Thursday, November 26, 2020

Jeeps, trains and automobiles: On PH traffic reform


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ONE of the most hallowed hallmarks of modernity is mobility — of social classes, of people and of goods. Social standing is renegotiated, migration runs rampant and goods reach new markets. Transportation is key to these innovations, for the industry paves the way for a new bourgeoisie; people begin to travel for jobs, and goods get delivered. Not so here, though. In the Philippines, modernity seems to be stalling: with traffic, we are more static than we are mobile.

Transportation reform has gained traction recently (the irony), especially with Palace spokesman Salvador Panelo’s declaration to “take the jeepney and the LRT (Light Rail Transit) in going to work” last Friday, after being dared by youth union Anakbayan and labor union Kilusang Mayo Uno. Off Panelo went, departing his Marikina home at 5:45 a.m., to arrive promptly in Malacañang by 9:30 a.m. That was nearly four hours — and a not a rarity for the working class. Doing the math, that is at least seven-and-a-half hours lost each day for the commuting Filipino — a third already of one’s work-day.

Historically, in the early 1800s, industrial workers clamored for the eight-hour day until it was granted by the 1870s: “Eight hours’ labor, eight hours’ recreation, eight hours’ rest — eight hours for what we will.” The argument was the self-same Marxist one: the long working day “deteriorates” human labor power “by robbing it of its normal moral and physical conditions of development and function” and “produces the premature exhaustion and death of the labour power itself” (Das Kapital). In other words, it fatigues the body and it fatigues the mind.

Besides the fatigue, time is, of course, money. And, according to a study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), traffic jams result in a P3.5-billion daily loss to the Philippine economy, almost a 50-percent increase in just four years, since a World Economic Reform report in 2015 estimating a daily loss of P2.4 billion. “If we do nothing,” according to JICA’s representative Susomo Ito, “it will become P5.4 billion a day in 2035.” These figures are not good.

Cognizant of this, the Duterte administration has actively pursued reform in the sector expanding the reach of the LRT/Metro Rail Transit (MRT) network and instigating the Public Utility Jeep (PUJ) and Public Utility Vehicle Modernization programs, touted by the Land Transportation Franchising Regulatory Board Chairman Martin Delgra 3rd as the “largest non-infrastructure project of the current administration.”

These objectives have also been at the forefront of our international trade dealings. The Dalian train set that was added to the MRT fleet on Tuesday, for instance, to operate during the off-peak hours between 8:30 to 10:30 p.m., hails from China. Some modernized PUJs will be crafted from reworked Kamaz trucks and vehicles from our recent deals with the Russian Federation.

The aims of such modernization drives is not just to solve the traffic that ails us, but to introduce more environment-friendly, aesthetically pleasing, fuel-efficient, and effective transportation routes. But the transition has been slow, especially from the grassroots because of costs — especially for modernizing jeepneys, whose new price tag is at P2.2 million. While there are micro-financing options available and a P80,000-subsidy from government, the cost is still steep and prohibitive.

Imaginably, to recuperate a quicker return on investment (ROI), fares will likely be increased once — and if — the transition is complete. The same will likely happen to LRT/MRT fares. These will not, at least for a time, sit well with spendthrift Filipinos. One can imagine why these measures have not had much buy-in with the populace.

A solution suggested by Sen. Mary Grace Poe earlier this month was to introduce business-class coaches to the LRT/MRT system, which has been ill-received. She suggested a fare of P200 to P300 per ride. This would both increase the ROI and provide options for riders. In the Arab Gulf, one of the most resistant regions to the introduction of public transport because of the cheap petrol prices, this worked well. In Dubai, for instance, there is a VIP gold section at a slightly higher price; in Doha, there is the Metro Gold pass. This has eliminated some of the plebeian stigma of riding public transportation and attracted a new demographic.

Not too long ago, during the Marcos era, some might remember the “Love Bus,” which became a “cool” thing to ride in its heyday. It was efficient, air-conditioned and pretty — much like the modernized transport systems now being introduced.

I mention these last two examples of the Love Bus and the Gulf metro because this is the point most miss about the transition to new modes of transportation: these modernization drives are not about simply solving the traffic crisis or making our lives easier, they are about re-engineering society. They are about crafting a solid middle class.

By improving the product delivered, the hope is to gain a bigger share of the market. In other words, folks who would not normally take public transportation and would rely on the Grab mobile application or taxicabs — or even their own private vehicles — might begin to be drawn into the commuter crowd because of efficiency and cost.

With a business class coach, those who might balk at riding public will no longer. In London, for instance, where one of the most efficient metro systems is found, it is not strange to find designer-clad passengers donning the latest Celine handbag or an expensive Mont Blanc briefcase on the “tube,” their MRT. In New York, there is a famous stolen photograph of Helen Mirren on the subway, her Hermes Birkin bag in tow.

For the incredibly wealthy for whom time is of no consequence and for whom privacy is everything, public transportation will never be an option. They will continue in their chauffeured ways. But for professionals and the price-elastic crowd, who care about budgets and for whom time is money, an improved transportation system will spell a world of difference. And it is to these that government caters.

In Washington, D.C., the ghastly ineffective metro rail system is maintained so to encourage more riders to buy cars and drive rather than commute to work. Here, we have the opposite problem: we need to improve the commuter system to discourage the build-up of private cars crowding roads.

The point is that transportation reform is not just about lifting the lowest standard and fixing the problems of traffic; it is about drawing more folk into the middle class. It is to a strong middle class, after all, that capitalism owes its success.

In the West, the transformation has been complete — most are middle-class. China, too, in the past few decades, has developed its middle class whose spending habits fuel the economy. Here, however, the middle class has been slow to take root. We have the lower classes; we certainly have the upper classes who still owe their wealth to feudal vestiges; but the supposed middle classes are closer in habits and ways to the lower than the upper. It is to this latter that modernity speaks. It is this latter that transportation reform re-engineers.

The Philippines has been quite resistant to change. In part, because we are set in our ways. In part, too, because while the government lobbies for reform and is quick to institute legislation demanding that reform, it is slow to finance such reform. The P80,000-jeep subsidy is a perfect example. If the government cannot cough up funds to subsidize the entire experiment, then perhaps it is time we look elsewhere: we could privatize public transportation systems or seek foreign investment.

Only money and law can, in tandem, change the habits of a citizen and change the configuration of society. One or the other is not enough. We cannot institute legislation, without the financial support. We cannot simply offer options such as a modernized rail transit without legislation on cars and private vehicle ownership and use, for instance. Both economics and jurisprudence are necessary for effective governance. We need both carrot and stick.

It takes generations to fortify democratic society; it takes generations to build a middle class. Modernity is a long process. But, transportation reform is a start.

Katrina Lirio Quirolgico is an economist who holds master’s degrees in government and international history from the London School of Economics, and a bachelor’s degree (magna cum laude) in international politics from Georgetown University. She has trained at Harvard University on international education and admissions.

Follow her on Twitter



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