By DOMINIC GUTOMAN
MANILA — Progressive groups are hoping that mass public transportation will finally become an electoral agenda.
On Oct. 30, Samahan at Ugnayan ng Konsyumer para sa Ikauunlad ng Bayan (SUKI Network), IBON Foundation, Council for Peoples Development and Governance, Polytechnic University of the Philippines, and #PHVote Coalition held an online discussion on the plight of Filipino commuters and the current state of public mass transport.
As it stands, traffic congestion has not eased in Metro Manila despite the mobility restrictions in place due to the pandemic. The country’s capital, in fact, was named as last year’s second-worst traffic congestion across 416 cities in 57 countries, per a study of technology specialist TomTom. As such, drivers still spent 53 percent extra travel time, stuck in the traffic.
According to a 2021 study, travel time for each mode of transport in Metro Manila has gotten longer in the past 30 years: 64 percent longer for buses, 53 percent longer for jeeps, and 46 percent longer for private vehicles. Now in a pandemic, workers who are required to report physically to their workplaces suffer much more.
Despite this, the national government will impose a 70 percent seating capacity for the public utility vehicles which will cover Metro Manila, Laguna, Bulacan, Rizal, and Cavite. This is in hopes to gradually reach the 100-percent seating capacity.
However, Metro Manila is still placed under Alert Level 3 in the most recent resolution of Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) until November 13.
“Congestion will always be present as long as there is travel and traffic. As long as there are people who use public and private vehicles, there will be factors for the congestion. However, our aim is to reduce that congestion so we could be more efficient with our expenses,” Jose Regin Regidor of the UP Civil Engineering Institute and National Center for Transportation Studies said.
Economic losses due to traffic congestion
The Philippine government once said that traffic congestion is caused by an improving economy— in the metro cities—where jobs and services are most accessible.
But experts said these are unfounded. Regidor said that traffic congestion is brought by systematic inequality because people are forced to live in the periphery.
Citing a report from Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Regidor said the Philippines has lost more than P3.4 billion ($67 million) due to public transport congestion in the past decade. “This study of JICA was obtained from the year 2012, and our current losses are gravely multiplying.”
JICA, in a 2018 news report, estimated that by 2035, the Philippines stands to lose P5.4 billion ($106.6 million) daily if no interventions are made in Metro Manila traffic.
These, said Regidor, do not include fuel cost, maintenance cost, and environmental costs brought by traffic congestion.
For commuters, this also translated to a decline in their productivity. In a 2019 study, Toix Cerna of transport advocacy group Move as One Coalition said Filipino commuters have to wait 20 to 30 minutes to secure a ride and another 1 to 2.5 hours of travel time to reach their destination.
This has been dubbed as ‘undignified commuting.’
Julius Dalay, an urban planner and the current chairperson of the Commuters of the Philippines, contested that the numbers do not include the transfers that commuters are experiencing.
“Ideally, commuters should only be limited to two transfers during their travel. However, it is not happening. In reality, commuters have been experiencing more than three to four transfers, and for each, they have to wait all over again,” said Dalay.
Pandemic exacerbated old problems in mass transit
Amid the pandemic, Regidor said mobility restrictions have led to fewer road crashes, fuel consumption, and air pollution. But these benefits, he added, are only temporary.
“There is a reduction in accidents because there are no vehicles at all. There is a reduction in fuel consumption because, for some time, only essential travel was allowed. The same goes for air pollution, it is all temporary,” he said.
He assessed that these temporary benefits have adverse effects on the livelihood of the people, with drivers left to shoulder the increased operations and maintenance costs, including additional spendings for health protocols and commuters being deprived of cheaper options due to reduced public utility vehicles on the road.
Meanwhile, the government plans to increase the capacity from 70 to 100 percent, is sending the message that, “regardless if you will acquire COVID-19 or not, the absolutely important matter here is that you can travel,” said Dalay.
For one, the EDSA carousel provided faster travel time for buses but the queue of commuters can be considered inhumane, he added.
“This should not be an either-or situation wherein people will have to choose between their health or to travel at ease,” said Dalay.
Instead of responding to the needs of providing better public transport, Steve Ranjo, secretary general of Pinagkaisang Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Operators Nationwide (PISTON), said the government instead chose to prioritize the so-called modernization, including restrictions on traditional jeepneys from plying the metro.
This despite experts saying that the free-flowing air in traditional jeepneys is a safer option for public transport, said Ranjo.
Ranjo also cited that in the current database of PISTON, only 60 percent of the routes have been allowed. Less than 40-30 percent of the traditional jeepneys were able to come back from operations due to systems in place, such as the lack of QR codes. Jeepney drivers have since been out of job, forcing them to resort to odd jobs or begging.
“The public transport system is still in shambles. Our citizens will have to depend on their own resources just to travel daily at ease and safely,” he said.
Solutions being offered
Regidor presented the “National Transport Policy” as a better resolution for today’s public mass transport system, recommending that priority be given to public transport systems with a high density of passengers while private vehicles are the least.
For his part, Dalay said that 47 percent are driving but this number does not reflect the majority of the total population. “They are only 12 percent of the total population while our commuters constitute 80 percent of our total population,” he said.
“The priority of the national government is private vehicles. There is a focus on big-ticket infrastructure projects as well, which is not bad, but what do the people really need in times of a global pandemic?” Dalay asked, citing the controversial P95-billion ($1.9 billion) Pasig River Expressway (PAREX) as an example.
Parex, a project of San Miguel Corporation, will build a 19.4-kilometer expressway along the Pasig River. This has been opposed over its adverse impacts on environmental sustainability, public mobility, heritage, and public health.
“Instead of utilizing the river for creating a humane mode of transportation, the government wants to build another infrastructure again that would only benefit the private vehicles instead of easing the public transport system.”
To set forward the policy agenda for the national elections, Rosario Guzman of Ibon Foundation summarized the crises of mass transportation: It is in the hands of private providers; deregulated; no urban planning; and, corporate-driven.
“We have not seen any urban planning that is based on rural development, national industrialization, and environmental sustainability, which could genuinely decongest the cities. It should be the main economic goal. In fact, we do not see it anywhere in the Philippine development plan (PDP) from 2017 to 2022,” Guzman said.
She also added that the concept of public mass transport is not present in the PDP. In fact, there is mass transport but there is no indication if it is government or publicly run. “The current administration is centered on infrastructure programs, which no matter how largely focused on improving public transportation, caters to the whims of foreign capitalists.”
The proposal is to unite for a people-oriented public transport system. This will be achieved through the following principles: efficiency, reliability, affordability and accessibility, safety, and environment-friendly.
For Ibon, these endeavors will be further achieved if they follow People Economics, which is to reverse the neoliberal policies. “If it is publicly run, the government could start by organizing the PUVs into cooperatives, rather than allowing only single or corporate proprietorship of a large fleet.” (JJE, RVO)