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On rethinking transit for our cities

There’s a nice article recently published on The New York Times. It’s about how cities have been rethinking and developing their transit systems in light of climate change and the pandemic. Here is the article:

An interesting part of the article is on the call for the return of trams or street-level trains. These are very similar to the tranvia that used to be the preferred mode of public transport before World War 2. Would that be possible to build now in Metro Manila? Perhaps it would be a bit more challenging given the development but there are definitely corridors or areas where you can have trams…if the government wanted to. Among those would be along the Pasig River if the development will be similar to the esplanade and enough ROW can be acquired and allocated for these street-level transport. There is also the Botocan ROW, which we actually studied many years ago for Meralco, for the feasibility of a street-level transit system stretching from Katipunan to Quezon Institute. It could have been the revival of Meralco’s rail division of old.

What do you think?

Why not rationalize other routes now?

There is an enduring discussion in various forums and platforms about the lack of supply of public transportation. I can’t help but notice though that many discussions consciously or unconsciously leave out the part of public transport rationalisation that calls for phasing out lower capacity vehicles in favour of higher capacity ones. I have written about this and explained the necessity particularly along corridors with high transport demand. Delaying what is required (not necessarily what is inevitable) means we fall short of transforming public transport services in this context.

 

There are definitely missed opportunities here but the current discussions and proposed resources for 2021 including funds for service contracting seems to suggest a status quo in terms of vehicles with the exception of the modernisation part. Perhaps this is because we are still in pandemic mode and survival is still the name of the game? Nevertheless, there should be initiatives and continued dialogue about ‘graduating’ from lower capacity vehicles to higher capacity ones. Of course, this discussion is more urgent for highly urbanised cities than smaller ones.

On Transit, Urban Equity and Sustainability

Here is another quick share of an article about public transport, urban equity and sustainability:

Descant, S. (September 2021) “How Can Transit Deliver Urban Equity and Sustainability?”, Government Technology, https://www.govtech.com/transportation/how-can-transit-deliver-urban-equity-and-sustainability [Last accessed: 9/21/2021]

The article discusses how the Covid-19 pandemic clearly shows the role of public transportation in the lives of a lot of people. There is that opportunity to significantly if not radically improve public transportation now more than ever. Surely governments and their transit or regulating agencies have thought about this. While the pandemic led to situations that are not necessarily clean slates for many, there are definitely opportunities here and there to implement change that will increase benefits for transit users while attracting non-users to shift from their preferred modes (i.e., private vehicles). Here’s a takeaway from the article:

“We know that public transportation is the solution. So there needs to be a commitment at the federal level, not just in terms of funding, but also integrating public transportation deeper into the fabric of society, through land use policy and through other transportation access policies — the sidewalk and bike lane piece — with the data and payment apps as well…”

What improvements do you think should and can be done now given the pandemic situation? Are these still timely or have we figuratively “missed the bus”, so to speak?

On current health protocols applied to public transport

The current surge of infections attributed to the Delta variant of Covid-19 has been alarming. The recent quarantine issuances by national government have not been effective as there was basically lax enforcement or implementation. Granted, there were just a lot of loopholes designed to allow so-called “economic frontliners” to go to work and under conditions that made their commutes risky in the context of the pandemic. The same laxity and loopholes apply too, to people who have no business roaming around and yet travel with their motor vehicles (especially motorcycles) and bicycles across cities, towns and provinces in the guise of exercise or essential travel.

Meanwhile, the practice and enforcement of public health protocols in the country has been lax and misguided (e.g., do we really need to wear face shields?). In public utility vehicles, people are now crowding inside with usually only a sheet of plastic separating one from another. This is not exactly reassuring in as far as spreading the virus is concerned. And we shouldn’t pretend that we are not aware that there are asymptomatic people going around and infecting others whether knowingly or not. It’s no wonder, really, why people who have the private vehicle or active transport option use these instead of public transport.

Plastic dividers offer little protection and tend to impede air flow or circulation inside the vehicle.
Having few passengers nowadays is more the exception since many so-called ‘economic frontliners’ are now back working full-time and as if there was no specter in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Much has been said about government failing to address the Covid-19 pandemic from the start. And it continues to bumble through this health crisis (if you don’t want to call it one then either you don’t understand the gravity of the problem or just refuse to do so – the latter is worse). Tagging workers as ‘economic frontliners’ is probably at least as bad as calling BPO workers ‘Bagong bayani’, adding them to the Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) who had been branded as so in the past. This becomes a convenient excuse to ease health-related restrictions for people to travel/commute to work. It is a form of gaslighting the very same workers to believe they need to go out and work. Meanwhile, precious funds are being diverted elsewhere including the dolomite beach at Manila Bay and money spirited away in preparation for next year’s elections.

I got it from recent surveys that people give a higher priority to employment and earning income over Covid-19. Perhaps most have not had direct experiences with the frightening cases of Covid-19 (i.e., they’re asymptomatic or have encountered only asymptomatic cases with friends and families). I hate to say it but it seems like the same thinking pertaining to extra judicial killings (EJK). I can already imagine hearing the usual comments: “Malayo sa bituka.” “Wala akong pakialam diyan.” “Okay lang yan. Hindi naman kami apektado niyan.” These comments reflect an absence of empathy. Empathy I think is very much needed today in order for people to understand what’s going about. And that’s not just about us but businesses as well that definitely, likely lost a lot during this pandemic but still need to empathize if not call out those who are really responsible about the mess we are in. Do your employees really need to go to the office? Or can they continue working from home? The answer to these questions affect commuting in the time of Covid-19 and relates strongly to the protocols applied to public transport.

On priority lanes for public transport

I am currently part of an International Research Group (IRG) involved in studies on bus priority. Yesterday, we had a meeting where one professor mentioned the importance of being able to clearly explain the advantages of having priority lanes for buses in order to improve their performance (i.e., number of passengers transported and improved travel times). There was a lively discussion about how the perception is for bike lanes while transit lanes have also been implemented for a long time now though with mixed results.

There are very familiar arguments vs. taking lanes away from cars or private motor vehicles and allocating them for exclusive use of public transport and bicycles. It may sound cliche but ‘moving people and not just cars’ is perhaps the simplest argument for priority lanes.

EDSA carousel buses lining up towards a station

Bike lane along Katipunan Avenue – is this a temporary thing? a fad because traffic is really not back to the old normal? Katipunan is infamous for being congested with cars generated by major trip generators in the area such as schools/universities and commercial establishments.

The bike lane along Commonwealth Avenue proves there’s just too much space for private motor vehicles. And with the Line 7 in the horizon, perhaps more lanes can be taken and made exclusive to road public transport. [Photo credit: Cenon Esguerra]

On the BRT gaining popularity

Bus rapid transit or BRT has been around at least since the 1970s when the first ‘real’ BRT systems went into operation in Curitiba, Brazil. Here’s an article presenting the current state of deployment of these systems in the US:

Duncan, I. (July 23, 2021) “Cities are turning to supercharged bus routes to more quickly and cheaply expand transit services,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/transportation/2021/07/23/bus-routes-public-transit-brt/

“There are indications that BRT lines can promote some of the density long associated with rail routes. A new analysis of job and residential growth by researchers at the University of Arizona examined areas around BRT stations in 11 cities between 2013 and 2019. In each case, they found areas close to the stations accounted for a significant share of regional growth.”

The Philippines should have had its first BRT line more than a decade ago if the government had been decisive about it. The first opportunity was under the administration of Macapagal-Arroyo when it was first conceptualized for Cebu City under a UNDP project and picked up by the WB for implementation.* The next opportunity came under the Aquino administration when the Cebu BRT could have been one of those low-hanging fruits for public mass transportation. Now, the same project is nowhere near completion as the Duterte administration has less than a year before it bows out. Meanwhile, there are proposed BRT’s in Metro Manila and Davao that have yet to see the proverbial light of day. The EDSA carousel is supposed to morph into a BRT but has not become so and requires more tweaking for it to be one.

*[Note: The BRT that was supposedly implemented by the MMDA under its then Chair Bayani Fernando was not a BRT or even a BRT light. It is not even at the scale of the current EDSA carousel.]

On car ownership and car use vs. public transport use

Here is another quick share of an article regarding car ownership and car use vs. public transport use. It is written in the first person as a the author relates her experience and what contradictory feelings she’s had with the decision to acquire and use a car.

Noor, D (June 21, 2021) “Buying a Car Improved My Life. It Shouldn’t Have.” Gizmodo, https://gizmodo.com/buying-a-car-improved-my-life-it-shouldnt-have-1847106068 [Last accessed: 7/10/2021]

I think many people in the Philippines (not just Metro Manila or other highly urbanized cities in the country) have similar experiences. They really don’t want to get a car or a motorcycle but their circumstances and the conveniences have outweighed their initial stand. Why do we need to have our own private vehicle anyway? Is it because its difficult to get a ride using public transport? Is it because of the quality of the ride? Is it due to health or safety-related reasons? In that last question, perhaps the fears of getting infected by Covid-19 present a overwhelming justification for car use and not just car ownership.

We also have to distinguish between vehicle ownership, car ownership and car use. ‘Vehicle ownership’ is a more general term that should include both motorized and non-motorized vehicles. Thus, if you have don’t have a car but instead have a bicycle, you are still a vehicle owner. Of course the term is more widely applied to motor vehicle owners but we need to expand this and distinguish between motor and non-motor vehicle ownership. Otherwise, let’s just be specific about the vehicle. ‘Car ownership’ is not equal to or does not correspond with car use. It is possible that one owns one or more cars or vehicles but does not use them at least for his/her regular commute. People in Singapore, for example, have cars. The same for people in Japan. However, most of these car owners choose to take public transportation most days. In their case, owning a car may not have improved their lives considering the excellent public transport services they have and requirements for people wanting to own cars in those places. Elsewhere, such as the Philippines, owning and using a car may provide better transport options depending not the circumstances of the person(s), even considering the costs of ownership and operations.

Modernized jeepneys in Marikina

Passing through Marikina City on the way home, I chanced upon these versions of the so-called modernized jeepneys plying routes in the city. Marikina has some of the oldest routes I’ve known including those originating from Parang and SSS Village. These were at the edges of the city and back in the day were bordering on rural as compared to the urbanized areas what was then still a municipality. The opportunity presented itself so I took a few photos of the mini-buses posing as jitneys or modern jeepneys.

Jitney/mini-bus turning a corner towards A. Bonifacio Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Marikina City that eventually becomes Sumulong Highway.
The vehicles are manufactured by Hino, a Japanese company that specializes in large vehicles such as buses and trucks.
The ‘Parang-Stop & Shop’ route was served by jeepneys. Stop & Shop used to be a popular supermarket in the Sta. Mesa area of Manila. It is no longer there but the name stuck just like ‘Buendia’ is still the term used for ‘Gil Puyat Avenue’ in Makati. From Stop & Shop, one can transfer to other jeepneys to take you to various destinations in Manila including the University Belt, Quiapo, Divisoria, and Intramuros

Unlike the old, conventional jeepneys, these are closed, air-conditioned vehicles. While there exists concerns about virus spread in such configurations, one cannot argue vs. the improved comfortability of these vehicles over the old ones especially when the Covid threat is already addressed. The vehicles seat 20+ passengers on average with more room for standees, if required and allowed in the future.

These vehicles are operated by transport cooperatives, which are encourage by the government in their PUV modernization program. Cooperatives have many advantages compared to the old set-up of individual operators. These include the personality or modality to engage financing institutions for acquiring fleets of PUVs. As such, modernization (or the replacement of old PUVs) is expedited. Note the logos along the side of the vehicle? These are DOTr, LTFRB, LTO and DBP. DBP is, of course, the Development Bank of the Philippines, which is one of the underwriters of the modernization program.

More on these vehicles, modernization and rationalization in future posts.

Are roads really designed just for cars?

The answer is no. Roads were and are built as basic infrastructure for transport no matter what the mode. However, the standards for dimensions (i.e., number of lanes, widths, etc.) are based on the motor vehicle capacity, and structural standards (i.e., thickness, strength, reinforcement, etc.) are based on the weights they are supposed to carry over their economic lives. The pavement load as it is referred to is usually based on the cumulative heavy vehicle traffic converted in terms of the equivalent standard or single axles or ESA. An ESA is 18,000 pounds or 18 kips in the English system of measurements or 8.2 metric tons in the Metric system.

A typical local road – is it really just for cars or is it also for walking and cycling? Or perhaps animal drawn transport? 

A colleague says many of the posts in social media pitting bicycles with cars are already quite OA (overacting). I tend to agree as I read how people generalize roads being car-centric. Roads have been built basically to serve a avenues for transportation. They were improved over time in order to have more efficient ways to travel by land. It didn’t hurt that vehicle technology also developed over time and bicycles somehow became less popular than the cars and motorcycles. The motorcycle itself evolved from bicycles so in a way, it is the evolved and mechanized form of the two-wheeler.

In a perfect world, people would be sharing the road space and it would be equitable among different users. In a perfect world perhaps, it won’t be car-centric as there would probably be better public transport options and transit will be efficient, reliable, comfortable and convenient to use.

The reality, however, is that we do not live in a perfect world and transformations like the ones being pitched on social media are nice but are also not as inclusive and equitable as their advocates claim them to be. I’ve always said and written that you cannot simply change transportation without also implementing changes in land use and housing in particular.

Why do we need wide roads connecting suburbs and urban areas? Why is there sprawl? Why do people live in the periphery of CBDs or the metropolis? It is not just about transport though it seems easier to focus on this. Even transportation in Japan, with Metropolitan Tokyo and its equivalent of NCR plus as a subject, needs to be properly contextualized for land use and transport interaction and development. It seems that even with a comprehensive and efficient railway network, there are still shortcomings here and there. We don’t have such a railway network (yet) so we need to find ways for easing the currently long and painful commutes many people experience on a daily basis. That means continued dependence on road-based transport and trying to implement programs and schemes to improve operations.

Do we miss commuting?

That’s the question asked in a recent article about commuting via public transport in the US. The pandemic has altered much of our lives including our typical daily travels between our homes and workplaces. Of course, the experiences vary in many countries and different towns and cities. However, we cannot deny that with the still developing information about the Covid-19 virus (i.e., how it is spread), many of us have had doubts about taking public transportation. For those who didn’t have much options for their commutes, they just had to do their part in observing health protocols and trust that the operators and drivers of public utility vehicles also do their part to sanitize vehicles.

Barry, D. (May 10, 2021) “No Scrum for Seats. No Quiet-Car Brawls. Is This Really My Commute?” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/10/nyregion/new-jersey-transit-commute.html?smid=url-share [Last accessed: 5/11/2021]

How did your commutes change from what it was before the pandemic? Are you back to using public transport? Have you shifted to active modes like bike commuting? Did you go back to driving a car? Or are you still basically working from home most of the time? And did you miss how you were commuting before?