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On being constructively skeptical on transport and traffic

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
  • Troll
  • Naive

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.

Questionable choice for DPWH Secretary?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

On critical government posts related to transportation

The camp of President-elect Duterte has been busy the past week trying to determine, among others, who will be secretary of which agency. As far as I am concerned, my interest is in who will be assigned to agencies that have a lot to do about transportation. Thee include the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Department of Energy (DOE) and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA). DOTC, of course, is the main agency and has under it several front line agencies like the Land Transportation Office (LTO), the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB), the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA), the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA), the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA) and the Philippine National Railways (PNR).

So far, what we know is that the DOTC portfolio will be given to Arthur Tugade, the former head of the Clark Development Corporation (CDC). Tugade has the confidence of Duterte as they are good friends and were classmates at the San Beda Law School. I’ve met Tugade once when we presented the outcomes and recommendations of a traffic study for a project at the Clark Freeport only a few months ago. The National Center for Transportation Studies (NCTS) of the University of the Philippines Diliman has had a productive relationship with Clark from the time the Center came up with a comprehensive transport and traffic master plan for the free port back in 2010. Tugade has been very productive in expanding businesses at Clark and has been quite an astute figure in his dealings with various political leaders in the region especially with respect to the local governments of Angeles City and Mabalacat. I wish him well at DOTC and hopefully, he can harness its much maligned organic staff like what he has done at CDC. There are so many challenges at DOTC including assigning good people at the LTO and LTFRB.

I hope Duterte retains Sec. Rogelio Singson as head of the DPWH . I had made the observation before that the DPWH is only as good as its head and Singson has been an excellent DPWH Secretary, introducing and institutionalizing many reforms to the agency so much so that it has been performing way above expectations and corruption has been curbed in many areas. In terms of e-governance and open data, the DPWH has been a bright spot in the past administration so much so that its performance in implementing infrastructure projects including those convergence programs with other agencies has made the DOTC look really bad.

As for the other agencies, I can’t think of any names yet as I am not very familiar with Duterte’s inner circle but based on what his camp has already announced, there will be people from the administrations of former Presidents Ramos and Arroyo, a throwback perhaps to the once powerful Lakas party than Duterte’s PDP-Laban. I am anxious to know who will be the next NEDA Director General. NEDA has a big role being the agency consolidating infrastructure plans and projects and the convenor of the very influential Infrastructure Committe (InfraCom) that approves projects for implementation. Very interesting, too, would be the appointee to the position of MMDA Chair. The nation’s capital needs a good administrator with an excellent vision for the megalopolis and the skill set to get things done. Hopefully, we will know who these people will be in the next few days.

Some thoughts on transport for President-elect Duterte

My colleagues and I were talking about the not so surprising results of the recent national elections in the Philippines. I say not so surprising because people have been clamouring for change for quite some time now. It did not help the current administration and its standard bearer were hounded by the transport and traffic problems experienced by the country especially in Metro Manila. Here are some thoughts for the President-elect and whoever will be part of his transportation team:

  1. Come up with a framework for developing transportation in the country. The framework should contain both soft and hard measures. On the soft side would be strategies and policies like those promoting sustainable transport especially low carbon transport systems. This many include promoting walking, cycling and public transport at the local level. Hard measures would include infrastructure for all modes of transport including railways, airports and ports. Local roads development might be something President-elect Duterte’s team should look into as local roads basically provide accessibility for rural areas and contribute to development. The framework will serve as a guide for the next 6 years for whoever will be in-charge of transport-related agencies. He should have a sound game plan so as to be systematic in the approach to address transport and traffic issues.
  2. Watch out for and appreciate low hanging fruits. I think the current administration has already initiated solutions to pressing problems but mostly in Metro Manila in the form of the LRT Line 2 Extension and the MRT Line 7. There is also the new rolling stock for MRT Line 3. Pres.-elect Duterte’s team should already look into the mass transit needs of other highly urbanized cities such as Cebu, Iloilo and his hometown of Davao. Whether these will be road or rail-based systems should be the subject of studies to determine what can be completed immediately and within the term of the President and which need substantial investments and perhaps engagement with the private sector. The mention of “paralysis by analysis” by critics of the outgoing administration can be traced to the latter’s seeming disregard of the accomplishments of its predecessor, which could have been implemented early on during the term. The next administration should not make the same mistake.
  3. Just do it. That was the mantra of the late Juan Flavour, which he got from Nike. Transport and traffic problems in this country has worsened over the years due to the slow development of infrastructure coupled with issues on land use planning. These two actually go hand-in-hand. Metro Manila is already at a stage where indeed it will take long-term planning and infra development to solve (i.e., significantly reduce) congestion (note: You cannot eliminate congestion for a megalopolis like the NCR). Meanwhile, it is not too late for other major cities so investments and infra development should start under his watch. For starters, completing the proposed Cebu BRT and building a mass transit system for Davao should serve as inspiration for other cities to follow. Already there is a need for sophisticated public transport in emerging metropolitan areas like Iloilo, Bacolod, CDO and Angeles-Clark-Mabalacat. These do not require 12 years but perhaps with urgent action be addressed within 6 years. This, of course, should go together with the building infrastructure for walking and cycling where applicable and in relation to transit development.

How did Mar Roxas lose? Top 10 transport-related reasons

I started writing this days before the national elections and if we are to base our forecast of Monday’s results on surveys and what’s circulating in mainstream and social media, then “change” will most likely be coming. Whether this change is a breath of fresh air or something that stinks and is just being masked by people around and behind him we will only know once he and his team starts working on rebuilding this country from what seems to be a most tumultuous and divisive campaign.

While it is possible to list down a lot of reasons from different aspects of his campaign, I would like to think that the administration’s standard bearer lost in large part because of his and the administration’s failures in transportation. Here’s my top ten transport-related reasons for why the Liberal Party’s presidential bet lost his bid to become the Philippines’ President:

  1. MRT-3 mess – the new coaches of the EDSA MRT-3 went into service today. People associate the current administration’s failures with images of long lines at MRT-3 stations and people walking as they leave stalled or defective trains. These are powerful images even as government claimed they were working on solutions to acquire new rolling stock and provide the maintenance the line needed.
  2. Paralysis by analysis – despite having many “low-hanging fruits” (i.e., projects ready to be implemented) from the previous administration and his predecessor at DOTC, Roxas and his people embarked on their own studies that seemed to take forever to finish. Many of these were with the PPP Center and it seemed that the government didn’t want to have any part in infrastructure development but passed this responsibility to the private sector.
  3. LRT-1 Cavite extension – this is a PPP project that also until now has not been implemented. Add to that the alleged circumstances for this project and the privatization of Line 1 where one company was most favored over others. Incidentally, the same company seems to have bagged a lot of projects under the current administration.
  4. BRT – Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects in Cebu City and Metro Manila are examples of projects that were developed by the previous administration and were ripe for implementation but are yet to take off.
  5. NAIA controversies – “tanim bala,” “malas,” delayed flights, blackouts, dirty toilets, the list goes on…you name it and they have it at the NAIA terminals.
  6. DOTC Sec. EA Abaya – the face of DOTC after Roxas and one who has come to be associated with what is perceived as a poorly performing agency. He should have been fired from the job years ago but for one reason or another he has stayed on at the agency and brought much damage unto the Roxas campaign. One has to wonder why Roxas refused to do some self examination and call for Abaya’s resignation. Hindi ba siya nakahalata na yung mga taong dapat sana ay kakampi ay nakasira ng husto sa chances niya maging Pangulo?
  7. NAIA Manager Honrado – the capital airport manager’s boo-boos including the “tanim bala” controversies and the bungled renovation of Terminal 1 easily put the manager as a symbol of ineptness. His being associated to the President as a former classmate did not help his cause as “classmate” had become synonymous with being “favored” despite failures.
  8. PNR – the only remaining long distance railway line in the country is still in a state of disrepair. There have been opinions that this was to government could sell it cheap to the private sector.
  9. North EDSA common station – the most appropriate location for the common station or grand terminal for LRT-1, MRT-3 and the future MRT-7 is in front of the SM City North EDSA Annex. Elsewhere would not be optimal and yet that is what Roxas started at DOTC, after reneging on an agreement with SM pertaining to the design of the station.
  10. Transport planning and infrastructure framework – few people seem to know that prior to 2010, there have been studies that led to a proposed National Transport Plan and Policy but this was not adopted by the Roxas DOTC with one Assistant Secretary even claiming that there was no framework. Fortunately, NEDA took the responsibility to develop one with little help coming from the DOTC.

Proposals for EDSA and some alternate roads

The hellish traffic congestion along EDSA and other roads in Metro Manila spawned a bunch of ideas for alleviating congestion. Among those that were offered as solutions are the following:

  1. Odd-Even Scheme – suggested by the Philippines President himself in a speech delivered in Mandaluyong City
  2. Car-pooling (and HOV lanes) – suggested by the DPWH Secretary in another forum
  3. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and/or express bus – proposed and being studied by the DOTC

What seems to have been forgotten was a proposal to have two lanes of EDSA, one on either direction, devoted to bicycles. This proposal now seems to be the most viable compared to the above three and could have the potential for major behaviour change towards a departure from motor vehicle use. Cycling along with walking does not require fuel and these modes also promote healthy lifestyles. Also, this could become the ultimate example for road diets, which can also be applied along other roads as well. What sounds or reads like an outrageous idea (i.e., bicycle lanes along EDSA) might just be revolutionary and result in what could be a tipping point for sustainable transport in the midst of traffic mayhem.

EDSA has become the proverbial battleground representing the war with traffic congestion. However, EDSA is just one part of our arterial network comprised of circumferential and radial roads. There is also C-5 (also known for its sections – Katipunan, E. Rodriguez, C.P. Garcia), which is also a very congested road but along which there are few fixed route public transport services. It is a primary alternative route (to EDSA)for people traveling between the northern and southern halves of Metro Manila. It also serves as a collector and distributor, being connected with major radial roads like Aurora Boulevard, Ortigas Avenue and Shaw Boulevard as well as to the South Luzon Expressway. C-5 is a major truck route, however, and so carries a lot of heavy vehicles during the permitted times under the truck ban scheme being implemented in Metro Manila. C-5 is already ripe for a mass transit system and should have one along it. The quickest to put up would be a bus system on exclusive lanes. Strategically though, a rail transit line (likely elevated) should already be planned and implemented and with as seamless as possible connections to current and future lines along major corridors.

There are other routes that can be considered which I think have been overlooked (too much focus on EDSA?). C-6, for example, badly needs to be improved and this has started but is being implemented at a slow pace. This could have significant positive impacts on traffic coming from the east (towns of Rizal province) that are bound primarily for Makati and BGC. But then there also has to be a good road bypassing the narrow and already congested streets of Taguig and Pateros that are currently the only roads connecting C-5 and C-6. The roads on the Rizal side (attention: Cainta and Taytay) also need to be improved including Highway 2000 and the Barkadahan Bridge. Perhaps the Rizal Provincial Government should also get involved in this as such routes are in the best interest of Rizalenos. And then there is also the highly urbanized city of Antipolo that is a major destination and already is the 7th most populous city in the country, whose residents also use this route, which is often a faster option to Ortigas and C-5 despite the poor conditions of roads.

“New phenomenon” in traffic?

I read in the news recently that the government official currently acting as traffic czar for Metro Manila. The news item may be found at the following link:

http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/536851/news/nation/almendras-cites-new-phenomenon-in-edsa

Apparently, the government official found what he claimed as a “new phenomenon” along EDSA. To quote from the article:

“Sa gabi, your honor, may bagong phenomenon na we’re still trying to understand: Bakit ang daming naghihintay ng bus pauwi?” Almendras told senators during the Senate Committee on Economic Affairs’ hearing on the traffic in Metro Manila.

The secretary added that while commuters are having a hard time getting a bus ride in the afternoon, EDSA is packed with passenger buses in the morning.

Almendras has been personally monitoring EDSA since the police’s Highway Patrol Group took over traffic management on the main thoroughfare.

He said somebody told him that passenger buses are no longer going out in the afternoon or in the evening because they have already hit their quota during daytime.

“This is not fact yet… Somebody told me that when the buses hit their minimum targets, the drivers decide, ‘Bakit pa ako magpapakahirap magbiyahe?'” he said.

“I have that question. Why do I see a lot of people on the streets waiting to go home in the afternoon than in the morning?” he added.

It boggles the mind on how our officials are making assessments of the transport and traffic situation around Metro Manila and particularly along EDSA. The statements taken directly shows how detached our officials are from the realities of commuting that most people face on a daily basis in the metropolis. Such statements reinforce calls for public officials to take public transportation themselves in order for them to experience first-hand and understand how most people feel during their daily travels between homes, workplaces and schools. But while people do not deserve such hardships of commuting, there is the lingering (philosophical) question of whether the same commuters deserve the leaders they elected who appointed these same officials who have been and continue to be inutile and insensitive to the plight of the commuting public. Hopefully, the coming 2016 elections will yield officials who will be more sensitive and responsive to the plight of commuters in this country.