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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.

Transport Planning in the Philippines (WB, 1976)

[Important note: I have noticed that the material on this blog site has been used by certain people to further misinformation including revisionism to credit the Marcos dictatorship and put the blame on subsequent administrations (not that these also had failures of their own). This and other posts on past projects present the facts about the projects and contain minimal opinions, if any on the politics or political economy at the time and afterwards. Do your research and refrain from using the material on this page and others to promote misinformation. I suggest you go to the The Mass Transit System in Metro Manila site for more facts about railway development and history. I do not consent to the use of my articles for the purposes of misinformation and historical revisionism. 10/13/2019]

I know its been a long while since the posts on UTSMMA (1973), MMETROPLAN (1978) and other studies – past studies and plans concerning transport in  Metro Manila. It seems apt that I finally was able to finish this piece in time for the Philippines Independence Day. Sinasadya talaga. I left a question hanging about what caused the changes in mindset reflected in MMETROPLAN that practically did away with the proposed mass transit network in UTSMMA. Browsing other materials at the NCTS Library, I came upon a report that I thought would have likely influenced the MMETROPLAN study team as well as government officials at the time. This is the report that I think would be the vital link between UTSMMA and MMETROPLAN – for what happened between these two studies and why the “about face” when feasibility studies were already underway for what could have been the country’s first subway line. The World Bank published a report entitled “Transport Planning in the Philippines” in 1976. The report had recommendations that were not favorable to rail transport whether for long distance or urban applications. Some excerpts are shown in the succeeding photos of pages of the document:

IMG09229-20140905-0938Cover of the report indicating some disclaimers and restrictions to circulation. I assume that since a copy is found in a public library then it is already declassified. It is definitely a historical document and a valuable one if we are to understand transport in the Philippines and Metro Manila.

IMG09230-20140905-0943Scan of page 36 showing the WB’s assessment of UTSMMA

IMG09231-20140905-0943Page 37 states the conclusion of the WB report regarding UTSMMA.

I leave it up to the reader how he/she will interpret this but I think it is also important to contextualize this contents of this report to the situation of the Philippines at the time. In my opinion, too, it is basically one consultant’s word against another. From what I’ve learned, the recommended plan in UTSMMA came from a team led by a very senior and well-respected professor of the University of Tokyo’s Department of Urban Engineering. Looking back now, it seems that their work was visionary and its refuting by this WB report was a critical point in the (non)development of Metro Manila’s transport.

IMG09232-20140905-0944A reference to LRT systems, which to some will seem like a counter-recommendation to UTSMMA

The same report suggested taking a look at LRT instead of the heavy rail recommendations of UTSMMA. This eventually led to subsequent studies seemingly having bias towards LRTs and distancing from much needed resources to improve the plight of the PNR.

IMG09233-20140905-0945Recommendations for the long term were explicit about the importance of having a sound spatial strategy for Philippine cities.

One could only speculate what went on in the background that were off the record or not documented. Did the WB exert its influence and ‘convince’ the Philippines to shelve ambitious plans for a heavy rail network in favor of what we now know as ill-planned light rail lines? It is this same WB report that recommended for the reorganization of the then DPWTC and DPH into the DOTC and DPWH that we know today. Thus, it is not only transport policy and infrastructure influenced by this report but also institutions dealing with transport. One person’s guess is as good as another in terms of the thinking back then as there are very few people who were directly involved in planning and decision-making then who survive now and are likely willing to divulge anything that will lead us to the truth and some closure regarding what went wrong at this critical time for transport development in the Philippines.

The data and evidence points to something Marcos loyalists would cringe to admit, that the former President ultimately failed in bringing a modern public transport system to this country and its capital. [No, the LRT wasn’t as modern and progressive as they thought it to be back then. We know now that Lee Kwan Yew got it right by investing in heavy rail urban transit at that same time.] We can only speculate that perhaps the WB and those behind the scenes knew Marcos and his ilk would probably steal much of the funds that could have been allocated for the rail rapid transit system and so did their best to come up with the conclusion that it was too expensive and the Philippines couldn’t afford it. I hope my economist friends would correct me but I am leaning towards thinking that “Uutang ka na din lang, umutang ka na para sa imprastraktura na magagamit di lamang ng mga anak mo kundi pati na rin ng mga apo mo at nila.” This seems to be the basic philosophy applied by other nations that have invested much on their transportation infrastructure. Such infrastructure has already paid off many times more and are part of the backbone of strong and resilient economies.

One colleague offered the analogy that the new JICA Dream Plan for Mega Manila is actually an updated version of UTSMMA. I also believe so and it is an updated and much more validated version of what we had back in the 1970s that was at best only partly realized (the recommendations for roads were mostly implemented). However, the price for such infrastructure will not be cheap and it will only become more expensive while we procrastinate in building them. Perhaps this should be an election issue come 2016 and something that we should strongly advocate for from our leaders.