Because the threat of this virus or others may remain for many more months, possibly years, the new normal in our lives is the requirement for social distancing. The current approach to moving people around our city is inadequate and incompatible with social distancing.
When transport operators and drivers depend on their own individual fareboxes and compete against each other for passengers, it is difficult to resist packing more passengers into our buses and jeepneys. Sidewalks in most places are narrow, forcing people to crowd and make physical contact. There are hardly any bicycle lanes, even though cycling is the most appropriate mode of transportation to maintain physical distancing. These need to change now.
Public transport was for decades of poor quality — poor signage, no maps, no schedules, no reliability, far from sufficient, difficult to access. Why did we tolerate it for so long?
Low quality, low fares, low expectations of change, minimal investment from government — low quality public transport was accepted as a fact of life. Once a family had more resources, it was only natural for the family to aspire to have a motorcycle and eventually a car, leading to more cars and more traffic — a downward spiral of worsening congestion and deteriorating mobility.
Successive administrations never saw the urgency of major reform. There was always the hope, the promise, that one more highway, one more train line, one more bridge for cars across the Pasig River, would somehow alleviate traffic and enable people to get to work faster and with more reliability. Decades later, mobility has only gotten worse for everyone.
What has this crisis taught us? First, going forward, we need a public transportation system that is centrally coordinated and can be deployed flexibly to meet emerging needs. With our transportation system comprised of many small businesses competing against each other, there is no administrative mechanism to manage many fragmented providers who can choose whether or not to operate.
We have many worthwhile rail projects in the pipeline. This is a good thing, but the rail projects will only deliver results several years from now. To have an impact on today’s crisis and to enable any meaningful expansion on public transport capacity, the focus needs to be on the road transport sector (buses, minibuses, vans, etc.), which has received relatively little financial support in recent years.
We need to follow the example of cities that have high-quality public transport services. In such cities, government collects the fare revenue and contracts private bus and minibus operators to deliver public transport services, with incentives and penalties based on performance. The best examples of this model are London and Singapore.
Another option is to move to the industry business model found in Seoul, where all bus operators share in a common revenue pot and all work as part of the same team to enlarge the market for public transportation. In either case, there is a mechanism for centralized coordination of bus services and elimination of on-street competition among operators.
Apart from revising the industry business model, we need to facilitate their efficient travel by creating dedicated bus lanes and giving the buses priority at every signalized intersection. The message has to be that public transport, not cars, deserves priority in the use of our road space.
The second big lesson is that we need to prioritize walking and cycling, the “active transport” modes, in a big way. They are the ideal travel modes for physical distancing, while achieving environmental and health benefits. With fewer cars on the road, Metro Manila has the potential to be quite walkable and bikeable, but we need to provide proper infrastructure, with only a small fraction of what we have allocated for the Build, Build, Build program.
Our roads have been designed mainly for cars, but only around 10 percent of Greater Manila households own cars. But all of us are pedestrians. National and local authorities need to reduce the road space for cars and widen sidewalks, removing obstructions and cracks that make many footpaths perilous. Sidewalks, where possible, need to be 2 to 3 meters wide so that people can walk in both directions without crowding. Reducing the width of car lanes to widen sidewalks has the added benefit of slowing down car speeds and making our streets safer. Lives will be saved.
Another priority should be to create a metropolis-wide protected bicycle lane network. With the coronavirus pandemic and the need to reduce crowding on trains, most cities worldwide have compensated for the reduction in mass transit capacity by creating more bicycle lanes throughout the city. And the public has responded.
Many have dusted off their old bicycles and adopted daily commuting by bicycle. In Metro Manila, hundreds of medical workers have started using bicycles in the absence of public transport and have discovered the advantages of using a bicycle. Apart from the fact that bicycles generate no pollution and deliver health benefits, the widespread use of bicycles is one of the best strategies for disaster resilience. When essential supplies are cut or when mass transit is shut down, bicycles provide a viable and flexible mobility option for individual households.
If each of the 17 local government units in Metro Manila can commit to creating annually 10 kilometers of protected bicycle lanes within their area, the metropolis could have 170 kilometers within a year and 340 kilometers in two years. It would change the character of our city, making it more livable, less polluted, less congested, healthier, more productive, and more attractive for tourists — closer to the city we could all be proud of. All visible and tangible within the current terms of all our mayors. If there are any spare funds in Build, Build, Build, this should be a top priority under the responsibility of Metropolitan Manila Development Authority Chairman Danny Lim.
We need to dream big — of a city where there are wide and even sidewalks everywhere, where a person on a bicycle, even children, can travel around without fear of being hit by a car, where public transport is high quality, plentiful and efficient, and where even car owners prefer to leave their cars at home. This dream is closer to reality than many of us think, and there is no better time to pursue this dream than now.
Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner, and public transport advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @RobertRsiy