ONE of the late Senate president Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr.’s legacies was the empowerment of local governments to deliver essential services. The Local Government Code, which he authored, testifies to this legacy. This code recognizes that local government units (LGUs) are best placed to manage social services and functions that ordinary people rely upon daily. This also applies to transportation and mobility.
We cannot expect national agencies, such as the Department of Transportation (DoTr) or the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB), to be capable of planning and overseeing public transportation services for an entire country. National agencies have neither the staff nor the local knowledge to supervise transport services in over a hundred Philippine cities and over a thousand municipalities, And yet, they retain that responsibility.
The national scope and mandate of agencies like the DoTr, LTFRB, and the Department of Public Works and Highways prevent them from giving special attention to any one area or region. If they did, they could be accused of allocating a disproportionate share of their budget on selected, favored parts of the country.
As a result, their attention is divided and distributed across many geographical areas and communities. Also as a result, commuters in Metro Manila have not been able to find any part of the government that is prepared to address their concerns and champion their welfare. There is no one working day and night to make the lives of commuters better.
In this regard, LGUs have a more direct interest in improving mobility for their residents and constituents. LGUs understand best their local needs, conditions and constraints. For this reason, local officials should be responsible and accountable for overseeing and managing transportation and mobility services in their respective areas. The exception would be in metropolitan areas, where the management and coordination of services is crucial.
If the quality of transportation in a town is inadequate or poor, its residents should not need complain to Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade or LTFRB Chairman Martin Delgra 3rd. They should be able to complain to their mayor or concerned local official who can then act on their complaint or suggestion.
For Metro Manila, an important lesson from decades of worsening mobility and from the transportation crisis we’re experiencing today is that local governments and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) need to chart their own mobility future together, because national agencies will not have the energy or interest to spare to deliver what commuters in the capital require.
An encouraging fact is that LGUs in Metro Manila have resources — human and financial — to deal with the crisis. Collectively, the 17 local governments of Metro Manila have assets and budgets that rival or exceed those of national agencies. And in the next few years, the budgets of these units would increase by about 50 percent when they receive their legally mandated share of national taxes. How can the resources and capabilities of these LGUs be harnessed to improve the mobility of its residents and visitors?
An important first step is for Metro Manila’s officials to prioritize the mobility of people, rather than of cars. If we continue to pursue activities and investments that facilitate or favor car use, such as building roads for cars or restricting the supply of public utility vehicles (PUVs), we end up with more cars and more congestion for everybody.
Local governments are in the best position to reverse this downward spiral by focusing on making public transport, walking and cycling as attractive as possible. If we can offer good alternatives to using a private car, people will leave their cars at home, roads are decongested and everybody wins. Much can be achieved without major infrastructure investments and within the three-year terms of elected local officials.
Here are some suggestions:
– Improve the walkability of neighborhoods. Every one of us is a pedestrian. A few months ago, Metro Manila LGUs were instructed to clear roads and sidewalks of any obstruction and illegal parking. This effort will have little impact if it only leads to more road space for cars.
Sidewalks need to be widened, repaired and equipped with proper ramps, so that they are safe for use by children, the elderly and those using wheelchairs and strollers. Planting trees and greenery can provide shade and absorb heat. Street lighting can help to keep neighborhoods safe at night.
– Lift the MMDA’s number-coding restriction on PUVs. In the next two years, the single biggest welfare improvement for Metro Manila’s commuters is in the hands of Metro Manila mayors. The Metro Manila Council can agree to exempt PUVs from the current number-coding restrictions that apply to private vehicles. This will increase the supply of PUVs by releasing an additional 25 percent of buses, jeepneys and UV Express units.
People who not have access to cars — which is over 80 percent of those living and working in Metro Manila — will be able to get to work or home sooner. Crowds at bus stops and queues at terminals and train stations will be shorter. There will be less pressure for commuters to shift from public transport to private vehicle use. This is a no-brainer; lifting the number coding of public transport will have a bigger positive impact than the rehabilitation of the Metro Rail Transit 3.
– Create protected bicycle lane networks throughout Metro Manila. One of the best measures to reduce congestion and mitigate climate change is to invest in bicycle infrastructure. Such infrastructure would have relatively low costs, a short construction period and high visibility. At the same time, these would encourage buildings, schools and offices to provide bicycle parking facilities and showers for bikers. The added benefit is that bicycle infrastructure is pro-poor; many bicycle users are daily workers who need to get to their job sites on time, but cannot afford to pay for public transport.
More Filipinos would use a bicycle to travel around the city if they feel safer about cycling. Already many car owners are discovering that a bicycle allows for faster and more predictable travel,especially during rush hour. Developing a network of protected bicycle lanes around Metro Manila would persuade many, including car users, to shift to a healthier and more environment-friendly form of transportation.
– Help PUVs go faster with dedicated lanes and traffic signal priority. Deliver the message that one can get to work, school or home earlier by using public transport. Introduce measures that will prioritize public transport on our roads. On congested streets, give public transport vehicles an exclusive lane separated from private cars and motorcycles.
During rush hour, certain roads and bridges can be designated as “public transport only.” At intersections, traffic signals can stay on “green” longer for public transport vehicles.
If buses, jeepneys and UV Express vehicles can travel smoothly on a dedicated lane, even for part of their routes, they can cut travel times and bring commuters to their destinations earlier. When public transport allows for more efficient and predictable travel than using a private car, people would leave their cars at home and take PUVs instead.
– Develop proper transport stops, terminals and depots. Most Metro Manila jeepney/bus stops and terminals are too small, dirty and poorly lit at night. Very few have decent toilets, which are now necessary for people whose commutes each way last three or four hours.
Commuters need safe and convenient bus/jeepney stops and terminals to catch their rides or transfer to other services. At the same time, transport operators require access to proper garage and workshop areas to comply with LTFRB requirements under the PUV Modernization Program. The MMDA and Metro Manila LGUs can acquire and develop public land for these purposes or encourage private-sector investment in such facilities.
– Designate selected roads as car-free. Attracting more cars to a busy district increases congestion and reduces mobility. Conversely, measures that restrict car use in city centers have the positive effect of reducing congestion, enhancing mobility and improving air quality. Many leading cities around the world are creating pedestrian or car-free zones as a way of expanding public space and stimulating social and economic activity. Priority areas are those that would benefit from less pollution and congestion — for example, school zones, historic sites and tourist attractions. Start by making certain roads car-free on Sundays, then gradually extend the practice to the entire week.
Certainly, a lot more can be done in the medium and longer term, including institutional and legislative reforms. But the above already provides a substantial list of the “low-hanging fruits” that Metro Manila’s elected officials can deliver during their current terms in office. It is what their constituents would expect. In doing so, Metro Manila’s local governments would begin to shape their own mobility future, as Pimentel had envisioned.
Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner, and public transport advocate. He can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @RobertRsiy