Before I can engage in a properly thoughtful commentary on the larger implications of Monday’s horrific bus accident in Taguig City, I need to vent.
Monday evening, the International Business Times in the United Kingdom posted a very well done, albeit very disturbing, photo essay about the accident (online at: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/articles/530423/20131216/bus-crash-philippines-manila-taguig-don-mariano.htm), and one of the most appalling things to see in those tragic scenes is the absolute lack of control and dignity displayed by the various law enforcement and other emergency responders. The first picture in the series (credited to Reuters) shows 15 bodies laid out on the street, all of which are covered by . . . newspapers and scraps of plastic and cardboard.
Are you kidding me? Are emergency personnel in this, the sixth-largest city on the planet, so ill-equipped or so callous that they cannot afford the victims of an accident the simple dignity of a sheet or a blanket? Would any of them—or better yet, their supreme commander, Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas 2nd—care to explain to the families of those victims exactly how it is appropriate that they covered the lifeless bodies of lost loved ones with garbage?
In other photos, crowds of passersby are shown struggling to walk past the downed bus; in one scene, at least a dozen people, men and women alike, are actually climbing on the underside of the fallen bus. While that displays a dubiously admirable dedication to overcoming obstacles to one’s morning commute to school or work, it is absolutely atrocious situational management on the part of law enforcement. Something as basic as “blocking off a street” where there is an accident scene involving dozens of fatalities and injured people, where people may still be trapped in the vehicles, and where there may be a risk of fire or explosion, should not require a lot of forethought or consultation.
If all this sounds like a neo-colonialist rant, so be it; I will not apologize for offending anyone’s feelings. Because some things are unacceptable by any standards—First World, Third World, or anything in between.
Now then, to the bigger picture: The tragedy in Bicutan was in every respect a grim object lesson about the consequences of a poorly planned and managed public transit system. There have been no lack of studies to try to improve Metro Manila’s reputation for being a dangerous, environmentally appalling, gridlocked nightmare; the most recent study of any depth was carried by the Ateneo School of Government in 2012, a major study underwritten by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) was published in 2007, JICA as recently as August made a proposal to support another study in the near future, and the University of the Philippines even maintains a full-time National Center for Transportation Studies. The problem, it would seem, is well-understood, and encouraged the development of a great many practical solutions. Solutions that have not, except in a very few rare and rather limited instances, gone any further than the paper on which they are printed.
The two most significant obstacles to developing a transit system that works efficiently, does not cause catastrophic damage to the environment, and doesn’t kill its users on a regular basis are the large—too large, most would agree—population of Metro Manila and its suburban provinces (Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite), and the somewhat unusual makeup of metropolitan traffic: About 70 percent of the road traffic is made up of nonpublic vehicles, private automobiles, motorcycles, and commercial vehicles, but about 70 percent of Metro Manila’s commuters rely on public transportation, primarily buses and jeepneys. So we have a paradoxical situation wherein the physical transport infrastructure, i.e. the road network, is necessarily planned and designed (to the extent that it is at all) to effectively move the lowest-density traffic, meaning that in terms of moving actual people around—which we can assume should be the priority, as cars and motorcycles are not actually the ones attending schools, traveling to and from jobs, or spending money on goods and services—the road network will always be inadequate for the size of the population.
All of this is further aggravated by the country’s unfortunate history. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the government was in no position financially or technically to take responsibility for public transportation, which led to the development of private transportation enterprises; the jeepney is the most enduring symbol of this, and the bus system also developed the same way. By the time the government could have conceivably taken over public transportation, the private operator system was already well-established, so any sort of smart planning had already become politically impossible.
The private enterprise system does ensure that a public transportation system exists and grows more or less in response to actual demand without imposing much of a financial or management burden on government. But the trade-off is that the system is motivated by profit—which makes the badly maintained, unprofessionally driven, overloaded bus speeding off the flyover to its doom closer to being a norm than the exceedingly rare exception it ought to be.
For now, the only responses available to policymakers and regulators are to tighten up enforcement of the rules that already exist, and improve oversight (which has been criminally lax) of vehicle safety and roadworthiness, driver training and performance, safe operation, and proper financial and operational management. But even if the existing frameworks are scrupulously followed, they are fundamentally inadequate and virtually guarantee another tragedy will happen. It is time for the government, the transport industry, and the commuting public to make some tough choices, and work toward a public transit system appropriate to the sort of progressive country most everyone concerned imagines the Philippines to be.
No one should leave for work in the morning and even have to imagine he or she might soon be lying on a neighborhood street with the sports section covering the last terrified expression he’ll ever wear. That is a tragedy for commuters, an unspeakably unnecessary heartbreak for families, and a senseless waste of this country’s most valuable resources.