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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.
I was interviewed recently for a research project by students enrolled in a journalism class. I was asked by one in the group if we indeed have a transport crisis in Metro Manila. The other quickly added “hindi transport, traffic” (not transport but traffic). And so I replied that both terms are valid but refer to different aspects of the daily travel we call “commuting”. “Traffic” generally refers to the flow of vehicles (and people if we are to be inclusive) while “transport” refers to the modes of travel available to us.
“Commuting” is actually not limited to those taking public transportation. The term refers to all regular travel between two locations. The most common pairs are home – office and home – school. The person traveling may use one or a combination of transport modes for the commute. Walking counts including when it is the only mode used. So if your residence is a building just across from your office then your commute probably would be that short walk crossing the street. In the Philippines, however, like “coke” and “Xerox”, which are brands by the way, we have come to associate “commute” with those taking public transportation.
And so we go back to the question or questions- Do we have a transport and traffic crises? My response was we do have a crisis on both aspects of travel. All indicators state so and it is a wonder many including top government transport officials deny this. Consider the following realities for most commuters at present:
- Longer travel times – what used to be 30-60 minutes one-way commutes have become 60 – 120 (even 180) minute one-way commutes. Many if not most people now have double, even triple, their previous travel times.
- It is more difficult to get a public transport ride – people wait longer to get their rides whether they are in lines at terminals or along the roadside. The latter is worse as you need to compete with others like you wanting to get a ride ahead of others.
- People have to wake up and get out of their homes earlier – it used to be that you can wake up at 6:00AM and be able to get a ride or drive to the workplace or school at 7:00/7:30 AM and get there by 8:00 or 9:00AM. Nowadays, you see a lot of people on the road at 5:30AM (even 4:30AM based on what I’ve seen). That means they are waking up earlier than 6:00 AM and its probably worse for school children who either will be fetched by a service vehicle (e.g., school van or bus) or taken by their parents to their schools before going to the workplaces themselves.
- People get home later at night – just when you think the mornings are bad, afternoons, evening and nighttimes might even be worse. Again, it’s hard to get a ride and when you drive, traffic congestion might be at its worst especially since most people leave at about the same time after 5:00PM. Coding people and others not wanting to spend time on the road (instead working overtime – with or without additional pay) leave for their homes later and arrive even later.
- Less trips for public transport vehicles – traffic congestion leads to this. What used to be 6 roundtrips may now be 4. That affect the bottomline of income for road public transport providers. Given the increased demand and reduced rolling stocks of existing rail lines that includes rail transport.
To be continued…
[Caution: This is an opinion post. Skip it if you don’t like my views on politics.]
I am often asked about my political affiliations. People who ask this are usually those who don’t know me (hindi kami ‘close’) and base this likely from my recent posts on social media or perhaps interviews I have granted to print and mass media. I cannot really say I am for any one particular party or group but definitely detest certain persons and politicians who have been proven to be corrupt or associate themselves with the former. But that doesn’t mean I won’t work with them. After all, whoever is in power and wields it should be engaged at least for some good to come out of the engagement. We can cast our votes in elections but we have no control of who will win (by hook or by crook?) and who gets appointed by the winners to decision- and policy-making posts in government agencies.
No, this is not a case of selling out. I am very much aware of the saying the “everyone has his/her price.” I know I have mine and so avoid situations where I have to deal with someone or some entity that will probably lead to my corruption. Principles-wise, I would like to believe that I have so far been successful in getting out of potentially sticky situations including getting appointed to so-called sensitive posts. And so I do what I can to try to contribute to alleviating transport and traffic problems including providing what I regard as constructive criticism of agencies as well as people who are supposed to be working for improving transportation in this country. Problem is, some people cannot take criticism in whatever form and misinterpret this as what they term as “opposing progress” or being “resistant to change”.
Let it be clear that I am not ‘dilawan’, ‘pulahan‘ or whatever color it is that’s supposed to represent politicians, political groups or parties. My colours are those of the Philippine flag and what it represents, which is the interest of the Filipinos. I am not ‘bayaran‘ nor would I want to be one. I am indebted to the Filipino people for my education and for my primary income (I am employed by the government.), and not to any particular persons or political groups.
The recent brouhaha over a popular (some may say infamous) media personality’s criticism of the Philippine General Hospital’s (PGH) Emergency Room (ER) and its protocols bring to mind the state of that hospital’s resources especially as it is expected to cater to the needs of so many (too many perhaps?) people. The PGH is arguably the premier government hospital and is also a teaching one with the University of the Philippines Manila’s students in their Colleges of Medicine and Allied Medical Professions providing a significant part of the manpower for the hospital. The PGH like many other institutions like it lacks the funding it needs to provide the services expected of it. The millions it received as part of the UP budget is not just for patients but also covers salaries and operating costs for the hospital. And yet it is able to deliver much more than what it is given in terms of resources.
I suddenly recall the many occasions when the National Center for Transportation Studies (NCTS) was called upon by national agencies and both legislative houses to comment on national and local transportation issues. In many cases, the Center was asked if it can develop models and other tools to aid agencies and congress in decision-making. The Center’s response has always been positive but with the condition for it to be given the resources it needs to do the tasks expected of it. It is not possible to come up with detailed, realistic transport simulation models for cities, for example, without the sophisticated, industry-grade software and the data required to calibrate it. The agencies and congress can only promise to provide the necessary resources and so far we these have yet to translate into something tangible.
So I find it sad for people to be bashing the hospital and others like it for what they think is poor performance for such institutions. Private hospitals like St. Luke’s and Medical City, mind you, deliver similar services but for many times the cost. You expect hotel-grade rooms and atmosphere, then you should expect to pay for those. You expect a world class research centre, you need to provide for its resources including funding for research. Lip service or “laway” doesn’t give you much in terms of the desired outcomes. Mabuti pa yung micro-satellite malaki ang pondo! And with all due respect to my friends who are involved in that program, they have shown what full funding support can do in terms of accomplishments.
My social media newsfeed regularly contains updates being posted by various entities about transport and traffic in Metro Manila and across the Philippines. Among those I regularly see are posts on road safety and interesting to me are the frequent posts on legislating speed limits at the local level. These are in the form of city or municipal ordinances that are supposed to strengthen, supplement and/or clarify speed limits that are actually already stated in the road design guidelines of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH). These limits apply not only to national roads but to local ones as well. However, their effectiveness may be limited or reduced by the absence or lack of signs, markings and, most importantly, traffic law enforcers who are supposed to monitor traffic and apprehend those violating rules and regulations.
While there is a need for defining and clarifying speed limits perhaps in the form of local legislation, I believe the more urgent matter is the implementation and enforcement of laws. It has often been mentioned that we already have so many laws, rules, regulations and the truth is we do, and may not need more. One really has to go back to the basics in terms of enforcing these laws and that means enforcers need the knowledge and tools to be effective in their work. There is an opinion that many enforcers are not knowledgeable about many rules and regulations and therefore are prone to just focus on a few including violations of the number coding scheme, truck bans and the much maligned “swerving”. You do not often seen apprehensions for beating the red light, beating the green light (yes, there is such a violation), speeding, or “counter-flowing” (or using the opposing lane to get ahead of traffic in the correct lanes). There are also turning violations as well as those involving vehicle (busted tail lights, busted headlights, busted signal lights, obscured license plates, etc.). More recently, there are anti-drunk-driving laws that also urgently need proper implementation.
I think the current work that includes sidewalk clearing operations and anti-illegal on street parking of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) is one good example of going back to the basics. These address the necessity of clearing space for both pedestrians and vehicles; space that have been constrained by obstacles that should not be there in the first place but so often have gotten the blind eye treatment. Going to the “next level” though requires tools such as speed guns, high speed cameras at intersections, and instruments for measuring blood alcohol levels in the field (breath analyzers). And these require resources for acquisitions as well as capability building in the form of training personnel to handle equipment. No, I don’t think we need more laws, rules and regulations. What we urgently if not direly need is their proper implementation to effect behavior change that will improve both safety and the flow of traffic.
December’s already “Chrismassy” in our part of the world and so in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, here is another article I am sharing:
Polzin, S. (2017) “All I Want for Christmas is a New Transport Planning Process,” Planetizen.com, https://www.planetizen.com/node/96036?utm_source=newswire&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=news-12042017&mc_cid=e64f0c0c60&mc_eid=9ccfe464b1 (Last accessed: 12/6/2017)
In school, we’ve been taught and are still teaching many of the old concepts of transportation planning. I believe these are still important and relevant especially since the fundamentals, or the basics if I may say, are still needed in many situations around the country (i.e., the Philippines). The article above is relevant to our case because it helps build awareness of what is now being discussed and what the future will bring to us. That future for transport is not necessarily immediate although there are already pressures coming from various sectors and technology has been key to the disruptions and the leapfrogging we are experiencing. I like what a friend opines overtime he gets the chance. That is, that the technology-push is not the solution to a lot of our problems because we cannot ignore the basic deficiencies in our transportation system that technology alone cannot overcome.
I wrote before about some frustrations among transport professionals who are getting smart-shamed on social media. Everybody seems to be an expert these days. And who can blame people who are quite familiar, aware or knowledgeable about transport and traffic issues, particularly along their commuting routes or where they reside or work. But then what distinguishes an enthusiast from a trained professional? What distinguishes a well-read, observant person from another who has formal training (i.e., one with a professional degree or advanced degree) and work experience? In some cases, it can simply be in terms of how articulate people are. Many engineers and planners are not so articulate (or telegenic) as certain personalities like one so-called road safety enthusiast/motoring journalist or as good a writer as one prominent and progressive landscape architect. Many probably are more into technical writing and that doesn’t translate all too well into something easily understandable or “publishable”. They may also get “lost in translation”, so to speak, should they be interviewed, preferring to sound technical rather than attempt to simplify their explanations a the “pedestrian” level.
A couple of senior transport professionals, one who was in academe but served as a government official before, and another who is a sought after consultant here and abroad, however, are pretty cool about this and just brush off the comments they get from articles where they are cited. They are established and secure about themselves and their current roles as ‘elders’ in the transportation field. They are often invited to congressional or senate hearings about transport and traffic for them to share their wisdom about current issues and proposed solutions. Others are simply not into social media and so are quite insulated from the seeming brouhaha of every other person suddenly becoming transport or traffic experts if not pundits. We all continue with our work, knowing we have a lot to do and hopefully leading to improving transport and traffic in the country.
I posted on a road safety-related page and suddenly there’s this guy who pounces on the post and delivers what he probably thought was an amusing commentary. From his posts, it was clear that he was one of those hard-core cyclists. I don’t want to use the word ‘fanatic’ but that is how many people would probably see him given his posts, comments and stand regarding cycling and safety. He also seems to revel in his claim to be a victim but the way he states this won’t really give him as much sympathy as he probably hopes to get. You have be more engaging and diplomatic if you want to be taken seriously whether as a stakeholder, a government official or an expert.
Everybody is certainly entitled to their own opinion (but not their own facts and that’s another story for another article that’s transport-related) about how roads can become safer for all. I say all because it is not only a concern of cyclists and motorists but pedestrians as well. Everyone, regardless of age, gender, economic status, etc. is vulnerable. And the only way we can succeed is if there is a collective effort that is fact/evidence-based and structured or organized. Cooperation is vital among various sectors and we must accept that there are many approaches, ways by which we can achieve the objective of safer roads and transport. Going hardline on one’s stand and trying to impose this on others will not get us anywhere.
Social media is full of news or what is being passed off as news about various transport projects or initiatives. These include a proposed subway line for Metro Manila, road sharing initiatives, inter-island bridges, gateway airports and others major infrastructure projects that are being conceptualized, planned, studied or designed. Too often, people who support the projects/initiatives brand those who do not share their enthusiasm and interest as skeptics and even simply “nega” or negative people. These supporters and their opposites are most likely those who fall under one or more of the following categories:
- Overly optimistic
- Unaware of the process towards a project’s realization
Hopefully, he/she is not of the third kind who basically are posting against anyone and don’t really have any valuable opinion or constructive comment to offer. There are many groups and individuals out there including those who claim to be fanatics of urban planning, railways and other things on transport. Some even get to write in mainstream media. Unfortunately, to the untrained minds their opinions passed on as expert advise appear to be legit and that can be especially true to people who are more inclined to believe them such as very fanatics and trolls I mentioned. It is very important that proper research is undertaken before any article is written. Otherwise, there will always be bias. Of course, some articles are written with bias a given and with the objective of misleading people.
When government officials (or candidates) claim something and offer nothing as concrete proof (e.g., numbers to support a claim of improving traffic), one has to think twice about believing them. One has to be critical of such claims. Promises are often just that – promises. It is important to ask how certain programs or projects will be delivered, how infrastructure will be implemented (i.e., through what mode of financing, timelines, etc.), and what would be its impacts (i.e., social, environmental, traffic). Of course, it should be expected that officials provide suitable answers to these queries.
It should also be expected for officials to understand that institutions such as the academic ones are there to provide objective criticism. Unfortunately, there are those in the academe who themselves have some agenda they are pushing and can be deliberately misleading and misinforming with their flawed assessments and statements. Then there are experts who offer nothing but negative comments. To these people, any idea not coming from them are essentially wrong and it is often difficult to deal with such people among whom are experienced engineers and planners. Being a skeptic is one thing but being a constructive skeptic. That is, one who offers solutions and also willing to tread the middle ground or some reasonable compromise based on the situation and conditions at hand.
This is why an evidence-based approach is needed and should be mainstreamed in many government agencies, particularly those that are involved in evaluations. National agencies like the NEDA, DOTr and the DPWH have the capacity and capability to perform quantitative analysis using recent, valid data. The quality of data tells a lot about the evidence to back up analyses, evaluations and recommendations. One must not forget that with quantitative analysis it is always “garbage in, garbage out”. That is, if you have crappy data, then you will have flawed analysis, evaluations and recommendations.
I had only recently written about appointments to top government posts when I learned about the offer of the DPWH top position to a politician who is also the son of power couple of former and present senators. Their core business is real estate development so there is definitely going to be conflicts of interest whenever certain infrastructure are built that will favour the development of their lands. This is basically the issue for the controversy regarding the Circumferential Road 5 Extension more than 6 years ago, which alleged that former Sen. Manny Villar (then running for President) influenced the DPWH to construct the highway that mainly benefited lands his company developed.
Having a politician at the helm of the DPWH is not a good idea. While apologists for the President-elect want us to give the guy a chance and explain that the soon-to-be-President probably saw something in the congressman that makes him qualified for the job, I must disagree with them given what I’ve seen up close with the DPWH. Here are a few arguments against a politician being DPWH Secretary:
- A politician as head of the DPWH will be more likely to give in to politicians (e.g., congressmen) requesting the appointments of ‘more favourable’ District Engineers (i.e., those who will do their bidding). This is basically going back to the ‘padrino’ system that is undesirable for such posts as they become prone to abuse and anomalies particularly in contracting.
- The DPWH Secretary chairs the Road Board, which is in-charge of funds collected from Motor Vehicle Users Charge (MVUC). This means the Secretary will have a say on how funds will be allocated and disbursed under the difference special funds (e.g., Special Road Safety Fund and Special Vehicle Pollution Control Fund). A politician will have no qualms approving requests for projects proposed by his allies or party-mates regardless of the merits or justification (weak?) of a program or project. This position requires objectivity and insulation against political pressure that may lead to questionable decisions.
- Governance-wise, the DPWH Secretary is expected to have a clear vision for the agency and must be an imposing figure to an organization where everyone under him including Undersecretaries and Assistant Secretaries will be organic staff. This is unlike other agencies where the Secretary gets to bring in his/her own people to appoint as senior officials (e.g., DOTC). And DPWH will only perform as good as its head. Outgoing Sec. Singson has shown how good and efficient DPWH can be under an excellent Secretary. Past heads have already shown how bad DPWH can be.
A couple of friends also mentioned that the DPWH Secretary sits on the National Water Resources Board (NWRB) and the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) is basically under the DPWH. There is conflict of interest here because the Villars own a water concessionaire in Primewater. The DPWH Secretary will also sit on the Infrastructure Committee (Infracom) that screens and approves major infrastructure projects around the country.
Since the next President has already decided on his choice for DPWH Secretary and the nominee has already accepted this, then we can only cross our fingers and hope that his appointee will be doing a good job and will uphold the current mantra of the DPWH: right projects, right cost, right quality, right on time and right people.