FROM its birth in June 2020, the EDSA Busway has demonstrated that buses on dedicated lanes deliver faster, more reliable transportation services. With travel time from Monumento to Mall of Asia cut to less than an hour (instead of three hours), there is no question that exclusive lanes for public transport are more efficient and cost-effective, and can be set up relatively quickly. Bus rapid transit (BRT) needs to be in the mobility toolkit of our national agencies and local governments.

The Department of Transportation (DoTr) and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) deserve credit for organizing the EDSA Busway amid the pandemic, almost on a "pop-up" basis, accomplishing the radical shift of EDSA buses from the congested curbside lanes to the friction-free median lane in a relatively short period. An impressive feat by any measure.

Placing buses on exclusive lanes - enabling them to move faster and achieve more round trips - is a winning strategy to overcome the capacity loss from physical distancing and providing mass transit in an economic and timely manner. It needs to be replicated. There should be a pipeline of BRT projects covering key Philippine cities.

The private sector is lending a hand. This past Tuesday (May 18, 2021) was the groundbreaking ceremony for three new concourses for the EDSA Busway to be built at SM Mall of Asia, SM Megamall and SM North EDSA, providing convenient access and a more comfortable waiting area for passengers. The concourses will have ticket booths, turnstiles, food outlets and information concierges. Where the concourses are above ground level, there will be elevators to serve persons with disabilities. The P120-million budget for the three concourses will be financed by SM Prime Holdings and completed by the second quarter of 2022.

The timely contribution of groups like SM will definitely bring some relief. But DoTr needs to plan now for a major upgrade in the EDSA Busway to raise its quality and capacity. Current passenger demand is already exceeding the capacity of the "pop-up" EDSA Busway.

Even with the present-day quarantine restrictions in NCR Plus (National Capital Region, Bulacan, Laguna, Rizal and Cavite), we already observe snaking lines of passengers daily waiting to get on the buses at rush hour. The demand will be much heavier once all quarantine restrictions are lifted.

Pre-pandemic, the combination of buses and trains along EDSA moved close to 2 million passengers daily. Today, the 300 or so buses operating on the EDSA Busway plus the rehabilitated Metro Rail Transit Line 3 will not be able to serve even one-half of that level of demand.

Studies have shown that a full BRT system on EDSA, with the right vehicles and well-designed stations, can move over 2 million passengers daily on 1,500 to 1,800 buses. There are several ways for the EDSA Busway to achieve increased capacity and better service quality.

First, at most stations, only two buses can load and unload passengers simultaneously. This limits the number of buses that can operate efficiently on the route. With proper design to maximize station capacities, some stations could allow as many as nine buses to load and unload at the same time.

Second, there are sometimes long queues of buses at stations because buses are unable to overtake those that are loading and unloading at a given station. Improvements to the "bus passing lanes" can eliminate the bunching of buses and allow convenient "express" services to be offered.

Third, today's buses on EDSA have doors on the wrong side, requiring passengers to walk around the bus in order to board the vehicle; this presents a safety hazard, slows down the boarding process and lengthens total travel time. Shifting to BRT buses with doors on the left side will speed up passenger boarding and alighting, enabling faster travel and more round trips. Passengers will be able to step directly into buses from the platform, similar to the experience of riding a train. Wheelchairs would also be able to enter and exit buses conveniently.

An electric BRT bus fleet could also be considered, given that prices of electric buses have come down in recent years. (Bringing electric buses to the Philippines has long been a dream of Transport Secretary Arthur Tugade.) It would be such a morale and confidence booster for Filipinos to enjoy one thousand brand-new, quiet, emission-free buses providing fast and reliable service on the country's busiest corridor.

Fourth, shifting to cashless payments and collecting fares at the turnstiles instead of inside buses will also reduce boarding time and enable buses to move much faster.

Finally, the EDSA Busway provides a timely opportunity to demonstrate how service contracting can deliver high-quality services. While the government collects the fares' revenue, private sector bus operators would be paid according to the number of kilometers traveled by each bus, with incentives and penalties depending on performance. Vehicles would be monitored using GPS vehicle-tracking systems. Contracts of five to seven years duration would include agreements to replace existing vehicles with BRT buses within a given period. The long-term contracts and stable cash flows would give bus companies the creditworthiness to obtain financing for new buses. It can be a model that can be applied to other routes all over the country.

The EDSA Busway is a great example of what can be achieved with political will, leadership and vision, even under difficult circumstances. The challenge for DoTr is to take the EDSA Busway to its full potential so that many more commuters can have a better travel experience, sooner. There is no time to waste.

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