From the standpoint of the commuter, the experiment of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) on EDSA last week (restricting buses to the two curbside “yellow lanes”) failed miserably. Hundreds of thousands of commuters suffered endless queues and excessive crowding on both rail and bus services. For several days, many already long commutes took twice as long.
Buses “imprisoned” in the yellow lanes made fewer round trips and therefore carried much fewer passengers. Under the experiment, the capacity of EDSA to move people was significantly diminished.
This was because MMDA was focused on the objective of getting private motor vehicles to flow faster, ignoring its impact on public transport vehicles that carry the vast majority of people traveling on EDSA. A target like “Cubao to Makati in 5 minutes” makes no sense if it means that millions of commuters have to suffer for cars to go faster.
The silver lining in last week’s failed experiment is that it drove home the point that mobility of people, rather than of vehicles, should be the objective. Up until now, many national and local agencies have focused on the objective of making cars go faster, to the detriment of the commuting public. This heartless approach needs to change.
If we design cities and infrastructure for greater car use, we only attract more vehicles and greater congestion–everyone suffers. If we design cities and infrastructure to enhance the mobility of people, especially those without cars, then everyone wins—even car users.
It also drove home the point that mobility of Filipinos cannot be improved by only dealing with traffic management—enforcement of rules, synchronizing traffic signals, keeping vehicles on proper lanes, etc. No amount of traffic management can offset the tsunami of more than a thousand new motor vehicles added daily to already congested city streets all over the country.
A comprehensive package of solutions is required—one that enables people to travel conveniently, while reducing the volume of vehicles; one that encourages a shift from car use to walking, cycling and public transport. Pasig Mayor Vico Sotto expressed the formula succinctly: “This means a greater focus on moving people rather than private vehicles. This means incorporating more non-car modes of transportation in our long-term plans.”
Non-car modes of transport (walking, cycling and public transport) should be attractive and high quality—meaning safe, convenient, reliable, accessible, and low emission. In this regard, MMDA cannot act alone; it will only succeed if key transport agencies, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) and Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), are working alongside MMDA, pushing in the same direction.
As part of “Build, Build, Build”, DPWH’s massive urban road and bridge development program can play a big part in making walking, cycling and public transport more attractive. New bridges and roads fuel further congestion if they serve mainly cars; they will have a much more beneficial (mobility-enhancing, traffic-reducing and climate change-mitigating) impact if new roads and bridges are devoted to walking, cycling and public transport.
Similarly, freeing up additional road space by removing illegal parking (as many local governments are doing) can be counterproductive if all it does is invite further car use. To have best effect, the freed-
up road space should be used, in large part, to expand sidewalks, to establish networks of bicycle lanes or to create exclusive lanes for public transport vehicles, liberated from friction with private cars.
DOTr is placing a lot of effort into expanding and improving rail systems. The flagship projects include the North-South Commuter Rail, MRT3 rehabilitation, MRT7, the Metro Manila Subway, plus the extensions of LRT1 and LRT2. Most of the ongoing improvements in rail systems will be completed only in the next administration or beyond. These projects are all very much welcome, but far from sufficient.
Even if all rail projects mentioned above proceed as planned, rail transport will account for less than one-fifth of all passenger trips in Greater Manila—the rest of the commuter journeys, more than 80 percent, will still come from road-based public transport. Commuters need to have more than just train services to get to and from their destinations. Even in cities with an abundance of train lines (such as Seoul, London, Singapore and Hong Kong), buses account for the majority of public transport trips.
If DOTr focuses on rail development, but leaves other transportation modes as they are today–unpredictable, slow, unsafe and inconvenient–we will not see any significant improvement in peoples’ overall travel experience. If rail is the only mass transit mode with predictable travel times, rail systems will continue to be overcrowded and uncomfortable (therefore, unattractive to car users).
The key message is that equal, if not more attention, needs to be given to improving road-based public transport. For public transport to be an attractive alternative to using a private car, both rail and bus services need to become high quality.
Last week’s failed experiment on EDSA also highlighted the deficiencies of the current city bus services: 1) services are insufficient, especially during peak hours, resulting in heavy crowding on buses and leaving thousands of passengers waiting for long periods to catch their rides; 2) buses are stuck in congested lanes and are given no priority in the use of road space; 3) buses are in constant friction with private vehicles that want to turn right or need to access curbside establishments; 4) most city buses are poorly designed—with narrow doors and many internal steps, resulting in slow boarding and alighting; 5) most buses on EDSA are highly polluting and not compliant with the minimum Euro IV emissions standard; 6) drivers receive incentives to generate higher revenues, leading them to engage in dangerous on-street competition for passengers; 7) bus stop and terminal infrastructure are missing or low quality; and 8) current bus routes and services no longer match existing travel demand and are in need of review and updating.
To address these issues, a major transformation is required to raise the quality of bus services. Piecemeal solutions will not suffice. For this reason, DOTr should proceed to implement the two National Economic Development Authority (Neda) board-approved bus rapid transit (BRT) projects.
BRT buses would move along dedicated lanes, enabling faster journeys and predictable travel times. The new routes and bus services would be designed and periodically adjusted to match the evolving travel demand. New low-emission buses would have wide doors and be accessible even for persons with wheelchairs. A new business model would be in place, with operators compensated for transport services rather than on ridership and drivers on fixed salaries and benefits. With these arrangements, government would have the flexibility to shift available buses to routes with higher demand. And BRT projects can be completed within a three-year time frame—shorter than for rail projects.
Metro Manila BRT Line 1 (Quezon Avenue), with an investment cost of about P5 billion, will move over 300,000 passengers daily between Quezon Memorial Circle and Manila City Hall. Metro Manila BRT Line 2 (EDSA) will move up to 2.6 million passengers daily at an investment cost of about P38 billion. Both BRT systems would complement the existing rail network and enable many commuters to have better connections to their destinations. A BRT line along EDSA would allow MRT3 riders to transfer easily to a BRT bus going, for example, to Fairview, Ayala Avenue, Sta. Rosa or Valenzuela.
In recent years, DOTr officials have expressed the view that BRT projects are difficult to implement on congested roads like EDSA or Quezon Avenue. But it is precisely on congested roads where BRT systems are needed and where they deliver greatest benefits. Instead of having all vehicles stuck in traffic, a BRT system frees up a lane for exclusive, unimpeded travel by buses. With high capacity, well-designed stations and fast boarding and alighting, BRT can operate as efficiently as a train.
Last week, many commuters stuck in buses on the yellow lane were thinking: “If only I had a car, I would not be in this traffic mess.” Instead, car users should be thinking the exact opposite thought, “If I were in that BRT bus, I could be home by now.” The best motivation for a car user to leave her car at home is to see a BRT bus whiz past, while all cars crawl through heavy traffic. How soon can we make it happen?
Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner, and public transport advocate. He can be reached at email@example.com or followed on Twitter @RobertRsiy