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New public utility vehicles in Cebu

There have been a lot of new models of vehicles serving as public transport in Metro Manila. It came as no surprise that we found similar vehicles (e.g., Beep or modern jeepneys as some people refer to them) as well as buses in a city that was supposed to have had the first operational Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line in the country. Sadly, the Cebu BRT has not been constructed and now national government agencies and the local government is mulling a light rail transit system instead. Here are some photos of the Beep vehicles operating in Cebu as well as a couple of bus services.

Beep mini-bus beside an old jitney – the vehicle sizes are comparable but the Beep capacity is larger. The Beep is also air-conditioned and features a layout similar to buses.

Free shuttle bus service provided by Robinsons Malls

Beep serving the City Hall – IT Park route

MyBus depot at the SM City Cebu North Reclamation Area – these are currently plying the route connecting SM City Cebu with SM Seaside. The route is actually one that was considered for a pilot Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line – supposedly the first one in the Philippines – that did not come into reality.

Are ridesharing services paratransit modes?

Vuchic (Urban Transit Systems & Technology, 2007) defines paratransit as an “urban passenger transportation service mostly in vehicles operated on public streets and roads in mixed traffic; it is provided by private or public operators and it is available to certain groups of users or to the general public, but it is adaptable in its routing and scheduling to individual user’s desires in varying degrees.” 

Based on the definition and how paratransit modes have evolved over many years, then we could say that the current ridesharing or car sharing services like Uber and Grab are essentially paratransit modes. They definitely fit the definition as do conventional taxis.

What is the context for electric tricycles in the Philippines?

The NEDA Board recently approved six projects that included one that will be promoting electric vehicles throughout the country. Entitled “Market Transformation through Introduction of Energy Efficient Electric Vehicles Project” (formerly Market Transformation through Introduction of Energy Efficient Electric Tricycle (E-Trike) Project), the endeavor seeks to replace thousands of existing conventional motorized 3-wheelers (tricycles) with e-trikes and to develop and deploy charging stations for these vehicles. While I have nothing against electric vehicles and have supported their promotion for use in public transport, I am a bit worried about the context by which electric tricycles are being peddled especially the part about equating “transformation” with “replacement.”

First, it is a technology push for an innovation that has not been fully and satisfactorily tested in Philippine conditions. The deployment of e-trikes in Bonifacio Global City is practically a failure and a mode that was not suitable from the start for the area it was supposed to serve (i.e., while there were already jeepneys serving the area, there were also the Fort Bus services and plans for a BRT linking the Ayala CBD and BGC. There are now few (rare sightings) of these e-trikes remaining at the Fort, as most of these vehicles are no longer functioning due to problems regarding the batteries, motors, and issues regarding  maintenance. Meanwhile, the e-trikes in Mandaluyong, a more recent model, have also been difficult to maintain with one case reportedly needing the unit to be sent back to China for repairs.

Second, the e-trikes are a whole new animal (or mode of transport). I have pointed out in the past including in one ADB forum that the 6 to 8 seater e-trike model is basically a new type of paratransit. Their larger capacities mean one unit is not equivalent to one of the current models of conventional tricycles (i.e., the ones you find in most city and municipality around the country). Thus, replacement should not be “1 e-trike : 1 tricycle” but perhaps “1:2” (or even “1:3” in some cases). This issue has not been resolved as the e-trike units continue to be marketed as a one to one replacement for conventional trikes. There should be guidelines on this that local government units can use, particularly for adjusting the number of franchises or authorized tricycles in their respective jurisdictions. Will such come from the Department of Energy (DOE)? Or is this something that should emanate from Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC)? Obviously, the last thing we like to see would be cities like Cabanatuan, Tarlac or Dagupan having so many e-trikes running around after they have replaced the conventional ones, and causing congestion in the cities. Emissions from the tricycle may have been reduced but emissions from other vehicles should be significant due to the congestion.

Third, the proliferation of e-trikes will tie our cities and municipalities to tricycles. Many cities already and definitely need to upgrade their public transport systems (e.g., tricycles to jeepneys or jeepneys to buses, and so on). Simply replacing tricycles with electric powered ones does not effect “true” transformation from the transport perspective. Is the objective of transformation mainly from the standpoint of energy? If so, then there is something amiss with the project as it does not and cannot address the transport, traffic and social aspects of the service provided by tricycles (and other modes of transport).

So what is the context for the e-trikes or conventional tricycles? They are not even under the purview of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) as they are regulated by LGUs.  Shouldn’t the DOTC or the LTFRB be involved in this endeavor? Shouldn’t these agencies be consulted with the formulation of a framework or guidelines for rationalizing and optimizing transport in our cities? These are questions that should be answered by the proponents of this project and questions that should not be left to chance or uncertainty in so far as the ultimate objective is supposed to be to improve transport in the country. I have no doubt that the e-trikes have the potential to improve air quality and perhaps the also the commuting experience for many people. I have worries, however, that its promise will not be kept especially in light of energy supply issues that our country is still struggling with and deserves the attention of the DOE more than the e-trikes they are peddling.

Going electric in the Philippines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sustainable Paratransit

Environmentally sustainable transport (EST) includes the provision of sustainable public transportation. Such public transport is premised on other aspects of EST such as emission reduction, green fuels or sustainable energy sources, noise, and inclusive services and safe vehicle design. Most paratransit modes found in the developing countries are customized vehicles of 2 to 4 wheels. Customized vehicles are often lacking in safety features and produce greenhouse gases at a significantly higher rate than conventional vehicles. As such, the former are perceived to be unfriendly to people and the environment, and therefore, unsustainable.

In the Philippines, for example, paratransit includes motorcycle taxis, tricycles, Asian utility vehicles (AUV), vans, and the jeepneys. With the exception of motorcycles, AUVs and vans, the two most dominant transport – the tricycle and the jeepney – are customized vehicles.

Jeepneys

The jeepney is the most popular mode of transport in the Philippines especially in cities because of its cheap fare and the convenience afforded to passengers to board and alight almost anywhere they want. In many parts of the Philippines, jeepneys provide long-distance transport services (rather than the bus) and may carry cargo, goods or freight in addition to passengers. Jeepneys in the provinces have also evolved to become significantly larger and tougher than those in the cities and are built to take on bad roads in all weather conditions. Jeepneys are locally manufactured and utilize surplus or second-hand diesel engines.

Tricycles and pedicabs

A tricycle is a motorcycle with a sidecar, while a pedicab is a bicycle with a sidecar and is classified as a non-motorized transport mode. These modes are 3-wheelers and are very convenient for passengers on short distance trip and feeder trip between residential area and arterial roads. Especially in the provinces, these modes play an important role because of insufficient bus and jeepney services. In Metro Manila the operation of tricycles is restricted partly because they cause traffic congestion. Franchising and supervision of tricycles including pedicabs have been devolved to the local government units.

AUVs

Asian utility vehicles (AUVs) refer to a variety of models designed according to the road and passenger characteristics of Asian countries particularly those in the Southeast Asian region. Vans include vehicle models produced by major Asian automakers like Toyota, Mitsubishi and Hyundai. AUVs and vans are four-wheeled vehicles with a seating capacity of seven to eleven persons including the driver. They provide services within a zone or fixed route of not more than 15 km. Fares may be set on a zonal asis or based on distance. FX services (so called FX because of the Toyota Tamaraw FX AUV that was very popular with those providing the service) evolved from the taxi as demand for a faster alternative to jeepneys arose in the 1990’s. Fares were higher than those for jeepneys but were eventually considered acceptable as longer travel times when using jeepneys became a major consideration for passengers, especially those who have constraints in their schedules like students and typical office workers (i.e., those who do not have the luxury of flexi-time). In 2003, the LTFRB issued a moratorium on the issuance of AUV franchises and pursued conversion and regulation of services into the Garage-to-Terminal Express (GTExpress). However, there is still a proliferation of vans for hire services, particularly those plying long distance routes in the rural areas. Meanwhile FX services remain in other cities in the Philippines.

Motorcycle taxis

Motorcycle taxis are also popular in the less urbanized areas including the small towns throughout the Philippines. These include the “habal-habal,” which are not regulated but have similar operations as their relatives in other countries like Thailand and Indonesia. Then there is the “skylab,” which is also a motorcycle taxi but with a wooden plank perpendicular to the motorcycle that allows for additional passengers balanced by the driver. Hence, the vehicle is made to appear like the fallen satellite of which it is named after.

Multicabs

Multicabs are similar to jeepneys but with most vehicles having about half the capacity of current jeepneys. However, their configurations are also evolving like the jeepneys, being customized vehicles like the latter. The resulting capacity has enabled these to have seating capacities equivalent to small or old model jeepneys. Multicabs are based on the Daihatsu or Suzuki mini-vans in terms of engine specifications and most came into being after the Philippines was flooded with second-hand or surplus vehicles. Their small bodies made them popular and they are now found in many cities, often competing with jeepneys and tricycles for passengers.

Other paratransit modes

Other paratransit modes are used in the Philippines in both urban and rural settings. There is the “kuliglig,” which uses a farm tractor to pull a wagon that is customized for passengers. These are mostly found in the country side where formal transport is lacking and even tricycles are unable to satisfy the demand for transport. Another paratransit mode is the “motorela,” which is a four-wheeler version of the motor tricycle. However, it is configured with the motorcycle in the front and middle instead of a one side such that it appears like the Thai “tuktuk.” These operate in cities and have capacities that are typically higher than the tricycles but significantly less than those for jeepneys.

Future of paratransit in the Philippines

The idea of environment and people friendly paratransit is always an attractive proposition. Given the current perceptions that paratransit like jeepneys and tricycles, there are many initiatives that are now being seriously considered if not yet engaged by both the government and the private sector. Some have been proposed for quite some time such as engine replacement and although financial schemes have also been proposed there have been very few takers for the program. Then there are those proposals for devices that have not been tested or validated but offer quick fixes to the emission problem, particularly claiming significant carbon reduction for a small price. Such are to be viewed as doubtful solutions that should not be pursued unless there is strong proof of their effectiveness.

Many taxis in Philippine cities have been converted to use LPG. Electric and LPG powered tricycles are now also being promoted in the Philippines. In fact, Quezon City, the biggest city in Metro Manila, only recently enacted an ordinance requiring all tricycles to convert to clean fuels or energy sources within 3 years. Such local legislation probably marks the beginning of a genuine and, perhaps, sustained effort towards making paratransit environment friendly. In the national context, a national EST strategy is currently being formulated (NCTS, 2009) and will ultimately recommend for actions to improve public transport in general.

An assessment of the jeepneys and tricycles as main public transport modes is necessary while at the same time it must be realized that jitney sized transport is necessary where passenger demand cannot justify mass transit modes including bus and rail transport. The World Bank (A Strategic Approach to Climate Change in the Philippines: An Assessment of Low-Carbon Interventions in the Transport and Power Sectors,2009) proposed medium and aggressive scenarios for the reduction of carbon in the transport sector. Among these scenarios are interventions for public transport particularly mentioning the conversion of jeepneys to CNG and assessing recent developments including options with high potential for carbon reduction, and technologies under testing such as CNG, LPG and electric powered vehicles. These are proof that the transformation of paratransit, in this case the jeepney, is essential  and should be under way. Hopefully, it will be a matter of time when these popular modes of transport will gain the adjective “environment friendly.”