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Public transport coverage in Metro Manila

I saw several posts circulating on social media about public transport routes in major cities that included stylised maps presented like the transit maps you usually see for cities like Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. These show what the makers identify as the equivalent of stops or stations along the public transport “lines”. These, of course, are a simplification because what appears as a single line may actually be comprised of several. Also, the overlaps seem to be also quite simplified compared to what may be found  in reality. This post will not attempt to show how complicated road public transport is for Metro Manila. Instead, I am sharing the maps prepared from a previous study we conducted for the then DOTC (ca. 2012) that show the coverage of three road public transport modes: buses, jeepneys and UV Express.

PUB coverage for Mega Manila  with distinction of EDSA and non-EDSA routes (2012)

Jeepney  route  coverage  for  Mega  Manila (2012)

UV Express route coverage for Mega Manila (2012)

I hope these maps have already been updated or are going to be updated in order for us to have good visual references for public transport planning including the identification of locations for integrated terminals as well as connections with rail transit.

Incomplete rationalisation of public transport?

The current initiative to rationalise road public transport services is not as comprehensive as necessary or as some people want us to believe. The drive appears to be mainly on (some say against) jeepneys while little has been done on buses and UV Express vehicles. Most notable among the modes not covered by rationalisation are the tricycles.

A smoke-belching tricycle along Daang Bakal in Antipolo City

What really should be the role and place of tricycles in the scheme of themes in public transportation? Are they supposed to provide “last mile” services along with walking and pedicabs (non-motorised 3-wheelers)? Or are they supposed to be another mode competing with jeepneys, buses and vans over distances longer than what they are supposed to be covering? It seems that the convenient excuse for not dealing with them is that tricycles are supposed to be under local governments. That should not be the case and I believe national agencies such as the DOTr and LTFRB should assert their authority but (of course) in close cooperation with LGUs to include tricycles in the rationalisation activities. Only then can we have a more complete rationalisation of transport services for the benefit of everyone.

Metro Manila public transport – addition is good but we need subtraction, too

The company providing the P2P bus services is very enthusiastic (aggressive?) in promoting their services especially via social media. Satisfied commuters have also shared their experiences and a lot of photos about the buses and their commutes through social and mainstream media. I have read some articles carried by the likes of Rappler and Inquirer as well as blogs relating about the buses features, what people liked about the service and their suggestions on how to further improve and expand services. These have provided commuters with a taste of how good public transport could be in terms of quality of service.

The operations and the operator seems to have the blessings of the Department of Transportation (DoTr) and not just the present administration but from the previous one when the P2P services started. The fact that they have expanded services further these past few months is a testament to their popularity and the demand for high quality public transport services in Metro Manila. I personally believe that the next step is to give these buses exclusive lanes along their routes. Such would allow for buses to travel faster and providing a significant decrease in the travel times of commuters. Current operations, despite having non-stop runs between origin and destination, run in mixed traffic so their impacts in terms of travel times are diminished. Also, with exclusive lanes, they can probably consider adding a few stops between the route ends and be able to simulate bus rapid transit (BRT) services of which there seems to be little appreciation so far in the Philippines.

While the new buses and routes are very welcome and provide attractive options for commuting, there is still a need to address what is perceived as an over-supply of buses, jeepneys and UV express vehicles in Metro Manila. The attractiveness and higher service quality of P2P buses can pave the way for reducing the numbers of buses, for example, along EDSA. A similar strategy of introducing high quality bus services along other corridors and then reducing bus, jeepney and UV express units there can be implemented but will require much in terms of political will. The latter is important when dealing with operators and drivers of displaced vehicles, who may oppose such transport reforms and probably throw in legal impediments including those pertaining to franchising. Whether such opposition can be addressed by emergency powers or not remains to be seen but hopefully, even without such powers, the government can engage the transport sector to effect reforms and improve public transport (and ultimately commuting in general) not just in Metro Manila but in other cities as well.

Curiosities of transport services in Metro Manila

There are a few interesting observations we can make out of transport services in Metro Manila and chief among them is the poor quality of service that we can generalize among most if not all modes of public transport available to commuters. This poor quality of service of public transport is what drives many people to aspire to own and drive or ride their own vehicle. Already there has been a surge in motorcycle ownership in Metro Manila and its neighboring towns and cities (collectively Mega Manila) and car ownership is also on the rise. These trends have led to increased congestion along many roads. And we will probably not see a significant improvement until the mass transit projects have all been completed. These include the Line 2 Extension to Masinag, the MRT 7 along Commonwealth, the Line 1 Extension to Cavite, and yes, the capacity improvement of MRT 3. Hopefully, there will also be BRT lines along C-5 and Quezon Avenue to complement the rail transport projects.

The UV Express is actually a response to poor public transport services as it evolved out of the FX taxi services of the 1990s that later mixed with informal van and AUV services. These are actually a precursor of today’s ride sharing modes. Only, in those days when the FX service was born, you didn’t have tools like apps to facilitate your ride. People had to agree about the fares and the destinations from terminals like those in Cubao (Quezon City) and Crossing (Pasig/Mandaluyong).

But let us focus on three services that would not have been attractive if only services by their conventional counterparts were (very) satisfactory and if there was a comprehensive and efficient mass transit network in the metropolis. These are Uber, P2P buses and airport express buses.

Uber offers services much like that of the conventional taxi. Its advantages are mainly having recent model vehicles (not dilapidated ones), a better driver (this attribute is quite subjective), and an app-based system for availing services. Fares are generally more expensive than those for regular taxis. And there is a surge pricing for when congestion is really bad. It has a very good feedback mechanism that allows passengers to evaluate their drivers. However, this wouldn’t have been necessary if taxi drivers in general were more disciplined and courteous to their passengers.

P2P buses operated by Froehlich Tours offers services much like that of conventional buses. Its current advantages over conventional buses are that it operates express services, buses are new, well-maintained, and with drivers that appear to be more disciplined than the typical public utility bus driver. A friend’s take is that P2P’s are the bus equivalent of UV Express. It is not at all necessary if the quality of service of regular buses were much better than it is right now. And I am referring to the practically stop anywhere, recklessly driven and poorly maintained regular buses.

Premium airport buses have recently been introduced and these are operated by Air21, which is a freight forwarding company. It is a service that’s long overdue given the many difficult experiences of people to and from NAIA’s passenger terminals. While an airport limousine bus service should have been provided many, many years ago it also is a reflection of the poor quality of airport taxi services. Airport taxis are expensive and according to many stories circulating can be predatory.

What I am driving at, if it is not yet so obvious, is that many ‘new’ services are actually borne out of crappy services of conventional modes. There are many lessons to be learned here in and lest I be accused of neglecting other Philippine cities, I should mention that Metro Manila presents so many lessons to be learned by other rapidly growing and urbanizing areas in the country. At this time we can mention Cebu, Davao, Iloilo, Cagayan de Oro and perhaps Clark/Angeles as metropolitan areas to watch in terms of transport system development. Hopefully, there’s a kind of reverse psychology in their approaches to address their transport needs in that they avoid what has been done in Metro Manila. Surely, transport services in these other cities can do better than Metro Manila’s.

From FX to UV Express – a story of evolution

For those not familiar with its evolution, the UV Express has an interesting history. It started as a contracted taxi service utilizing the new Asian Utility Vehicle (AUV) model released by Toyota that they called the FX (The same model is known as the Kijang in Indonesia.). I can say that I witnessed the birth of FX services in the 1990s when taxis were approached by commuters having common destinations. I was among those who were desperate enough to get home and tired of getting into those long lines of people waiting for jeepneys in Cubao. The lines were not all that bad though as it used to be worse when people had to box out one another to board a jeepney as they arrived near Ali Mall.

Taxis had the advantage of not having fixed routes so they could bypass congested road sections. They could take alternate routes that despite covering longer distances, incurred shorter travel times. Passengers negotiated with the drivers for a common destination and a fare that’s typically higher than what would be charged if the meter was used. I remember that there were times when passengers (like me) negotiated with the driver with the dare to run the meter just to prove that he’d be better off with the money we would be paying rather than wait for regular fares. Of course, this practice of negotiating was illegal as taxis in Metro Manila were metered. But passengers were quick to help out the cabbie in case he gets caught, with everyone claiming that he or she knew the others and that they were traveling as a group. One use of a running meter was that they were a group paying regular fare.

Taxi operators and drivers quickly caught on to the idea and many eventually became enterprising. These were mostly FX drivers who could carry 5 to 7 passengers depending on the seat configuration for the vehicles. Toyota took full advantage of government incentives for AUVs by introducing what was claimed to be 10 seater vehicles, maximizing space at the middle and rear to seat a total of 8 people in addition to 2 in the front. This also translated into a maximization of revenue per load of 10 people and soon, “standard” fares were being established for certain routes like Cubao-Cainta Junction, which I remember cost 20PhP per person regardless of whether you were alighting before Cainta Junction. Eventually, issues were raised regarding their operations as contracted vehicles as they were still classified as metered taxis and should have not refused single or few passengers. There were also issues regarding their competing directly with jeepneys as some FX plied routes similar to jeepneys especially when traffic was more manageable. Eventually, the DOTC and the LTFRB moved to regulate this emergent transport service and formalized (fixed) routes and franchises rather than retain their flexibilities like taxis. In effect they became express shuttle services and fares and rules were also set accordingly, also to protect the interests of the riding public.

IMG07705-20140217-1133Toyota Revo AUV UV Express vehicle plying the Pasig-Ayala Center route

It became known as Garage to Terminal (GT) Express during the last administration. There was a joke then that the term used was according to the nickname of the then Chairman of the LTFRB. It’s name again was changed into Utility Vehicle (UV) Express after the change in administration.

IMG04064-20120824-0824Nissan Urvan van UV Express at the Puregold at the NLEX Valenzuela Exit

UV Express now proliferate around Mega Manila and come in different vehicle types and sizes. Most are AUV’s like the Toyota Revo, Isuzu Crosswind or Mitsubishi Adventure. There are also vans like the Toyota Hi-Ace and Nissan Urvan. But there are also custom made vehicles like those utilizing the Mitsubishi L300 prime mover and fitted with a cab that seats 14 to 16 passengers. The latter types have capacities similar to jeepneys and airconditioning is somewhat weaker compared to the legit AUVs and vans. I think the UV Express vehicles are here to stay and they do serve a certain segment of commuters. However, while I also think their numbers are excessive (and government through the LTFRB needs to address this) there is really not much to argue about if more efficient and higher capacity and good quality transit systems cannot be realized in our cities. People deserve options for commuting and for those taking public transport, these UV Express services provide good quality transport that they are willing to pay for. Many of these services might just meet a natural death or decline once a better transport system is in place along main corridors but that seems a long way off from now given continued failures in mass transit project implementation.