The government ought to consider substituting the term “public transportation” for “infrastructure” in all its public pronouncements if it really wants to accomplish something positive.
FOR all the novelty of the new era under President Rodrigo Duterte, we see reminders every day that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The people who would likely agree with that view most strongly are those who have to contend with Metro Manila’s nightmarish traffic jam on a daily basis, which is to say, anyone who leaves his or her home, or has a need to try to move goods or people from one place to another.
Although I have a vehicle at my disposal and can, at want or need, personally operate it at a skill level that is probably several orders of magnitude higher than the average motorist, I do not often do so. Inadequate and dysfunctional as it is, the public transportation network around the greater Manila area is on most days a faster option, if not necessarily a more efficient one.
Tuesday was one of those days. My tasks for the day took me from my home in Cavite to an appointment in Fort Bonifacio, quick visits to a couple locations in Makati, to the Times’ offices in Intramuros to wrap up the day’s work, and back home again to Cavite. In order, my modes of conveyance were bus, taxi, bus, a shared motorcycle, taxi, train, another train, and finally UV express van.
With a little forethought, one can reach a destination virtually anywhere in Metro Manila at a reasonably low cost. The disadvantages are that it is time-consuming, and some modes of travel are decidedly less comfortable than others. And from a demand standpoint, except for the smallest modes of transport—tricycles and pedicabs, which are seemingly allowed to propagate beyond all necessity—every form of transportation that is provided is instantly filled to capacity and beyond; a good example is the bus service connecting Makati with Bonifacio Global City.
It was while I was waiting in a very long line to board that particular bus on Tuesday, as a matter of fact, that I had to wonder why massive crowds of commuters at every location that even resembles some kind of transport hub does not make the impression it should on government planners. If this government really wanted to invest in infrastructure, spread economic benefits to the lower income classes, manage traffic, and boost overall economic productivity, it should be spending every centavo it can spare on public transportation development.
What we are getting instead, just as we did with the last administration, are plans for minor improvements: Two new train lines, whose construction may or may not actually begin in this generation (the construction of the LRT-1 extension to Cavite has been “just about to get underway” for close to 20 years); largely cosmetic upgrades that include electric vehicles in some areas, or services like the appreciated but still relatively limited BGC bus service; and the occasional ridiculous suggestion, such as stringing a cable car system along the length of Edsa.
And just as in the previous administration, some ideas to boost the efficiency of travel actually create bigger problems than they solve. Commuters from Cavite and points south were presented with a nasty surprise yesterday, when most buses arriving via the Cavitex were diverted into the transit terminal at the derelict Coastal Mall. The reason, according to an MMDA supervisor at the terminal, was that instructions to enforce (again) a 2013 order banning any buses without a designated terminal from entering the city. Just as in 2013, however, the MMDA did nothing to alert commuters and bus companies of the new circumstances, nor take any steps to ensure there would be sufficient transport available to carry offloaded passengers onward to the destinations in the city. The result, of course, was a chaotic, angry mob of commuters aimlessly milling about the junction of the Cavitex, MIA Road, and Roxas Boulevard. To add insult to injury, a technical problem on the LRT-1 delayed travel for commuters on the train line, at just the time the normally heavy crowd was swelling with thousands of people diverted from their usual bus routes.
In order to provide a better supply of more efficient public transit services, the Duterte government should strongly consider implementing a couple relatively simple ideas: First, if putting bus services under government control is not feasible from a financial or management standpoint—and it may well not be—then bus companies should be forced to consolidate. Regulating safety and operations for 10 or 20 bus lines is far easier than trying to do so for several hundred; it would also reduce the manic competitiveness with which bus crews approach their work, behavior that contributes mightily to traffic congestion along some of the city’s major thoroughfares.
Second, the population of smaller forms of road transport—jeepneys, tricycles, pedicabs—should be drastically reduced, beginning with the most polluting and unsafe vehicles. These small transports do serve a purpose, but with more efficient larger transport systems, part of the need for them would be reduced.
Third, the government should not be seeking to build just two new rail lines; it should be soliciting design and construction proposals for five or six, if not more. Including the nearby provinces, the population of the greater Manila area is about 23 million, and has an annual rail ridership of about 243 million, across 33.4 km of rails. The system is dwarfed by others with comparable ridership, such as Chicago (238.1 million riders per year, 165.4 km of track), Buenos Aires (242 million riders on 54 km of subways), Tianjin, China (256 million riders, 137 km of track), and Washington, DC (261 million annual riders on a system of 188 km). Railways, though somewhat invasive and expensive to construct, are for one thing very environmentally friendly, being zero-emission vehicles, and for another, virtually unmatched in people-moving capacity.
None of these suggestions are anything novel, of course, but as the government turns its attention—again—to the possibility of taking drastic action to deal with the Metro’s chronic traffic problems, it might be time to include some serious improvements to public transportation in the policy toolbox.