First of 2 parts
PART 2 | On their own: Commuters and the looming transportation crisis in Metro Manila
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Public transportation will resume once Metro Manila is placed under general community quarantine (GCQ) – but not as we know it, pre-pandemic.
The GCQ scenario is painted this way: No more standing in buses, climbing onto the back of jeepneys, or sitting in packed UV Express shuttles. These modes of public transport will ferry half of their original capacity, with passengers seated at least one seat apart from each other. UV Express shuttles will be a strict point-to-point service too.
Squeezing into the crowded Metro Rail Transit Line 3 will also be a thing of the past, as only 153 passengers will be allowed per trip – only 13% of its capacity. Light Rail Transit Lines 1 and 2 will have more or less 160 passengers, while the Philippine National Railways will serve close to 500 people in its 3 to 4-car train sets.
Crowding is not allowed inside public transport – which, perhaps, is a dream come true for commuters.
Transportation officials estimate that only 30% of the Metro Manila commuter population will need public transportation once GCQ is implemented. This figure is equivalent to about 3 million commuters, but experts have warned that there could be more.
With reduced capacity, where will the volume go? Experts are expecting a rise in walking, biking, and other forms of alternative transportation. Worse, commuters may be waiting along the streets, which they fear, could be a source of coronavirus transmission.
Mass transportation is a two-pronged problem that both drivers and commuters will have to face once quarantine policies are relaxed in the capital region. One concerns the drastic reduction in income, while the other pertains to longer commute time and risk of getting infected by the pandemic.
Even if resumption of mass transportation is the ideal, some drivers in GCQ areas don’t look forward to it.
Before the lockdown, Jay Daet drove 17 kilometers every day from Paliparan in Dasmariñas to Zapote market in Bacoor, Cavite. He used to remit P600 in jeepney boundary fees to his operator and spent P250 on fuel for 4 roundtrips. His usual take home pay amounted to about P600 or P700 daily on good days.
Without any income in the past two months, Jay relied on relief goods and cash aid from good-hearted individuals. He said he wasn’t able to avail of government’s P5,000 financial subsidy for jeepney drivers.
Even though Cavite is already under GCQ, Jay has had to navigate a shortened route because Bacoor, where Zapote market is located, still has more restrictions under a modified ECQ. It meant cutting his route to 5 kilometers, which translates to only P10.40 for a passenger who travels the entire length.
The minimum fare for the first 4 kilometers is only P9, plus P1.40 per succeeding kilometer.
He would rather stay at home, Jay said, since what he’ll earn won’t even be enough to pay for boundary fees.
“Hindi na po bali. Kung sakaling magbi-biyahe ako, magba-boundary pa, magku-krudo pa. Pumupunta na rin ako sa nanay ko, humihingi ng tulong. Walang pagkakitaan eh. Minsan may nagpapa-igib dito, pambigay ng pagkain,” said Jay, adding that he’ll just make up for the lost income once he can drive until Zapote Road in Bacoor.
(I won’t bother. If ever I decide to drive, I’d have to pay for boundary fees and fuel. I’m also visiting my mother to ask for help. It’s really hard to make money now. Sometimes, people ask me to fetch them water and give me food in return.)
George San Mateo, head of transport group Piston, said that drivers like Jay who don’t own the jeepneys themselves are forced not to hit the road due to reduced incomes. But the driver-operators were eager to return to their livelihood, he said.
“Bawas na nga ang pasahero sa GCQ, tapos putol-putol pa ang biyahe. ‘Yan ang nagtutulak sa mga drayber na hindi pumasada,“ San Mateo said. (The number of passengers was already reduced under GCQ, then routes were cut up. That’s what discourages drivers from going out.)
GCQ, however, does not automatically mean that drivers will be able to drive right away.
Under its rules, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) should identify routes and the number of special permits to be granted per route. To apply, operators must send their application through an “online facility” such as email.
Apart from low income, San Mateo said that many drivers nationwide are frustrated with the process of applying for the limited permits.
The Alliance of United Transport Organizers Province-wide Pangasinan, for instance, raised concerns about seeking clearances from each town or city covered by their route before they can start with the special permit application. Their drivers were not able to hit the road when GCQ started on May 16.
Driver-operators couldn’t apply for the limited permits themselves as well, as the LTFRB required that it to be done through a cooperative or a corporation. Consolidation of drivers and operators is a concept central to the public utility vehicle (PUV) modernization plan that the Department Transportation has for so long pushed, in a bid to end the boundary system.
The LTFRB said that special permit application in Metro Manila and other parts of the country is still ongoing. During the first week of GCQ implemenation, the LTFRB was able to grant permits at a snail’s pace, covering only over 6,000 vehicle units nationwide.
Take jeepneys as an example. For the first week, the LTFRB gave out permits covering 3,603 traditional jeepneys (PUJs) – a far cry from the 170,000 estimated registered nationwide. At 50% capacity or an average of 10 seats each, jeepneys allowed to operate can serve around 36,000 per trip at best.
Meanwhile, 916 UV Express shuttles were given permits, which can serve on average only 9 people per trip or at least 8,200 passengers nationwide. There are around 25,000 UV shuttles around the country according to transport groups, majority of which, or around 18,000, pass through Metro Manila.
It begs the question: why issue special permits first when PUVs have fixed routes?
PUV modernization pushed
With the pandemic, the DOTr found a golden opportunity to push the PUV modernization from the back burner.
Since the controversial program was launched in 2017, it was met by several transport strikes and protests on buying new PUVs worth over P1 million. The route rationalization project, the backbone of the program, likewise stalled as the task was devolved to the local government.
Fast forward to 2020, DOTr and LTFRB in various issuances said that routes will be rationalized, contactless payment will be the norm, and there will be a “hierarchy” of priority among PUVs, hence the special permits.
In other words, PUV modernization is gaining ground.
The LTFRB issued an order saying buses will be the “preferred mode of transport” and the priority in granting special permits. In areas where there are no bus operations, the following could be granted permits, subject to the “hierarchy:”
- Tourist buses
- Modern jeepneys
- UV Express shuttles
- Traditional jeepneys
- Tourist vans
Transport groups accused DOTr of discrimination against traditional jeepneys. Transportation Assistant Secretary Goddes Hope Libiran denied such claims and said that the decision was “anchored on capacity.”
Once GCQ is implemented in Metro Manila, the bus system within the greater metropolitan area will have a face lift through number and color-coded bus routes. Buses will have their own dedicated lanes on EDSA too, which looks like a low-cost implementation of a bus rapid transit.
From 96 routes passing through the capital region, the LTFRB was able to bring it down to 31. EDSA will have a single-route bus called the “EDSA Carousel.”
Despite the lower number of routes, total buses in the metropolis will remain at around 4,000, said LTFRB Chairman Martin Delgra III. Commuters, especially those coming from the province, will have to get used to transferring buses in terminals under the new system.
This new bus system is like a throwback to the junked provincial bus ban, except that terminals won’t have to close down. Based on the route system above, there will be connections in high-volume areas such as the Parañaque Integrated Terminal Exchange in the south and Monumento in the north.
After the new bus routes, the LTFRB will come up with an issuance for jeepneys too. Jeepney routes will also be rationalized, Road Transport Assistant Secretary Mark de Leon told Rappler.
The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority also found the opportunity to push for their botched driver-only car ban through the “modified number coding.” If approved by the Metro Manila Council, a resolution will require vehicles to carry two to a maximum of 4 people to avoid paying fines.
Will it be enough?
Transport planner Robert Siy Jr and transport economist Jedd Ugay told Rappler that the DOTr is headed in the right direction with its modernization plan.
Siy, however, raised concerns that the number of buses along EDSA may not be enough given the reduced capacity of the MRT3 and the rationalization of routes.
Pre-lockdown, over 4,600 buses passed through EDSA while the MRT3 served about 350,000 passengers every day. It’s still unknown how many buses will serve the so-called EDSA Carousel when GCQ is implemented, as permit applications are still ongoing.
Siy, Ugay, and their group of transportation experts and advocates “Move As One Coalition” proposed that the government contract out buses to offset the lost capacity at the railway systems.
The Move As One coalition estimated that the Philippines stands to lose P520 billion annually due to PUV operators shutting down, opportunities lost due to longer commute, job losses, and environmental impact, among others.
They recommended that the government prepare a P110-billion bailout for Metro Manila and key Philippines cities, some P30 billion of which has been proposed to go to contracting 3,000 buses and 15,000 PUVs to sustain livelihood and safe transport.
Without these interventions, Siy said in a Rappler Talk interview: “Many operators will not be viable if they can only use 50% of their seats. Not only that, we will see a lot of interest in motor vehicles [because of the fear of crowded spaces]. That will mean more traffic on the road.”
De Leon told Rappler that the DOTr is planning to contract out 90 buses to augment the PUVs along EDSA and MRT3. Siy said it’s not enough.
Currently, the DOTr can only offer a fuel subsidy to jeepney and bus drivers that would cover 30% of their daily fuel consumption for 3 months. Bus drivers will receive 36 liters per month worth P1,200, while jeepney drivers will get 12 liters worth P360.
The DOTr is also banking on the economic stimulus package bill pending in Congress – a move opposed by the economic managers for lack of funds. The DOTr requested for a P70-billion bailout program, which, if passed, would see a portion going to fuel subsidy, mitigating drivers’ lost income, and augmenting PUV operations.
Still, the DOTr is expecting that bus operations in Metro Manila would be enough to serve commuters.
“As we may all know, the old PUV routes and their operations have become very inefficient,” the DOTr’s Libiran said.
“The rationalization of routes, as well as the consolidation of PUV operators, that we are undertaking will make it more efficient. Being more efficient, despite having less buses, we expect more passenger capacity, and the ratio between supply of PUVs versus actual demand becomes proportionate,” she added.
Metro Manila mayors said that the capital region is “ready” to shift to GCQ come June 1. The IATF has yet to decide on the fate of the metro.
What’s clear for Siy is that a crisis will hit Metro Manila once mass transportation resumes. “Without a doubt,” he said.
What will happen to commuters? (to be concluded) – Rappler.com
TOP PHOTO. Checkpoints slow down the traffic volume at EDSA as NCR is placed on MECQ on May 16, 2020. Photo by Czar Dancel/Rappler