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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?
I initially wanted to use “Philippines” or “Metro Manila” instead of “NCR Plus” for the title of this post. I dropped “Philippines” in order to be more specific and also because I am not so aware of the situation in other cities outside Mega Manila. I also decided vs. “Metro Manila” because transport for the metropolis is tightly woven with the surrounding areas where many people working or studying in MM actually reside. These include the towns of Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite.
So, is there a supply problem with public transport in what is dubbed as NCR+? The photos in social media appear to describe a lack of public transport vehicles with many people lined up along major roads, queued at terminals or train stations. These photos do not lie where they were taken. Indeed there is a big problem about supply along certain corridors due to certain factors such as limited number of public utility vehicles (mainly jitneys and buses) allowed operation and health protocols that limit the passenger capacities of vehicles. The latter also applies to rail services where despite rolling stocks being back to pre-pandemic operations, are limited to the number of people they can carry. Crush loads are a no-no during these times.
Traffic congestion and its effects on PUV turnaround times, however, is another major factor for what may seem like a lack of supply. Most road-based public transport operate in mixed traffic. As such, their operations are susceptible to traffic conditions along their routes. So it is very likely that during the peak periods, PUVs get stuck along the peak direction and take much time to return despite the lighter traffic along the return trip. The problem for some routes though is that during peak periods both directions are congested. This further exacerbates the situation for public transport as vehicles would have to go through a two-way gauntlet of sorts, resulting in a lot of people taking longer to get their rides. And so for those who have access to private transport do go back to using private vehicles.
Definitely and obviously, there is a mode choice issue here because many people appear to have taken private transport as their mode of choice instead of public or active transport modes. This is mainly attributed to the perception that public transport is unsafe or less safe compared to your own vehicle in the context of the current pandemic. We qualify the current health situation here since that seems to be the main driver for people choosing to take their cars apart from that other perception of the poor quality of service provided by public transport in general. For active transport, the reality is not everyone or not a lot of people will choose to walk or cycle along roads that are generally regarded as unsafe despite efforts to put up bike lanes. Those who are having problems commuting are those dependent on public transport also because of their long commutes between the residential outside or in the outskirts of Metro Manila and the CBDs in the metropolis.
The dilemma here is determining which routes would actually require additional vehicles. While the general perception and temptation is to add vehicles everywhere, it’s the actual numbers that need to be estimated based on the information that needs to be collected (as against available data, which can be unreliable). The situation and the data for different routes varies much.
Case in point is the experience along the Antipolo-Cubao route that used to be served by jeepneys. Buses now serve that route after the government rationalized the service. Initially, there were fewer buses operating along the route that had a large catchment area for passengers. Additional buses were deployed in order to address supply issues (again many passengers were not able to get their rides for the same reasons we mentioned earlier). Now, there seems to be enough buses for the peak periods but a surplus during the off-peak. Passengers along other routes are not as lucky as those served by the Antipolo-Cubao buses.
Public transport operations will not survive such variations in demand if they continue to operate under the old “boundary” or rental scheme. So, there has to be a subsidy somewhere for them to operate under these conditions. And that’s where service contracting comes in. While I agree that this is essential for transport reform, we still have limited resources, and it will not be sustainable in the long run if we cannot make people take public transport over private vehicle options.
Much has been written or said about the EDSA Carousel. This is the express bus service the government implemented along Metro Manila’s busiest thoroughfare, EDSA or Circumferential Road 4. I feel that it is a decent effort from government to address the lack of supply to address the huge demand for public transport along EDSA considering that it serves to also distribute trips collected from major roads connecting to it. Is it an admission of something wrong in terms of the transport infrastructure along EDSA? Perhaps and from the current administration and DOTr. The admission of flaws certainly did not or will not come from the previous administrations that failed to address problems pertaining to Line 3 including maintenance and operations issues.
Buses queued before the Trinoma/North Avenue Station of the carousel. Overhead is the junction to the EDSA-MRT depot underneath Trinoma.
The overhead junction is the MRT’s branch to/from the depot
Buses queuing towards the North Avenue Station
The carousel stations are basically part of the MRT station with the platform located at ground level at the otherwise underutilized space that is the median island of EDSA. Access to the express buses are via the MRT stations as there are no other means for crossing to/from the carousel berths.
The carousel is an attempt to have a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along EDSA. It is perhaps the most practical solution to supplementing the already limited capacity of elevated Line 3 despite the continued operations of regular buses. The express bus service is not a new idea along EDSA since Line 3 had to compete with a BRT proposal (though it didn’t use the term BRT then) back in the 1990s. Insiders at NEDA relate that it was then President Fidel V. Ramos himself who allegedly ‘lobbied’ for the MRT instead of an elevated bus transit system. Unfortunately, the MRT proposed, constructed and now in operation is a light rail system like Line 1 and could not easily be upgraded to a heavy rail system like Line 2 or the future Line 7. The line is already problematic due to maintenance issues and the aging rolling stock. And there are questions regarding interoperability with Line 1 (definitely not interoperable with Line 7). So the grand central station currently under construction will really be a terminus for 3 lines as trains will not be able to pass through to other lines like how it is in other countries.
Will the carousel be a permanent fixture along EDSA? Perhaps. But it should be improved further for the convenience of commuters as well as for more efficient operations. The current buses being used are the not the right vehicles if capacity is to be maximized. Articulated buses would be necessary for this purpose. The current barriers should also be replaced with more appropriate and perhaps more clever designs partly for aesthetics but for the system to be safer and more functional in terms of spaces for passengers and vehicles.
Here is an article discussing the downside(s) of the 15-minute city; particularly its adoption without understanding first and setting the context for the concept:
O’Sullivan, F. (March 3, 2021) “The Downside of a 15-Minute City,” Bloomber CityLab, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-02/the-downsides-of-a-15-minute-city [Last accessed: 3/20/21]
Some people are pushing very much the same concept for quick adoption in the Philippines without again contextualizing it. I feel these people are detached or choose to be so perhaps as they seek shortcuts to achieve what they believe should be the way cities and municipalities are laid out in the country. But wait…don’t we already have 15-minute cities in the Philippines? I will be writing about that soon…
I like browsing old photos on the Philippines. Of particular interest are photos showing transportation during the Spanish and American periods. I came upon this photo of a tranvia station at Plaza Goiti in front of Sta. Cruz Church. The church is still there though it looks very different from the structure in the photo below. This is probably due to the reconstruction and renovations done over the years (it was seriously damaged during World War 2).
The source of the photo is a collection I found on the internet. Note that if you clicked the photo, you will be taken to another site where you can view other photos as well. Meanwhile, here is a screen capture of the area from Google Street View:
Plaza Lacson with Sta. Cruz Church in the background to the left of the statue of former Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson
Plaza Goiti is now Plaza Lacson with a statue of the former Mayor of Manila standing in the open space. Of course, the tranvia is no longer there but there are buses and jeepneys as well as tricycles providing public transportation in the area. The population is also higher and denser than when the first photo was taken (ca. 1910) but it seems the Sta. Cruz district is still a walkable area. We hope it will remain to be so and more initiatives are taken to have more improvements or enhancements to encourage active transport as well as public transport use over private motor vehicles.
There has been clamor for our leaders and decision-makers, especially those in the transport and highway agencies, to take public transportation. This is for them to experience how most commuters fare for their daily grinds. And no, having an entourage including bodyguards or reserving your own train car does not count. Dapat pumila o maghintay sa kalye. Makipagsisikan o makipag-habulan sa bus, jeepney o van para makasakay. Many if not most of these officials have their own vehicles or are even driven (may tsuper o driver) to and from work. One even had the gall to transfer his department to where he comfortably resides so he won’t commute but that’s another story.
You see articles and posts about Dutch politicians and even royalty riding the bicycle to work.
The Dutch Prime Minister bikes to work
Then there are politicians regularly taking public transport while in office. Here is an article about the newly inaugurated POTUS, Joe Biden, who took the train for his regular commutes:
Igoe, K.J. (May 4,2020) “Where Did “Amtrak Joe,” Joe Biden’s Nickname, Come From?”, Marie Claire, https://www.marieclaire.com/politics/a32363173/joe-biden-amtrak-joe-meaning/ [Last accessed 2/14/2021]
Do we have someone close to such an example? Commuting by private plane between your home in the Southern Philippines and your office in Manila surely won’t let one have an appreciation of the commuting experiences of typical Filipinos.
There’s this recent article on housing that presents and discusses lessons from Singapore housing that
Fischer, R. (February 2, 2021) “Singapore Housing Lessons for the Biden Administration,” Planetizen, https://www.planetizen.com/node/112077?utm_source=newswire&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=news-02082021&mc_cid=4fac9821d0&mc_eid=9ccfe464b1 [Last accessed: 2/15/2021]
I’m not an expert on housing but I’ve experienced living in Singapore. Here’s a photo of the wife as she walked ahead of me on our way to the MRT station near our place back in 2012. One of the factors we considered when we chose this place for our residence was its proximity to the orange line station that meant only one ride (no transfers) between our home station and the station closest to the wife’s office. We could also take the train to the nearest mall if we didn’t feel like walking 15 minutes.
To quote from the article:
“…the secret to Singapore’s success is that their housing projects are carefully designed to support mixed-incomes, beautiful green spaces, and access to high-quality public transportation that conveniently links residents to education and community centers. And last but not least, couple all that with the famous Singapore hawker centers (food courts) where all income classes and ethnicities meet, socialize, and dine on Singapore’s famously delicious and affordable cuisine.”
Here is a quick share today. This is another excellent article from Todd Litman who makes a great argument for why planning should move away from its being car-centric and contribute towards a significant reduction in society’s dependence on cars.
Litman, T. (December 15, 2020) “Automobile Dependency: An Unequal Burden,” Planetizen.com, https://www.planetizen.com/node/111535?utm_source=newswire&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=news-12212020&mc_cid=e746a044a3&mc_eid=9ccfe464b1 .
Much have been said and written about this topic in many platforms including social media but in many of these, I noticed that the discussion often deteriorated into hating or shaming exercises rather than be convincing, constructive arguments for reforms in planning and behavior and preference changes in transport modes. Litman is always very fair and comprehensive and employs evidence or facts in his articles that should be clear for most people to understand. I say ‘most people’ here because there are still many who are among those considered as “fact-resistant”. Happy reading!
I’m just sharing the new publication from the United Nations (UN) World Health Organization (WHO) – Supporting healthy urban transport and mobility in the context of COVID-19:
The brief document contains recommendations for travelers and transport service providers. It is a compact, concise reference for everyone as we continue to deal with the impacts of COVID-19.