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Technology-driven transit system development

The proposed UP transit system, whether it will be an AGT or a monorail, is a technology-driven project. As such, it can be argued that it does not need hard studies to establish the need for the system. Indeed, it is packaged as a prototype and one which, if implemented properly, will hopefully be a good example that can be deployed elsewhere where such a system is necessary. Such places may include CBDs like the rapidly emerging one in Bonifacio Global City or in small cities where there is a need for a more efficient form of mass transportation but could not afford the conventional MRTs or LRTs that have been constructed in Metro Manila. Also, a significant part of the initiative is the development of the vehicle, which is being undertaken by the DOST’s MIRDC. Their design and their production process should be replicable and they should have been able to bring down the costs according to the marching orders of their Secretary. After all, this system is being touted as something that would cost a fifth of a conventional system.

The conventional way of planning, designing and building transit systems require a lot of studies including the so-called ridership studies that would establish the demand for the system. Of course, there are also considerations pertaining to the stations and analysis of the superstructure that will also cost something. It is no joke that the best examples of AGTs or monorails in other countries are priced so because of all the effort and expertise that went into their developments. We should not kid ourselves by claiming this will cost much less because we did not take into consideration just compensation to people who will be devoting their time and expertise to develop a “home-grown” version of what has been built in other cities. We shouldn’t also sacrifice the quality of the superstructure that includes the stations just because we want to reduce costs. We have to keep in mind that the infrastructure should be able to resist typhoons and the possibility of earthquakes. The foundations for the columns, in fact, should be designed well considering UP’s soil characteristics.

On Wednesday I might just get my first look at the prototype vehicle when I visit the DOST for a meeting not quite related to the proposed transit system although it would be about customized vehicles. The vehicle that is the rolling stock for the proposed system is supposed to have already been built and being tested on a very limited basis at the DOST compound. Perhaps I can see for myself if it is something that will eventually be an impressive piece or something that will need much work once it is brought to UP.

National EST Strategy Formal Launch

The National Environmentally Sustainable Transport (EST) Strategy of the Philippines was formally launched yesterday, May 20, 2011. The formal launch event was held at the Columbus Room of the Discovery Suites along ADB Avenue in Ortigas Center, Pasig City. It was graced by the presence of top government officials including Secretary Jose “Ping” P. De Jesus of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and Presidential Assistant on Climate Change Elisea “Bebet” Gozun, who was a former Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The DOTC came full force with Undersecretary for Planning and Policy Ruben Reinoso, Assistant Secretary for Planning George D. Esguerra, Office of Transport Cooperatives Chair Leticia Z. Gorrospe, consultant and former Assistant Secretary Alberto Suansing, and senior technical staff of the DOTC and its line agencies including the Land Transportation Office (LTO) and  the Land Transport Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB). The DOTC and the DENR are the national focal agencies for the project and will be expected to lead in the operationalization of the national strategy.

The supporting agencies and organizations were represented by Mr. Choudhury Rudra Mohanty of the United Nations Centre for Regional Development (UNCRD), Ms. Sophie Punte of the Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities (CAI-Asia), and Mr. Akio Isomata, Minister of the Embassy of Japan to the Philippines, who represented his country’s Ministry of Environment. Development agencies and banks were also present with representatives from the World Bank (WB), the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Also present were stakeholders led by the Partnership for Clean Air (PCA), Philippines – Global Road Safety Partnership (PGRSP), and the Firefly Brigade, and participants from local government units led by Quezon City and Marikina City. The national collaborating center was well represented by the study team from the National Center for Transportation Studies (NCTS) of the University of the Philippines Diliman.

The formal launch even began with the Opening Remarks from the UNCRD delivered by Mr. Mohanty and was followed by a Message from DOTC Sec. De Jesus. The formal messages were followed by a presentation of the highlights of the national strategy by D. Jose Regin F. Regidor, NCTS Director. Afterwards, a panel discussion with the theme “Operationalization of EST in Support of Sustainable Development in the Philippines.” The discussion was facilitated by Ms. Punte and Mr. Herbert Fabian of CAI-Asia. Panel members included DOTC Asst. Sec. Esguerra, WB Lead Transport Economist Baher El-Hifnawi, ADB GEF focal person Bruce Dunn, and Mactan Cebu International Airport Manager Nigel Paul C. Villarete, who is also a former City Planning Coordinator of Cebu City and who is an advocate of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in the Philippines. The formal launch event concluded with congratulatory messages from the Government of Japan and the Presidential Assistant for Climate Change, followed by a photo op for all in attendance that day.

Mr. Mohanty of UNCRD delivering the Opening Remarks

DOTC Sec. Ping De Jesus delivering a message from the Department

NCTS Director Regidor presenting the highlights of the national EST strategy

CAI-Asia’s Bert Fabian and Sophie Punte facilitated the panel discussion

DOTC Asst. Sec. George D. Esguerra responding to the key questions during the panel discussion

MCIAA’s Nigel Paul Villarete making his comments during the panel discussion

Bruce Dunn explaining about the ADB’s initiatives

The WB’s Baher El-Hifnawi stressing a point during the panel discussion

Embassy of Japan Minister Isomata delivering a congratulatory message from the GOJ

Presidential Asst. on Climate Change Bebet Gozun delivering the concluding message

Group photo showing participants to the national EST strategy formal launch

The messages and the panel discussion were one in conveying a challenge to all stakeholders to use the framework provided by the national strategy to come up with action plans and implement these in order to realize sustainable transport in the country. It was also clear from the proceedings of the event that there should be a strong, collaborative effort among national agencies, local government units, NGOs, and development agencies if EST is to be operationalized and for programs and projects to succeed. Significant impacts would then be realized and perhaps lead to the alleviation of transport and traffic problems and their derivatives. It was emphasized that everyone should carefully consider the co-benefits that may be reaped from the implementation of EST.

For more on the national strategy including the reports and other resources, all these are available from the NESTS Web Portal hosted by the NCTS.

Going electric in the Philippines

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) hosted and co-organized a forum on electric vehicles with the Department of Energy (DOE) today. The forum was divided into two parts where the first part included remarks from the DOE Secretary and two presentations from invited speakers. The second part included mainly presentations of experiences in the deployment of electric vehicle technology around the country and a presentation by the ADB on their program to support electric vehicle deployment in the Philippines.

In the first part, the DOE Secretary was very clear in his message in support of electric vehicles. He emphasized the importance of addressing concerns pertaining to the use of fossil fuels, mentioning the need for fuel efficiency and our transport system’s (over)dependence on fossil fuels. He also expressed concern over environmental aspects, recognizing the direct association between emissions and fuel consumption. His remarks was followed by two presentations on experiences on electric vehicle applications abroad. One presentation was mainly on the infrastructure for charging e-vehicles and included material on the experiences in China. Another was on battery technology but included also the different e-cars that are currently available in the market (e.g., Volt, Leaf, Tesla, etc.).

I must admit, modesty aside, that I was disappointed with the presentations as they were both mainly on private vehicle applications including electric motorcycles and electric cars. I was unimpressed, as were others, with the presentations that had material one could easily pick out of the internet. Even information on battery technology did not provide any new knowledge to most participants that included proponents/advocates of electric vehicles in the Philippines. The comment of one participant said it all when he mentioned that in the Philippines the focus was on public transport applications of e-vehicles.

The second part was more interesting, although two presenters tended to stray away from the topic of electric vehicles. The first presentation of the second part of the forum was delivered by the Congressman representing Taguig City. He did not use any slides but chose to make a rambling speech on Taguig’s experience during his time as mayor of the city. He explained his administration’s push for the e-trikes in Bonifacio Global City and made it appear as if his administration was progressive in its push and that the private sector (i.e., Ayala Land, which had a say on transport at BGC) did not have foresight. In truth, the question that needed to be answered at the time of their push was if the e-trike was the appropriate transport mode at the Fort. Ayala knew it was not but it was clear that Taguig insisted on the deployment of e-trikes at BGC rather than take the more progressive (radically) yet risky push of replacing conventional tricycles in the old Taguig east of C5. His speech was really more a conscious delivery of soundbites and I must say, was quite pretentious and self-serving. It was, for me, simply lip service and a waste of time. In fact, one person near us was already snoring by the time the Congressman finished his speech.

The second presentation was delivered by a representative of the Puerto Princesa Mayor. It was straightforward and wasted no time in explaining PPC’s programs and clearly showed their efforts in deploying environment-friendly transport systems. He also mentioned the incentives that the city has so far offered and proceeded to ask those present to partner with them in promoting e-vehicle use.

The third presentation was on Makati’s experience on electric vehicles. The presenter was city’s traffic consultant and I was expecting him to focus on the electric jeepneys now operating along three routes in that city’s central business district. Instead, he took up much time presenting on Makati’s transport plan including the proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system and its extensive pedestrian facilities that included walkways connecting buildings and to the shopping district. Nevertheless, his presentation had its saving grace in that it mentioned how the e-jeepney could serve as feeders to the BRT and how the pedestrian facilities complemented public transport services.

The fourth presentation was by a representative of Mandaluyong City, which is the first recipient of the incentives being granted by the ADB in support of e-vehicles. This was another straightforward presentation and clearly covered the main points of the e-trike application in that city including the infrastructure they put up for charging. These charging stations represented an innovation that can be picked up by entrepreneurs in coming up with a business model for charging stations. It was not clear though if Mandaluyong has set out to replace conventional tricycles as my impression was that the e-trikes they acquired will be on top of the existing tricycles plying routes around the city.

The fifth presentation was from Ateneo De Manila University, and focused on that school’s efforts to pilot e-vehicles for the use of their students and staff. The presentation mentioned their rationale and the apparent marching orders from their newly installed president, who is an acknowledged expert on environment, to address air quality in the vicinity of the campus. I found their presentation awkward and at the very least hypocritical of the fact that the problem they have to face is the overwhelming number of private vehicles the school generates and their continuing coddling of tricycles whose phase out along Katipunan is long overdue. Perhaps I will expound on this and other issues when I write about Katipunan transport and traffic in the future.

The last presentation was a quick one from the ADB. It was mainly on the ADB’s program supporting e-vehicle promotion. It was also explained why ADB chose to focus on tricycles and was unapologetic in their argument that tended to generalize the problem on transport in the Philippines. There was no mention of rationalization considering that there is actually an oversupply of tricycles and this too needs to be addressed.

While it is commendable that the ADB has extended assistance in the form of grants incentives to promote e-vehicles, there are still questions on the sustainability of this effort given that they chose to focus on tricycles. Of course, the statistics on the number of tricycles and their environmental and energy impacts clearly argue for addressing this problem pertaining to conventional motor tricycles. However, the ADB must realize that local government units (LGUs) can be quite fickle-minded or hard-headed in their approaches to public transport regulations. This is a fact given that there are few LGUs that have been successful in regulating tricycles and particularly in restricting their numbers and their operations along routes or areas where they are suitable. If we take a look at many cities, we will find tricycles running on national roads and causing congestion in CBDs. We would also see that many of these cities, among them highly urbanized cities (HUCs), have a need to graduate from these low capacity modes into middle or even high capacity vehicles.

It was noticeable that there were no representatives from the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) nor its attached agencies like the Land Transportation Office (LTO) and the Land Transport Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) at the forum. Despite pronouncements by the DOE Secretary that the DOTC and the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) were on-board in the former’s push for e-vehicles, experience has shown that DOTC and its attached agencies have been the bottlenecks in the forward movement of e-vehicles. This includes the absence of clear policies pertaining to e-vehicles including their registration as well as the lack of direction pertaining to their mainstreaming as public transport modes (i.e., franchises). Also, lest we forget, all the talk on e-vehicles while being spearheaded by the DOE, is very much the province of the DOTC since we are, after all, talking about transport. It is the main responsibility and the mandate of the DOTC to see the e-vehicles through and lead in the mainstreaming of these vehicles in the context of environmentally sustainable transport. It is a pitch for e-vehicles that would go a long way into ensuring that a critical mass can be realized and that the tipping point for the shift to electric would be reached in the near future.

National EST Strategy Update

The Third Draft (Draft Final Report) of the National Environmentally Sustainable Transport (EST) Strategy (NESTS) formulation study for the Philippines has just been completed. The report is available online via the NESTS Web Portal on the NCTS website. The project is concluding in May 2011 after more than 2 years of developing strategies covering twelve (12) thematic areas as defined by the Aichi Statement of 2005.

The report articulating strategies, indicators and key result activities is written in general terms to allow for flexibility in the further development of strategies and action plans to realize EST. The document is envisioned to be a guide for both national agencies and local government units, as well as for other stakeholders such as non-government organizations (NGOs) and private entities seeking to take on EST as an advocacy.

The National EST Strategy will be formally launched on May 20, 2011.

Upgrades: the Ayala BRT

The Ayala Land Inc. (ALI) has been issuing press releases about their plan to put up a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system for the Makati CBD and the Bonifacio Global City. The system will serve both the old financial center in Makati and the rapidly emerging one in Taguig, connecting the two via Ayala Avenue-McKinley Road and Gil Puyat (Buendia) Avenue-Kalayaan Avenue corridors. It is a project that is long overdue although the buses serving the Fort have shown us at least what a higher capacity mode of transport can do if managed properly.

The Fort Buses load and unload passengers at designated stops. They follow traffic rules and regulations enforced more strictly inside the Global City. Many of the newer bus units also happen to have layouts that are more appropriate for city operations. The Mercedes Benz coaches are designed such that they can accommodate more passengers as they have ample standing space and there are only enough seats for passengers who may actually need them like the elderly, pregnant women, persons with disabilities, and perhaps those who are burdened with heavy bags or packages. The doors of these units are also designed for more efficient fare collection and discharging of passengers, with the narrower front door accommodating boarding commuters who are already queued at bus stops and the wide two door rear egress allowing for efficient alighting. Surely, an automated fare collection system such as those using smart cards or other machines will be in place in the near future and greatly improve the operations of these buses. But the most significant feature, it seems, of the Fort Bus is the compensation scheme for its employees, particularly its drivers. Unlike most bus companies, Fort Bus drivers are given a regular monthly salary and reportedly enjoy benefits much like regular employees in typical companies or offices. This feature, I believe, is what makes it work in the first place and what is required for a transformation in public transport services as it does away with the rabid competition that is the derivative of a commission-based or “boundary” system compensation scheme that is used for both buses and jeepneys.

Considering the calls for more efficient as well as more safer public transport systems, let this Ayala BRT be a test case for what to do with transport systems that should have been phased out a long time ago (jeepneys) along corridors or routes that demand higher capacity vehicles. Public utility vehicles with low capacities and perhaps low quality of service should be replaced by more efficient modes especially along arterials. Also, all the elements are there for a potentially successful PPP in transport. You have a major player from the private sector (Ayala) offering to put up a system that it has studied and designed over the past few years. You have two CBDs in Makati and Taguig that currently serve as the present and future financial centers. And you have the challenge of doing away with an inefficient transport system. Though there sure will be compromises that are not necessarily palatable (e.g., re-routing PUJ and PUB lines) the government should start realizing that it should be more deliberate and even unforgiving when it deals with the issue on PUJ and PUB franchises here.

The local governments of Makati and Taguig should cooperate with Ayala to make this work for these LGUS should put aside certain interests including those pertaining to PUJ and PUB operators and drivers, many of whom may be their constituents and comprise a significant part of their voting populations. The LGUs should facilitate discussions including those dealing with livelihood and othe social issues that are the province of local governments. The Land Transport Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) should get out of its shell and make a stand now considering the opportunity for public transport transformation. And its mother agency, the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) should support this stand, all out, if only to show that it is indeed committed to reforming and modernizing public transport systems in this country.

A BRT finally being realized for Makati and Global City will indeed be a showcase. We just hope that it will be a showcase of an efficient transformation of a public transport system from an outdated to a modern and efficient one rather than a showcase of futility and ineptness on the side of those in government. As they say, something has to start somewhere. A modern, efficient public transport system that is deserved by Filipinos may just start in Makati and Taguig, and with a BRT that may actually mean “better rapid transit.”

Simplify

I still remember what our calculus teacher told us while discussing a problem in integration. At the time, I believe he was setting up the working equation for a problem involving trajectories. He was reminding us that in problem solving it was very important to remember how to “kiss.” As we were practically in awe of him, he followed up by asking us what “kiss” meant. He called on one of our classmates and then another, all the while smirking like a child who thought he alone knew the answer to his question. “Kiss,” he said, meant – keep it simple, stupid. Of course, the last word was intended to drive home the point with a little sarcastic humor to a class of sophomores, most of whom were engineering students. Years later, perhaps its time we realize and accept that we do indeed need to “kiss.” This time, we need to apply the same principle to public transport.

In the past few weeks as I and my colleagues pondered the development of public transport planning support system that would include, among others, a franchising module specifically for Mega Manila and generally for other Philippine cities, I came to the obvious conclusion – “kiss.” It seems that based on the secondary data we got from the LTFRB and the DOTC, and the primary data derived from field surveys validating routes and allowing us to estimate both supply and demand that Mega Manila public transport has become so complicated due to the overlaps and tangles that are the bus, jeepney and AUV routes in this mega city. Through the years and despite opportunities to untangle the mess of routes, there was no strong effort to do so and today, there seems to be little interest in rocking the boat that is the current state of public transport in this country.

It is often asked why, despite having EDSA-MRT, have the numbers of buses along EDSA seemed to have increased instead of the logical decrease as the rail system covered much of the demand along its corridor of operation. One answer seems to be related to provincial buses since continuously increasing populations outside Metro Manila coupled with better roads have led to more economic activity that translates into more travel (and person trips).

The same is true for origins and destinations within the National Capital Region and thereby affects the supply side for buses for city operation. Yet, there is always the specter of colorums or illegally operating buses that are often difficult to catch and to distinguish from the legitimate units. There are even allegations that some unscrupulous operators allow colorums among their ranks in order to generate more revenue.

However, such situations are not exclusive to EDSA. There are the similar questions pertaining primarily to jeepneys along corridors already served by LRT 1 (since 1984) and LRT 2 (since 2004). Why have authorities allowed most jeepneys to continue plying routes along these two lines? Why are there no strong efforts to rationalize (a word very much abused when referring to public transport in Philippines) routes to complement established mass transport systems rather than to compete with them? Is it really a matter of political will among our leaders especially those in-charge of our transport agencies? Are there conflicting interests, some probably vested, among politicians, transport groups and operators themselves? And are we dead serious about addressing, once and for all, the challenges of putting in place a public transport system that is both modern and sustainable?

Why is it that transport systems in cities such as Tokyo, Singapore, Hongkong and those in Europe and the US appeal to us? What is different about the transport systems in these countries especially those cities that have similar if not larger populations and sprawl? Is it their high tech attributes? Is it their fare systems? Or, if we look close enough, is it their simplicity? It should be noted and emphasized that these cities follow closely the ideal hierarchy of public transport services. In a nutshell, this is where high capacity modes form the backbone of the transport system while lower modes complement these, acting as feeders from the main lines. This is simplicity as applied to public transportation.

Mathematicians, scientists and chess grandmasters then and now have often invoked the principle of simplification to solve problems of different magnitudes. It is quite a common approach for the most complex predicaments since it is also believed that a system that is too complex and requiring so many inputs is impractical and unmanageable – precisely the descriptions for public transport systems in this country. Perhaps one city should show the way in coming up with a proof of concept for simplicity. Maybe that will be Cebu once it builds what is touted as the country’s first BRT line. Maybe that will be Davao should it implement possible recommendations pertaining to sustainable transport from an ongoing study. But I hope it will be Metro Manila, not necessarily at a grand scale but something that will show signs of life in an otherwise deteriorating system.

Transport Planning in Quezon City

I got a letter today from the Chief of Staff of the Mayor-elect of Quezon City. I was invited to deliver a presentation on transportation planning in Quezon City before the City Council where the Mayor-elect will be the presiding officer as outgoing Vice Mayor of the city. I still haven’t come up with a draft presentation but am already conceptualizing what I’d want to say before the council.

I will talk about environmentally sustainable transport (EST). I will speak about road traffic safety and the dangerous, killer roads in Quezon City. I will talk about land use planning and its interaction with transport (and vice versa). And though I am tempted to talk about parking, I will definitely talk about traffic impact assessment.

It is important to articulate at the simplest and most understandable terms what transport planning is all about. It is essential that sustainable transport is defined and promoted. Hopefully, the Mayor-elect will respond. Hopefully, the Councilors who will remain will take notice and appreciate the importance of having a well-planned city. Hopefully, they will champion sustainable transport and help spread the word on this through their actions.

I will be joined by colleagues when I go to present my case before the council. We will come in full force and maybe, at least, by our numbers we can show how serious and how important EST will be in solving transport and traffic problems in this part of Metro Manila. Hopefully, we can convince this large and progressive city to become an example that other cities may emulate.

Good luck to us all!