metro Manila, Metro Cebu and Metro Davao.  I will share more details about this soon including a link or links to where you can download a copy of the plan.

The project concluded recently with the submission of the Final Report but most important is the Master Plan document that can serve as a reference for further development of bike lanes in the metropolises. I’ve seen the Master Plan and many of its provisions and recommendations can easily be adopted or is replicable in other cities and municipalities in the country. Perhaps, there should be a National Master Plan?

No vax, no ride – some insights and opinions

The Department of Transportation (DOTr) recently issued a memo stating unvaccinated people may not use public transportation in Metro Manila. People will have to show proof of vaccination (i.e., vaccination card) before he/she is allowed to board the bus, jeepney, van or train, which are all under the jurisdiction of the DOTr. I assume tricycles are not included here since these are under the local government units.

Certain groups quickly slammed the memo as being “anti-poor”. Note though that vaccinations are covered by government funds and are free. You only have to register and show-up for your shots. Given the period when vaccinations started, there should be few or no excuses for not being vaccinated at this time for most people (children under 11 years old are not yet being vaccinated as of this writing). In fact, many vaccination centers have already been giving booster shots from November 2021 and many have reportedly had fewer people getting vaccinated or boosters by December 2021. That changed when the current surge attributed mainly to the Omicron variant of Covid-19 led to a sudden influx of people at vaccination centers. Workplaces requiring their employees to be vaccinated also probably contributed to people being convinced they needed to get vaccinated. Otherwise, they could not earn a living.

A colleague explained that the modality of vaccinations requiring registrations online meant those without smart phones could only do walk-ins. While certain LGUs such as Cainta automatically registered their constituents, and particularly senior citizens, and posted vaccination schedules that covered everyone registered as their constituents, others especially larger LGUs might not have the capacity to do this simplification. Non-vaxxed people will also have to take some form of transport and not everyone will opt to bike or would have their own private vehicle.

Perhaps we should again look to science for an answer to the question whether this policy is good or bad. Ventilation or air circulation-wise, open air vehicles and without those plastic barriers present a better situation for lesser likelihoods of virus transmission among passengers. Many public transport vehicles though are closed, air-conditioned types. People are also obliged to wear masks (shields have been proved as ineffective and unnecessary) so everyone wearing masks should reduce the risk of transmission even with unvaccinated people (remember there was a time everybody when everybody was unvaccinated). Again the key word here is “reduce”. There is no guarantee that one will not get Covid even with excellent ventilation and mask use.

Implementation-wise, there are many challenges here including the additional delays to travel brought about by the vaccination card checks. If there are to be checkpoints, that’s another source of delay (and we already know how checkpoints can result in carmaggedon-level congestion). The even more recent DOTr pronouncement is their intention to deploy what they call “mystery passengers” seems amusing and inspired by similar people mingling in public to tell on people violating this and that law.

Meanwhile, here’s a question that’s easily answerable by “yes” or “no” but would likely elicit explanations or arguments for or against the idea: “Would you, assuming you’re vaccinated, be willing to take public transportation knowing that you will be riding a vehicle together with unvaccinated people?” I think the most common answer would be a “No”. Exceptional would be the “yes” reply if you consider the potential for spreading Covid-19 post-commute (by both the vaccinated and unvaccinated who are either asymptomatic or symptomatic).

As a parting note, a former student puts it quite bluntly in a social media post – “Smoking in public is banned precisely based on the science. Is smoking then anti-poor? And would you ride in public transport with people who are smoking while in the vehicles?” I think we also know the answer to this question without elaborating on the situation.

What they are not saying about UTSMMA and Metro Manila’s first subway line

My social media feed is suddenly filled with shares of articles (the same PR text apparently) from the Department of Transportation, its Secretary and his fans and local rail aficionados about the progress of the Metro Manila Subway Project, which is dubbed as Metro Manila’s first subway line. While these posts start and appear as factual narratives, they are silent about certain facts that the writers conveniently did not include as part of their narrative. Perhaps it is because they are currently allied with the son of the dictator who decided vs. building what could have been the country’s first subway line and a game-changer for commuting in the metropolis.

UTSMMA or the Urban Transport Study in Manila Metropolitan Area was completed in 1973 and was immediately followed by a Feasibility Study on the Manila Rapid Transit Rail Line No. 1 that was completed in 1976. Here’s a nice render of a subway station platform from that FS:

Two things that need to be said:

  1. Marcos decided against the subway line in favor of LRT Line 1 after being heavily influenced by a World Bank report and the succeeding MMETROPLAN (funded by the WB). It is also said that he wanted to have the bragging rights to the first mass transit line in Southeast Asia but Singapore’s first MRT line would finish ahead of Metro Manila’s if the Philippines pursued the subway. The latter was a late and fateful decision because commitment to the RTR Line 1 could have been made earlier and construction could have started ahead of Singapore’s (and likely finished ahead if there were no major delays).
  2. The corruption during the Marcos dictatorship led to succeeding administrations including the current being saddled by debt and unable to put up major transportation infrastructure such as a subway line for decades (this is already well documented so denial or refusal to understand is the burden of the denier – no logic or fact can can probably change such people’s views or beliefs) without piling up more debt.

That said, I would caution vs. delaying the subway project any further. It is already almost 40 years since a subway was due and though the alignment is totally different from what was planned in the 1970s, there’s potential here to revolutionize how people will commute in Metro Manila. It will only become more expensive to build in the future.

Why not rationalize other routes now?

There is an enduring discussion in various forums and platforms about the lack of supply of public transportation. I can’t help but notice though that many discussions consciously or unconsciously leave out the part of public transport rationalisation that calls for phasing out lower capacity vehicles in favour of higher capacity ones. I have written about this and explained the necessity particularly along corridors with high transport demand. Delaying what is required (not necessarily what is inevitable) means we fall short of transforming public transport services in this context.

 

There are definitely missed opportunities here but the current discussions and proposed resources for 2021 including funds for service contracting seems to suggest a status quo in terms of vehicles with the exception of the modernisation part. Perhaps this is because we are still in pandemic mode and survival is still the name of the game? Nevertheless, there should be initiatives and continued dialogue about ‘graduating’ from lower capacity vehicles to higher capacity ones. Of course, this discussion is more urgent for highly urbanised cities than smaller ones.

Tinkering with decentralization of public transportation planning, franchising and regulations

I recall an informal discussion my colleagues and I had about the then Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) more than a decade ago. We were comparing the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH)’s and DOTC’s structures. DPWH has regional offices but also District Engineering Offices (DEO). These DEOs were practically mini me’s of the DPWH with the District Engineer calling the shots. Under him were a Design Engineer, Planning Engineer, Maintenance Engineer, etc. who were the equivalent at that level of the Bureaus. DOTC didn’t have the equivalent even though there were Land Transportation Office (LTO) and Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) regional offices. So if there were regional development council (RDC) meetings, the DOTC’s representatives are usually from the regional offices of LTO and LTFRB plus other offices of agencies under DOTC – Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA), Air Transportation Office (ATO now CAAP) and the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA).

I mention these because perhaps one vision for the future is to have something like Metropolitan, City or Municipal Transit Authorities similar to those you’ll find in other countries. And these should have the capacities for route planning and assessment that are currently centralized in DOTr (i.e., Road Transport Division). But perhaps these transit authorities should not only have road based public transport under them but also rail, too. This is especially applicable to metros like MM, the loosely defined Metro Cebu and Metro Davao and other HUCs that maybe ripe for some form of urban rail transport. In some cases, I would even dare include maritime transport as well since modes like the Pasig River Ferry should also be included.

This idea of decentralization is something worth considering as local government units build capacity and capability for public transportation planning, operations and management. Some are already capable though mainly concern themselves with tricycles and pedicabs. These two modes are not under the LTFRB but are arguable the most in number around the country. There are already best practices about their management including those that have been documented in past studies on sustainable transport (e.g., San Fernando, La Union, Quezon City, Olongapo City, Davao City, etc.). Many of these cities are highly urbanized and would need to deal with all public transport and might just be the most knowledgeable and experienced in their jurisdictions. National government should at least identify pilot cities where bus, jeepney and van transport planning, franchising and management (including operations and enforcement) can be devolved or delegated. That is so we can already have an idea how these local transit authorities can be operationalized. Many already have their Local Public Transport Route Plans (LPTRP) so that is a good starting point for LGUs to establish their transit units around.

Modernized jeepneys in Marikina

Passing through Marikina City on the way home, I chanced upon these versions of the so-called modernized jeepneys plying routes in the city. Marikina has some of the oldest routes I’ve known including those originating from Parang and SSS Village. These were at the edges of the city and back in the day were bordering on rural as compared to the urbanized areas what was then still a municipality. The opportunity presented itself so I took a few photos of the mini-buses posing as jitneys or modern jeepneys.

Jitney/mini-bus turning a corner towards A. Bonifacio Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Marikina City that eventually becomes Sumulong Highway.
The vehicles are manufactured by Hino, a Japanese company that specializes in large vehicles such as buses and trucks.
The ‘Parang-Stop & Shop’ route was served by jeepneys. Stop & Shop used to be a popular supermarket in the Sta. Mesa area of Manila. It is no longer there but the name stuck just like ‘Buendia’ is still the term used for ‘Gil Puyat Avenue’ in Makati. From Stop & Shop, one can transfer to other jeepneys to take you to various destinations in Manila including the University Belt, Quiapo, Divisoria, and Intramuros

Unlike the old, conventional jeepneys, these are closed, air-conditioned vehicles. While there exists concerns about virus spread in such configurations, one cannot argue vs. the improved comfortability of these vehicles over the old ones especially when the Covid threat is already addressed. The vehicles seat 20+ passengers on average with more room for standees, if required and allowed in the future.

These vehicles are operated by transport cooperatives, which are encourage by the government in their PUV modernization program. Cooperatives have many advantages compared to the old set-up of individual operators. These include the personality or modality to engage financing institutions for acquiring fleets of PUVs. As such, modernization (or the replacement of old PUVs) is expedited. Note the logos along the side of the vehicle? These are DOTr, LTFRB, LTO and DBP. DBP is, of course, the Development Bank of the Philippines, which is one of the underwriters of the modernization program.

More on these vehicles, modernization and rationalization in future posts.

What if MUCEP was wrong?

I am not a stranger to the perils of bad data and the analysis, conclusions and recommendations based on it. Last week and the next couple, our students will be presenting and defending their research proposals (one group) and research outcomes (another group), respectively. Many of these students conducted secondary data collection and/or depended on online surveys for their primary data needs including interviews for their respective topics. Much of the secondary data are from past studies including the MMUTIS Update and Capacity Enhancement Project (MUCEP), which was the most recent comprehensive transport planning study for what we basically refer to now as NCR Plus (MUCEP covers Mega Manila, which includes parts of Bataan, Pampanga, Batangas and Quezon provinces aside from Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal).

I share the following quote from one who is in the know or has inside information about what went about during the data collection for a major project that sought to update the Metro Manila Urban Transportation Integration Study (MMUTIS):

“The MUCEP data can not be trusted. A major part of the survey was done by DoTr (via a contracted group) – not by JICA-supervised surveys. Its results revealed a large portion of walking per day, because the surveyor filled up the forms and/or disregarded sampling design as most car-owning HH were not available (working or declined to participate) during the survey.
However, citing it is for convenience (aura of credibility). Its (mis)use is another matter.”

The stories are not at all new and I have heard this from various sources including surveyors and survey supervisors themselves whom we also engage for our own data collection (it’s a small world after all – transportation practice in the Philippines). Whether these are factual or not, should be obvious from the data and whether it is consistent with past studies or presents an abrupt change in matters such as mode share and vehicle ownership.

Of course both the DOTr and JICA will deny there was any error in data collection at the time and the weights of their statements will definitely make these the more accepted even if there are reasonable doubts about the assumptions and the survey implementation. But infallibility claims aside, what if the assertion in the quote was correct? What are the implications to activities such as forecasting, policymaking or master planning? Are we not surprised or dumbfounded that despite what is being reported as lower vehicle ownership for Mega Manila, it seems that people do have the motor vehicles and are opting to use them as public transport reliability and safety perceptions are still at low points. Mode choice after all is not as simple as some people want to make it appear to be. And if the assumptions including vehicle ownership are off then any modeling or analysis will end up with erroneous results.

So what’s the role of academe in transport development again?

I was in a meeting that started off well enough but was accentuated and concluded on sour notes. It was where 2 governmentt officials basically berated and ridiculed us representing academe. Dinaan lang kunyari sa mapalamuting pananalita nila. Well, no matter how you twist your words, we could still decode their meaning. I guess that goes with years of experience listening to all kinds of talk from government officials, politicians, people in private sector, consultants, faculty members, researchers and yes, students. You know bullshit even if its hiding behind a bunch of flowers.

I think the idea of certain government officials about the role of academe in development is to essentially be rubber stamps of the administration. Those who offer criticisms or disagree with plans, policies or parts of these are often branded as “bad apples”. Bawal kumontra. I guess that comes from people who are basically insecure with their work or outputs? Or perhaps they are just worried about their standing and image considering the very political environment they are working in. I could not use the word ‘validate’ to describe the expectation from academe from the government officials in that meeting since the process of validation may end up either positive or negative (thereby invalidating something such as a plan or a policy).

There will always be newer tools and newer models. I remember the times when JICA STRADA was supposed to be the state-of-the-art travel demand forecasting software. It was easily overtaken by the like of CUBE and Vissum. Even its simulator was not at par with VISSIM, Dynasim and a host of other micro-simulation software packages that were more user friendly. Better tools allow for better models, but also only if you do your part in collecting the data required for calibration and validation and formulate sound assumptions. As they say, garbage in, garbage out. No matter how sophisticated your computer models seem to be, they are nothing if your assumptions and data are rubbish. As Howard Stark states in his recorded message to Tony, “I am limited by the technology of my time. But one day, you’ll figure this out.” And not only will there be newer tools and models, there will also be newer methods including those that allow for more sophisticated data collection.

Plan formulation and acceptance are not as simple as 1+1 as one official used as an example. It’s actually more complicated than that. Plans don’t and should not be described in absolutes but should be dynamic or evolving since the future is also uncertain and there are so many factors in play that cannot be all represented or modeled. And no, we’re not going to toe the line nor will we tell other academics to do so. In fact we will continue to be outspoken because that is part of how it is to be objective, and to be encouraging of critical thinking. It is the latter that needs to be instilled in many government agencies where people tend to forget about it likely for convenience as well as to conform with the political atmosphere.

The presence of respected Japanese professors in the meeting and their likely role in convincing JICA to convene an experts’ panel meeting. The meeting was with certain academics representing schools that were not initially engaged by government. JICA’s nod is recognition enough of the accomplishments and reputation of those of us who were invited to the meeting. Unfortunately, their expertise are not appreciated by their own government but that seems to be the consistent policy for the current administration that rewards those who toe the line while shunning those who are more objective and critical.

Culturally though, I am not surprised of the proceedings because we don’t have the same reverence for academe as they have in Japan or other countries where academics are regularly called upon to provide insights to address problems such as those pertaining to transportation. That is why they have strong advisory councils in those countries. And in the case of the US, for example, their National Academies have contributed much to transport development. I have experienced something similar from a top government official before regarding traffic management and policies in Metro Manila. Whether that set-up in the US and Japan can be realized here remains to be seen.

Guidelines pertaining to bike lanes in the Philippines

The Department of Transportation (DOTr) and the agencies under it are now promoting bicycle use. Part of the campaign is to improve the safety of cyclists, most especially those using bikes for commuting (e.g., bike to work). Recently, the agencies have posted infographics showing the guidelines for bicycle lanes. Here is one from the Land Transportation Office (LTO), which is in-charge of vehicle registration and the issuance of driver’s licenses:

These are still basically guidelines that apparently do not carry a lot of weight (i.e., no penalties mentioned) in as far as enforcement is concerned. As they say, these appear to be merely suggestions rather than rules that need to be followed or complied with. Perhaps local government units can step in and formulate, pass and implement ordinances penalizing people violating these guidelines? These penalties are important if behavior change among motorists is to be achieved.