Regulating for inconvenience: LTFRB vs Grab, Uber and the people

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

THE Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) has declared war on transport network vehicle sharing (TNVS) companies Grab and Uber. A threat was issued that by Wednesday, July 26, all unregistered Grab and Uber cars will be apprehended. And the people who will be inconvenienced reacted negatively and erupted with such passion and fury.

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It was only upon the intervention by Senators Grace Poe and JV Ejercito that LFFRB stayed its order. But the issue is still very much alive.

LTFRB’s Martin Delgra and Aileen Lizada, two of the more vocal members who became the faces that drew the ire of the riding public, in fact did the impossible.

They united the Duterte warriors and the anti-Duterte yellows who both expressed outrage at the regulatory overreach.

If left unchecked, this could easily become the trigger that could give headaches to the President, who until now enjoys an 82 percent approval rating. His ratings, as it appears, are not affected by his cursing, or his rape jokes, or by the relentless demonization by his political enemies. But this braggadocio by Delgra and Lizada, who at times evinced an arrogant demeanor, can easily cost the President some popularity points. After all, Delgra and Lizada are both appointees of the President, and both are from Mindanao, with Delgra even serving as part of his campaign legal team.

It is easy to spot the problem in the LTFRB’s reasoning. It is attacking a technology that has evolved because of the board’s own failure to regulate public transportation to become safe, efficient and convenient for the riding public.

The alternative to Grab and Uber are the regular metered taxis that, in general, have serious problems. Many of the taxis are poorly maintained, with malfunctioning air conditioning systems. Many also have dirty and smelly seats. Many taxi drivers are also often accused of being rude, refusing passengers, or demanding extra payment.

While there are exceptionally good services, on the whole, there is a general perception that many metered taxis are unreliable, unprofessional and could even pose a risk to the security of passengers.

All of these problems are products of the LTFRB’s failure to enforce strict industry standards on metered taxi companies. It is this failure that led many to seek safer and more convenient alternatives.

The services that Grab and Uber offer are what the metered taxis failed to provide – point-to point pick-up and delivery, well-maintained vehicles, polite drivers and built-in mechanisms that prevent price haggling and ensure passenger safety.

But beyond the convenience embodied in the technology lies the cultural compatibility of the network vehicle sharing arrangement with the need of the Filipino passenger for the familiar and the personal. A sense of the personal is enabled when the driver, already known to the waiting passenger, picks up the latter in a convenient place. The application that enables the passenger to hail Grab and Uber is placed and launched using personal mobile phones which further embeds the transaction in a kind of interaction that has become familiar and ordinary.

Thus, the technology of Uber and Grab harnesses the familiar and the convenient readily available at the passenger’s fingertips. One need not go out into the streets to hail his or her ride. In Uber or Grab, knowing the face and name of the driver, and the make and color of the vehicle evoke a sense of familiarity that turns the ride as no longer just a physical movement from one point to another with a stranger, but as a social interaction with someone familiar and trustworthy. Uber and Grab are no longer just public conveyance services, but have become forms of community support.

This is the kind of experience which the LTFRB wants to assault.

The LTFRB cannot reasonably raise the issue of regulating for convenience and safety precisely because Uber and Grab are in fact the more convenient and safer alternatives.

Delgra and Lizada could not even deploy as a reason the congestion that Uber and Grab can cause, simply because their technologies provide structured incentives to seek the less congested route, and to move into traffic only when they have passengers. Added to these is the fact that Grab and Uber vehicles are not in fact additional cars on the road, but are replacement and substitutes for cars left at home by people who decide to take Grab and Uber.

The issue on the collection of taxes from Grab and Uber and their drivers can be easily addressed, considering that fare collections are even more easily tractable since these are enabled, computed and recorded by mobile applications. In fact, it is even easier for metered taxis to avoid the tax net considering that they are not electronically monitored by a central system unlike Grab and Uber vehicles.

The LTFRB, typical of regulatory bodies, exists in a world of bureaucratic inertia, where policies and laws crafted at an earlier time are forced to be applied to emergent and new social realities. Delgra and Lizada are just playing their roles of enforcing what could end up as archaic, if not totally incompatible, regulations.

All it takes is for the LTFRB, and for Delgra and Lizada, to be more imaginative and creative. They should move away from a regulatory framework that just constrains and imposes rules, to one that also harnesses new technologies that nurture and build on social connections and make the rules fit the needs of people.

If there is any challenge for the LTFRB, it should be to push the metered taxis to reinvent themselves and become like Uber and Grab.

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