• Erap’s tricycle canard

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    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    Manila Mayor Joseph “Erap” Estrada undoubtedly intended his order to get tricycles and pedicabs off the city’s streets by October 15 to be an inspiring decision, but a “we’ve-heard-this-before” yawn was about the only reaction it has elicited.

    The plan, which the mayor announced on September 17, is to replace the estimated 25,000 three-wheelers in Manila with 10,000 seven-seat electric tricycles or “e-trikes,” for which the city will initially spend P120 million. The Binondo and Malate neighborhoods will be the first to see the new e-trikes, which have a charging time of about four hours and a range of about 80 kilometers. The city will foot the bill for recharging, and make two charging stations available at either end of each designated e-trike route.

    A group of 50 tricycle operators from the Binondo and Malate TODAs (Tricycle Owners and Drivers
    Associations) were selected to receive the new e-trikes in the first phase of the project, for which they will pay a “boundary” or franchise fee of P200 per day to the city. This should be a boost to their daily income, since on average, at least according to Erap, a tricycle driver usually spends P150 per day for the boundary fee and about P200 on fuel.

    The e-trikes are a good idea. They have a higher capacity than a normal tricycle, travel at lower speeds, and are environmentally friendly. The government at various levels has been trying for several years to build up an e-trike infrastructure—from manufacturing to end use—without much success, although they are slowly gaining traction in some areas.

    By contrast, the existing system—if it can actually be called that—of small-scale mass transit in Manila and other cities is a mechanical pestilence. Not only are the vehicles, with rare exceptions, badly maintained and heavily polluting (a study underwritten by the Japan International Cooperation Agency about 10 years ago directly attributed Quezon City’s appalling air quality to the existence of too many tricycles), they are just as badly handled by drivers who have either no knowledge of or concern for traffic laws, customary road courtesy, or really any other sort of normal interaction with other humans.

    The entire concept that comprises tricycles, pedicabs, and include those strange and frightening contraptions known as ‘kuliglig’ (which, for those who may be unfamiliar with the term that approximates the sound the vehicle makes, is a homemade tricycle powered by an ordinary two-stroke engine, such as one would find on a lawnmower or tilling machine), should be erased from human consciousness. Unfortunately, Erap’s bold pronouncement will probably not even come close to doing that, or even do more than make a show of removing a few of these road cockroaches from Manila’s streets.

    The basic problem is economic; in order to avoid inconveniencing about half of Manila’s commuting public, the fleet of e-trikes would need to be doubled, at least, from what the city is planning. Unlike jeepneys or buses, the majority of tricycles do not generally run along fixed routes, but serve as mini-taxis feeding into neighborhoods, carrying passengers on individual trips. While I personally find the culture lazy in this respect—it wouldn’t kill most people to walk a couple of blocks from the nearest transport route to their home, office, or school—it is not entirely a matter of lassitude; the relative thinness of the public transit infrastructure often leaves no other option. Undoing the tricycle network without providing an alternative that covers the entire area now covered is going to lead to a huge backlash.

    Even if the city had the funds to cover a program expanded to a useful size (which it probably does not), the existing e-trike supply chain could still not supply 20,000 or even 10,000 vehicles quickly enough to avoid a commuter crisis. Granted, the huge demand will probably accelerate development of the industry, but it will take two to three years, according to one local manufacturer, for supply to catch up.

    And none of that even addresses the enormous cost of electricity—according to e-trike operators in Bacoor, Cavite, it costs about P150 per day to recharge a vehicle, which means the City of Manila is looking at a power cost of up to P1.5 million per day, or more than half a billion pesos per year.

    In all likelihood, the reality behind what made for an attractively progressive-sounding press release will soon set in, and the e-trike project will be allowed to flounder after a few units hit the street. It has, after all, happened before; Erap’s predecessor Alfredo Lim made a big show of removing unlicensed tricycles and kuliglig from the roads during his term, and so did Lim’s predecessor, Lito Atienza. The tricycles, pedicabs and kuliglig, however, are evidently hard to kill. Removing them and replacing them with something a little more evolved is a good idea; but a casual, underfunded plan thought up over the weekend is not the way to accomplish that.

    ben.kritz@manilatimes.net

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