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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 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.

Some observations and thoughts about the EDSA carousel

Much has been written or said about the EDSA Carousel. This is the express bus service the government implemented along Metro Manila’s busiest thoroughfare, EDSA or Circumferential Road 4. I feel that it is a decent effort from government to address the lack of supply to address the huge demand for public transport along EDSA considering that it serves to also distribute trips collected from major roads connecting to it. Is it an admission of something wrong in terms of the transport infrastructure along EDSA? Perhaps and from the current administration and DOTr. The admission of flaws certainly did not or will not come from the previous administrations that failed to address problems pertaining to Line 3 including maintenance and operations issues.

Buses queued before the Trinoma/North Avenue Station of the carousel. Overhead is the junction to the EDSA-MRT depot underneath Trinoma.

The overhead junction is the MRT’s branch to/from the depot

Buses queuing towards the North Avenue Station

The carousel stations are basically part of the MRT station with the platform located at ground level at the otherwise underutilized space that is the median island of EDSA. Access to the express buses are via the MRT stations as there are no other means for crossing to/from the carousel berths.

The carousel is an attempt to have a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along EDSA. It is perhaps the most practical solution to supplementing the already limited capacity of elevated Line 3 despite the continued operations of regular buses. The express bus service is not a new idea along EDSA since Line 3 had to compete with a BRT proposal (though it didn’t use the term BRT then) back in the 1990s. Insiders at NEDA relate that it was then President Fidel V. Ramos himself who allegedly ‘lobbied’ for the MRT instead of an elevated bus transit system. Unfortunately, the MRT proposed, constructed and now in operation is a light rail system like Line 1 and could not easily be upgraded to a heavy rail system like Line 2 or the future Line 7. The line is already problematic due to maintenance issues and the aging rolling stock. And there are questions regarding interoperability with Line 1 (definitely not interoperable with Line 7). So the grand central station currently under construction will really be a terminus for 3 lines as trains will not be able to pass through to other lines like how it is in other countries.

Will the carousel be a permanent fixture along EDSA? Perhaps. But it should be improved further for the convenience of commuters as well as for more efficient operations. The current buses being used are the not the right vehicles if capacity is to be maximized. Articulated buses would be necessary for this purpose. The current barriers should also be replaced with more appropriate and perhaps more clever designs partly for aesthetics but for the system to be safer and more functional in terms of spaces for passengers and vehicles.

On the RFID fiasco

Early December 2020, Metro Pacific Corporation suddenly had to deal with jam-packed toll plazas and queues that affected roads connecting to the North Luzon Expressways. Fast-forward and Valenzuela City apparently had enough of it and revoked the tollway corporation’s business permit. Later, matters were resolved with the tollways reverting to mixed toll collection to manage the queues at the toll plazas.

Prior to this, tollways corporation scrambled to meet the deadline set and re-set by the Department of Transportation (DOTr) through the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB) for contactless, cashless toll payments. The question is if there was enough time for tollway operators to acquire the best (not just the minimum required) system for this endeavor. There are some opinions that this was basically required on short notice and for the government to get some brownie points for this.

Were there issues about technology and the corresponding costs to the acquisition and deployment of the necessary devices for seamless, contactless, delay-free (in relative terms) transactions for tollways? Probably so. Those RFIDs and the readers installed at strategic locations along tollways (i.e., entries and exits) were certainly not state of the art or the best available out there. Singapore, for example, uses a more sophisticated system for their expressways where you no longer have toll plazas and you won’t have to slow down to be detected by the system. That system has corresponding costs but is perfect for the city state given that most roads are tolled anyway because of their road pricing policy. In the case of our tollways, not all travelers are actually going to utilize the tollways as frequently as it would necessitate them having to get either the Easy Trip or Auto Sweep tags. That is obvious from the relatively low penetration rates for electronic toll collection (ETC). So it still makes sense to have hybrid booths for those not availing the ETC option. Anyway, travelers will have to exercise disinfection protocols to ensure infections are prevented.

On experiments and crowd-sourcing for solutions

If you didn’t notice, the government (national agencies and local government units) has implemented and successfully employed experimentation and crowd-sourcing to find solutions for transport and traffic problems. In the case of experimentation with traffic, this has been going for a while now but not at the level of those conducted during Bayani Fernando’s stint at the MMDA. At the time, full scale experiments were undertaken as the agency dabbled with the U-turn scheme. The ultimate product of that time are the twin U-turn flyovers at C5-Kalayaan. I say ultimate because it involved both experimentations and traffic simulation, where the latter was used to justify the U-turn flyovers over what was originally proposed as an underpass along C-5. As I recall, the model was not calibrated or validate contrary to the agency’s claims. I say so because I personally saw how the model ran and the presentations were more like demonstration of the software used. Meanwhile, the DPWH at the time made their own simulation models and did the necessary calibration and validation to come up with sound models for other projects including the Quezon Avenue-Araneta Avenue underpass.

Crowd-sourcing, mainly through social media is a more recent approach. It is not an entirely new animal because prior to social media, there were a lot of inter-agency committees that included people from various stakeholders (some invited, some not) who were the primary “sources”. The crown now is larger and perhaps more diverse. Whether this is a conscious or unconscious effort is uncertain. And this can easily be denied or shrugged-off. But in this age of social media, there are just so many enablers or influencers for crowd-sourcing each of whom have their own agenda. Some mainly to promote or prop up the current administration. Some to mainly criticize without offering solutions. And others to invite constructive scrutiny or assessment while also providing options to address problems and issues. It is the latter group whose opinions and recommendations should carry more weight if indeed the administration is fishing for solutions from the so-called crowd.

Consider the following recent examples (not in any order):

a) Closing U-turn slots along EDSA

b) Requiring face masks for all who are outdoors including cyclists

c) EDSA carousel

d) Resumption of public transport with mostly air-conditioned vehicles

e) Bike lanes along major roads

f) Public transport reform (in general)

There are others but the six listed above have been discussed a lot on social media after government picked up an idea or two about them, and implemented each seemingly without conducting due diligence or paying attention to the details including potential glitches. They ended up with mixed results, many very costly (I wouldn’t say disastrous at this point). However, in all cases, they seem to welcome (though at times begrudgingly or feigning resistance) crowd-sourced solutions particularly those from organized groups who are only too happy for themselves to be in the limelight.*

One thing is for sure and that is that there is still a lack of capabilities among government agencies and LGUs when it comes to transportation. Don’t get me wrong. National government and many LGUs have the resources and capacity to address transport problems. However, their capabilities are in question here because they seem to be unable to harness their capacities and resources to come up with sound and suitable solutions. In the end, they appear to buckle under the pressure of their own crowd-sourced schemes only to emerge as manipulators after they are able get what they want with the willing assistance of the naive.

*Some of these are true advocates who have worked hard to make transport better for all while others are the bandwagon types (nakikisakay lang) who are content dropping key words that now sound cliche at every opportunity. I leave it up to my readers to determine which are which. 🙂

On maximizing seating capacities of public transport

The restrictions for physical distancing for public transport seems to be easing. The reason for this statement is the observation that passengers of public utility vehicles are no longer one seat apart (less than the ideal 2m distance between people but deemed sufficient with physical barriers installed in the vehicles). If allowed to be seated next to each other (of course with some sort of physical barrier between them), the set-up will increase the allowed passenger capacities of PUVs to at least their seating capacities. Conventional jeepneys will be able to seat the 16 to 20 passengers their benches are designed for and buses, depending on their sizes and seating configurations may seat perhaps 40 to 60 passengers. That doubles or even triples the number of passengers that can be carried by each vehicle from the time these were allowed to resume operations after the lockdowns.

Plastic barriers separate passengers seated beside each other

Not all physical barriers are designed and installed to provide whatever protection passengers can get from them. The photos above for a G-Liner bus seems to be the more desirable design as the barriers are practically like curtains. I have seen token plastic barriers installed in jeepneys. I wonder if these even went through some approval process of the DOTr, LTFRB or local government unit. Such inferior designs do not help the cause of promoting public transport use over private vehicles.