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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?

On building the ideal city from a transportation perspective

There’s a not so old article that popped in my timeline of articles I’ve read the past years. I thought I would make a quick share of it here. It is a good read and something that will never be irrelevant for as long as we have not redeveloped our cities and municipalities for transport equity and sustainability. Here’s a takeaway from the article:

“The ideal city is a place where lots of different kinds of people with lots of different amounts of money can live and work. It has to be easy to get around without a car, even for people whose bodies can’t ride bikes or hop over potholes, and for people who have kids to drop off on the way to work and groceries to buy on the way home, and maybe flowers to buy next door to the dry cleaner’s. These are places where people want to live, because it’s nice there. The fact that those places also adapt to and mitigate climate change instead of causing it is a bonus.”

Here’s the article from last year:

Rogers, A. (April 1, 2020) “Build Cities for Bikes, Buses, and Feet—Not Cars,” Wired, https://www.wired.com/story/cities-without-cars-san-francisco-jeff-tumlin/?bxid=5bd6761b3f92a41245dde413&cndid=37243643&esrc=AUTO_OTHER&source=EDT_WIR_NEWSLETTER_0_ENGAGEMENT_ZZ&utm_brand=wired&utm_campaign=aud-dev&utm_mailing=WIR_Classics_042921&utm_medium=email&utm_source=nl&utm_term=WIR_Daily_TopClickers [Last accessed: 4/30/2021]

Is there a supply problem with public transport in NCR plus?

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.

Some observations and thoughts about the EDSA carousel

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.

On a different view of the ’15-minute city’ concept

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…

 

Nostalgia: On old photos of transport in the Philippines

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.

On leaders and decision-makers taking public transport or bikes to commute

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.