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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 Sen. and former DOH Sec. Juan Flavier, 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.

Opinions on traffic – skeptical or objective?

There have been a lot of critics of the current administration for what is perceived as sins of omission in as far as major transport projects are concerned. There are those from the media including some columnists who have written scathing articles about the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and particularly agency officials who are perceived to be underachieving (to use a more diplomatic term). There are those from the general public who have written about their experiences (e.g., difficulties in commuting, traffic congestion, poor quality of public transport, etc.) and have been able to publish this in popular media. Then there are also netizens who seem to only find fault in everything about transport whether these are posts on solutions or simply observations or honest opinions.

A lot of people offer their take on solutions for transport and traffic problems in Metro Manila. You find these everywhere and especially on social media. Social media is a terrific platform for broadcasting your opinion to your friends and likely to the general public if your posts or tweets become popular and get shared by others. These opinions and assessments may be based on actual experiences (“may pinaghuhugutan” in today’s popular parlance). There are also all kinds of experts including some who have their own agenda or have vested interests. These include former officials of government who criticize the current regime and yet did little during their stints in government. Many overlook (or choose to do so) the importance to provide solutions or recommendations whenever one criticizes. Without such recommendations, the statements are basically rants or whining.

The academe’s role is to provide objective assessments of policies, programs, projects including their planning, design, implementation and even operations and maintenance. Granted that there have been many studies conducted at universities and other research institutions, many of these remain in the shelves of their libraries and offices. It is important for the academe to be active in engaging government agencies in seeking out solutions for transport and traffic problems. Local universities should engage the local governments in their areas for cooperative work. The assumption here is that they are in the best positions to help solve problems in their localities as they are most familiar with the causes of these problems. National agencies like the DOTC and DPWH should support this kind of cooperation at the local level by extending resources to make this work. This follows the model that they have in the US where federal and state government agencies support researches conducted by transport centers of excellence based in leading universities across the country.

Capability building for traffic management in Metro Manila

The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) has been on the news lately due to the perceived shortcomings of the agency on traffic management in the metropolis. The current administration has designated the Philippine National Police – Highway Patrol Group (PNP-HPG) to take charge of traffic management/enforcement at six identified choke points along EDSA. EDSA or Circumferential Road 4 has been a battleground of sorts for Metro Manila, representing the capital’s transport and traffic woes with just about all the conceivable problems including severe traffic congestion, high incidence of road crashes and a malfunctioning rail line (MRT Line 3) along the corridor.

The agency was criticized when its head went to Cebu City with a team of enforcement personnel in an apparent effort to augment that city’s traffic personnel. Cebu City has its own traffic management unit in the Cebu City Traffic Operations Management (CITOM), which has been managing traffic in that city for quite some time now. They have been actually ahead of Metro Manila with their own traffic engineering center already integrated with CITOM way back in the late 1980s. The traffic signals around the city were already under CITOM when Metro Manila’s Traffic Engineering Center (TEC) was still under the DPWH. It was only in the last decade that the TEC was formally transferred to MMDA and modernised to the current modern facility beside the MMDA headquarters at EDSA-Orense St. in Makati City. People observed that Cebu was already ahead of Metro Manila on this part and that the MMDA already had their hands full with Metro Manila’s traffic woes. The joke among major cities is that they were learning about traffic management and enforcement from Metro Manila by checking what the MMDA was doing. They will do the opposite. These cities in on the joke include Cebu, Davao and Iloilo, which are all highly urbanized cities looking to alleviate their own transport and traffic problems before these become the level of Metro Manila’s.

The MMDA has the capacity for traffic management as it has the resources including staff to manage traffic around Metro Manila. It even has people to spare that the agency can deploy to assist or supplement traffic personnel in adjacent local governments (e.g., in Rizal, Cavite, Laguna and Bulacan). However, capacity does not mean capability. And MMDA clearly has limited capabilities despite the resources at its disposal. In fact, their traffic management group should be integrated if not closely working with their planning group. Transport engineering, planning and enforcement should go together, working cooperatively in order to come up with comprehensive schemes and solutions that address problems that are progressive in nature.

The old Transport Training Center (TTC) of the University of the Philippines was established to build both capacity and capability for government agencies that included the then Constabulary Highway Patrol Group (CHPG) that was under the then Philippine Constabulary/Integrated National Police (PC/INP) headed by the then Gen. Fidel V. Ramos. The PC/INP became the PNP and the CHPG became the Traffic Management Group (TMG) (later becoming the current HPG) but they all trained under the TTC, which became the National Center for Transportation Studies (NCTS).

The MMDA trained under the NCTS since the 1990s but most of those who did so over the years are now out of the agency and working elsewhere (including those who have migrated to other countries). The remaining training graduates have limited capability and some have quite a bit of overconfidence (this probably is a by-product of the BF era when the agency and its staff were basically taught that they were better than their DPWH and DOTC counterparts and everything they did was right). Mix this with what seems to be confusion about what they need to do and the result is quite amusing.

The MMDA recently established an Institute for Traffic Management (ITM) with the intent of providing training for their own staff and those from local government units. This is apparently with the instigation of their consultants who include a few academics  without transport planning and engineering expertise and experience yet dabble in it anyway. I think the ITM is not necessary at this point and it is actually not in the agency’s mandate to provide training programs other than to their own staff.  MMDA should focus instead on capability building. If not under NCTS or other local entities they can probably get the knowledge and skills required to manage Metro Manila traffic elsewhere and abroad. In fact, I would recommend that they explore programs offered by the Land Transportation Authority Academy (LTA Academy) of Singapore. These are professional programs that have been developed in cooperation with leading institutions in Singapore like the National University of Singapore (NUS) that can provide a fresh infusion of knowledge to the MMDA. But attendance in such programs is not an assurance that the agency can be better afterwards. The key ingredient would still have to be an effective and progressive leadership that is not under the influence of politics and is committed to no-nonsense traffic management even without the media covering these activities.

Running out of answers? How about congestion pricing?

A lot of people ask me about solutions to transport and traffic problems. Some are very general like the question “How do we solve traffic congestion in Metro Manila?” and others are more specific like “How do we solve congestion along EDSA?” These questions are becoming quite tricky because, for one, we are running out of answers of the ‘short term’ kind. All these ‘stop-gap’ or ‘band aid’ measures will only provide short-term relief and we have used many of them already including vehicle restraint measures we are very familiar with like the number coding and truck ban schemes currently implemented in the metropolis.

The general answer and likely an inconvenient truth is that we can’t solve congestion. It is here to stay and is a given considering the continued growth experienced throughout the country. Accepting this phenomenon of congestion, we can proceed towards managing it and work towards alleviating it. Denying that there is a problem or dismissing such as an issue requiring urgent action sets a dangerous course towards unsuitable responses or worse, inaction on the part of the government.

Like cholesterol, there is good congestion and bad congestion. Good traffic congestion is when it is predictable in occurrence and period. For example, the morning rush hour is termed so because it used to last only about an hour or so. Congestion occurring between 7:30 – 8:30 AM is okay but between 6:30 – 11:30 AM is undesirable. The cases between those two vary in acceptability based on the tolerance levels of commuters. In Metro Manila, for example, many people probably have been conditioned to think that 2-hour congestion is okay but more than that is severe. This is actually related to travel times or the time it takes to travel between, say, one’s home and workplace.

And so, are there better options other than a return to the “Odd-Even” scheme? There are actually many other options but they are more complicated to the point that many are unpalatable to people who are in a hurry to get a solution our traffic mess. Note that this is to get out of a hole that’s deep enough already but they still managed to dig deeper the last 5 years. Among these solutions would be congestion pricing.

Singapore offers a successful model for this where tolls vary according to the levels of congestion for these roads. There is a base rate for peak periods when congestion is most likely or expected. The government determines the desirable speed ranges along roads as a basis for congestion charges. Along urban streets, that range may be between 20 – 30 km/h. If speeds reduce to below 20 km/h (i.e., congested) then charges or tolls increase. If speeds increased to above 30 km/h, the rates decrease. The image below is screen capture from a presentation made by an official of Singapore’s Land Transportation Authority (LTA).

ERP

Note the item on the scheme being ‘equitable’ that is very essential in understanding how road space must be shared among users and that there is an option to use public transport instead. This scheme, of course, will require a lot of consultations but the technical part should not be worrisome given the wealth of talent at universities, private sector and government agencies who can be involved in the analysis and simulations. Important here also is to determine or institute where the money collected from congestion pricing will go. Logic tells us that this should go to public transportation infrastructure and services. In Singapore, a big part of the funds collected from ERP goes to mass transit including their SMRT trains and buses. Funds help build, operate and maintain their trains and buses. The city-state already has a good public transport system that is subsidized by congestion charges and this system is able to attract people from using their cars especially during the weekdays when transport is used for work and school trips. That way, people who don’t really need to own and use their cars are discouraged from doing so (Note: This works together with Singapore’s restrictive car ownership policies.).

Would it be possible to have congestion pricing for Metro Manila or other cities in the Philippines? Yes, it is and but entails a lot of serious effort for it to work the right way. We can probably start by identifying major roads whose volumes we want regulated, installing sensors for monitoring traffic conditions and tagging vehicles and requiring most if not all vehicles to have transponders for motorists to be charges accordingly. However, there should be an attractive and efficient public transport option for this program to work. Unfortunately, we don’t have such along most roads. Perhaps an experiment or simulation can be undertaken once the LRT 2 extension is completed and operational? That corridor of Marcos Highway and Aurora Boulevard, I believe is a good candidate for congestion pricing.

With the sophisticated software that are now available, it is possible to conduct studies that would employ modelling and simulation to determine the potential impacts of congestion pricing on traffic. It should have a significant impact on congestion reduction even without mass transit systems such as Singapore’s. However, without good public transport, it would be punishing for people who are currently using their own vehicles to avoid taking public transport. I used the term ‘punishing’ because congestion pricing will be a back breaker for people who purchased vehicles to improve their commutes (i.e., they likely were not satisfied with taking public transportation). These are the working people and part of the small middle class whose transport needs should be addressed with urgency.

Transport in times of rains and insensitive statements

How important is a good public transport system? Part of the definition of a good public transport system is that it should be an all-weather system. This means that even if there is inclement weather, the system would still be functioning and able to ferry people between their homes, workplaces, schools and other destinations. Of course, the exception here would be the times when there are extreme weather conditions like typhoons passing through cities. The rains today and past other days reminds us how difficult it is to commute even when you have your own vehicle. Those who opt to use their own cars now encounter severe traffic congestion with increasing frequencies while those with only public transport as their choice usually have difficulty getting a ride home.

Metro EastCommuters on the carriageway trying to get a ride home – many brave the strong rains to get ahead of others

It is not just unfortunate but rather depressing that Metro Manila and other major Philippine cities have no efficient public transport systems. The current modes of transport are road-based and dominated by paratransit including jeepneys, multicabs and tricycles. The state of disrepair of the PNR and MRT3, the much-delayed extensions of LRT1 and LRT2, and the much-delayed construction of MRT7 and BRT lines all contribute to the hellish commutes people experience everyday. Combine these with what experts regard as deficient station plaza designs that have led to inefficient transfers between the trains and road-based transport. It is no wonder that a person on  bicycle can beat a commuter on a trip between Trinoma in Quezon City and a university in Manila considering the state of MRT3 and the poor transfer conditions between MRT3 and LRT1. This won’t likely be the case in Singapore or Tokyo where the proper hierarchies of transport are well established and with the necessary facilities to support their people-friendly systems.

What’s more depressing, frustrating and disappointing (if its possible to feel all three simultaneously) is how transport officials, including and especially the top official of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), apparently see our transport woes as “not fatal”. Is it really “not fatal”? Increases in the incidence of respiratory diseases due to the increased emissions are attributable to mobile sources (vehicles) and the long hours of road traffic congestion. The increase in the number of fatal road crashes as reported by the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) is also attributable to a significant increase in traffic volumes. One comment on social media was right on the dot on emergency cases ending up dying due to the ambulances being unable to make it to the hospitals in time for their passengers’ treatments.

And so, there were renewed calls for transport officials to get out of their chauffeured cars and take regular public transport between their homes and offices. The dares include riding the MRT3 during the peak periods and actually experiencing the queues and the crowded platforms and trains. It is no wonder that the image of the Dutch ambassador riding his bicycle to his office has been a popular share in social media because a lot of people feel that leaders should be examples themselves on how each one of us can pitch in to solve transport and traffic problems. Attempts by some government officials (including the top official of the transport department) to ride the MRT3, for example, are met with much criticism because they are given special treatment – they skip the lines and have bodyguards escorting them and clearing the way and space for them to ride comfortably. Clearly, this is not what the common commuter experiences everyday when he or she would have to use something short of MMA skills to get a ride.

Are we helpless against such insensitivity of our officials, many of whom are politicians and professionals associated with oligarchs? Not totally. And next year’s elections offer the commuting public a chance to express what they think about transport in this country and in their cities and municipalities by making transport and traffic urgent issues that need to be addressed and prioritized. Will you vote for candidates who had a hand in the continuing deterioration of transport in the Philippines and who consistently dismiss transport and traffic issues as secondary and just a by-product of non-inclusive economic growth? I surely won’t and will be very critical of candidates’ platforms and proposed programs should they win and become the leaders of this land. A big part of those programs should be how to address transport and traffic issues especially the deficiencies in infrastructure. Addressing these pressing issues on transport and traffic will go a long way in improving the quality of life of Filipinos and ensure a sustainable and inclusive growth for the country.

Good intentions and knee jerk reactions

Social media is again abuzz with stories about Uber and how Philippine government agencies like the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) are hassling Uber, Grab and similar companies into complying with government regulations covering their services. Is it really a hassle and are these “Transport Network Companies” or TNCs the real deal in terms of solving part of Metro Manila’s transport woes?

I believe Uber and other services like it have good intentions towards providing high quality, on-demand transport services. However, based on what I’ve read about the service in other countries (particularly in the US and Europe), the intention (original?) was to take advantage of surplus or excess capacity of vehicles being driven by “owner-drivers” between origins and destinations such as their homes and offices. That means an improvement of sorts for traffic as, instead of having one vehicle per person, two or more can share a single car. The main differences with conventional carpools is that the driver and his passengers practically do not know each other, and the passengers pay the driver a fee that is agreed upon at the start of the transaction. This works well in car-oriented cities as well as those with less than satisfactory public transport services especially when it comes to taxis.

The last sentence seems to be the right description for Metro Manila and other rapidly growing Philippine cities. And so, Uber, Grab Car and other shared service attracted many users who can afford them and providers willing to share their rides with total strangers. I stated “owner-drivers” in the previous paragraph as this was supposed to be an essential part of the set-up where Uber and others didn’t add to the cars already on the roads. Problem is, apparently and allegedly, some enterprising people who had the resources thought it would be a good idea to deploy all their vehicles (and even purchase additional ones) by hiring drivers they could register with Uber or Grab Car. That way, they thought they could bypass the typically bureaucratic process of getting a franchise for taxi or rental car franchises that also include all those business permits and, of course, taxes. The result of this would not be the utilization of excess capacity but the addition of more cars on the roads and therefore contribute to worsening congestion.

IMG12062-20150817-1508

As far as the LTFRB is concerned, like it or not, they are just doing what they are mandated to do and are supposed to do with any transport service provider that is not purely private (i.e., services with a fee). It just so happens that the DOTC and LTFRB have been on the receiving end of a lot of flak from the public and especially in social media for what is perceived as the agencies’ ineptitude in dealing with major issues in public transportation. These include the continuing saga that is EDSA-MRT 3 and the perceived low quality services provided by buses and jeepneys in general that leave people at the mercy of taxis and UV express if they opt not or cannot afford to purchase their own vehicles.

The main issue is not whether DOTC and LTFRB should pay attention to Uber and others like it. The agencies should as per their mandates. However, there are a lot of other more serious and more urgent issues/problems including the much delayed mass transit projects and the low quality of service being provided by buses, jeepneys, UV express and conventional taxis that the DOTC and its attached agencies need to act on and now. I know it is a generalization (There are many good bus, jeepney, UV express and taxi drivers and operators out there who are also working their butts off to earn a living.) but then when you combine unsafe driving, with high fuel consumption and a lot of harmful emissions then you get a cocktail that’s definitely bad for all travelers.

How many people use Uber or Grab Car or taxis? Do they outnumber those taking the LRT/MRTs, buses, jeepneys and UV express? They don’t and therefore only represent a small percentage of the trips being taken everyday in Metro Manila and adjacent areas. And so the more pressing issues are really those pertaining to mass transit and the dire need to construct these systems once and for all in order to achieve a more sustainable and inclusive transport system for this still growing megalopolis.

Some thoughts on the EDSA MRT 3 problem

A lot of people reacted when the current Philippine President practically absolved the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) from any fault regarding the issues on the EDSA MRT Line 3 during his recent State of the Nation Address (SONA). The main message in some articles appearing on mainstream and social media is that the President should blame DOTC for the mess. I have the opinion that both DOTC and the private entities involved (MRT Corporation, MRT Holdings) are responsible for the problem and its being continuously unresolved.

A week ago, I got the following question in my email:

Who is it that we could blame for the current state of the rail system? What do you suggest that the government or the private partner do in order for them to improve the line?

Quite frankly, I thought the first question was too direct and blunt as to ask who we can blame for the MRT3 mess. It is also very awkward to answer the second question because it assumes that I am an expert on the legal issues on this matter. I am NOT a legal expert nor would I want to pretend to be one. Here was my reply:

That’s actually a very tricky question. We can’t really blame a specific person or persons but perhaps entire organizations that are supposed to be responsible for the mess that is MRT3. The main or root issue seems to be legal and not at all technical. The technical problems experienced are manifestations of a contract that is a textbook case for how NOT to do a PPP. I am not privy to the details of the discussions between the government and the people involved and behind MRTC so it is awkward to make comments specific to this matter of the contract and all its complexities. Perhaps the DOTC wants to follow “Daang Matuwid” by not budging to the terms laid out by MRTC? Perhaps MRTC is aware of the stakes (plight of the riding public) and is using this to force DOTC into a deal that is not favorable to government? We can only speculate on this without firsthand knowledge of their discussions.

However, from the perspective of transport as a service and as a public good, I would say that MRTC indeed is aware of the public’s clamor for improvement. This is all over the news and social media in the form of commentaries, images and even videos of the undesirable experiences of those taking the MRT3. In the end, DOTC must decide whether it is all worth it to maintain the stalemate with MRTC considering that the public interest is at stake here and things will just become worse with inaction. Perhaps the government should move towards the best compromise they can live with considering the urgency of addressing the problem at hand.

I would like to think that my reply was quite cautious. There have been many allegations and claims from both sides of the table regarding how to resolve the impasse and the conflicts that seem to be interwoven with the contract on the MRT3. Perhaps such cases test the limits of “Daang Matuwid”? Much was and is expected from DOTC considering its battery of lawyers including top officials of the department. Aren’t they supposed to have been involved in discussions and negotiations aside from strategic planning for our transportation in this country? I guess the general public especially those who take the MRT3 for their commutes already know who to blame for their plight…