Loose ends
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - October 16, 2020 - 12:00am

It took DOTr four years and a pandemic to get its act together. It was a golden opportunity to reform the transport system because everything was stopped.

But when it was time to revive the system, the folks at the transport department were not done tying the loose ends of their plans. Things were sometimes messy even if the good intentions were clear.

The EDSA busway got launched with a number of issues still unresolved. It was a virtual BRT and had to make do with what was available, including buses with doors that opened on the wrong side.

But that is alright. What is important is something happened that may improve the bus system on EDSA. There were not so many passengers yet when it was launched so there was time to fix things.

At least, the boundary system is out. Bus drivers are now on a fixed salary so there is no incentive to drive carelessly. Of course, there were a few who found it difficult to correct bad habits and they caused accidents. Their licenses should just be revoked.

Then there was this problem with the beep card. Apparently, when the order to use it instead of cash for all bus rides was made, DOTr officials failed to make clear arrangements with the private company running the payments system.

Bus passengers complained about the cost of the card and the deposit required. That should have been anticipated because most bus passengers live from hand- to-mouth. They have only so much money set aside for daily transportation.

DOTr belatedly addressed the issue through a press release saying they are appealing to the card company to give the card for free. Wrong move. That opened them up to an embarrassing rejection. And that’s what happened.

An official of the card company immediately rejected the appeal, but said their main owners would donate 125,000 cards. Bad move for the card company too, because this is a populist issue.

Sec. Art Tugade felt bad about the rebuff and he rejected the offer. He just said that President Duterte would deal with the issue himself.

Luckily for the card company, Duterte had a bigger fish to fry, named Cayetano, when he did his regular address to the nation. Otherwise, he would have skewered Ayala and MetroPac again, the card company owners, as he did with the water concession issues.

This is why it is important for officials of private companies dealing with the government on matters of high public interest to have good political sense. It was plainly stupid for the card company official to publicly reject a request like that.

In fairness to the card company, they do have costs in producing the card, and that at the very least should be covered either by the bus riders or the government. DOTr should have thought of that problem before mandating the use of the card.

The bigger issue, which I think is more important, is the need to have just one card that can be used on all transport modes from MRT, LRT, buses, P2P, jeepneys, etc. Most big cities have one such card.

Now we are told DOTr and Landbank have agreed to jointly conduct the pilot production testing of an Automatic Fare Collection System (AFCS), which will use Mastercard EMV co-compliant contactless cards as payment instruments for public transport modes.

It is not clear if we will now have two AFCS for public transport. One run by the private sector, which won a public bid to provide it some years ago, and another powered by Landbank, which is  government-owned.

If the government version gives its card for free, it gets an advantage over the private card. But will it violate an earlier concession award? Looks like a big loose end.

The EDSA busway is still work in progress, but I think it is better than the chaotic situation we had before COVID.

There was a picture posted on Twitter showing a lot of people waiting for a bus ride in a busway loading area. Whoever posted it wanted people to think the busway experiment is a failure. That picture only showed half the story.

I am assured that unlike before, passengers don’t wait long because a bus comes around every three to five minutes. In the past, few buses served their routes after 9 pm so that a large crowd of passengers spilled out on the street.

Actually, even in many other big cities, people crowd bus terminals during rush hours. At least now, we have a single dispatcher for the buses. No passenger will be left waiting for a bus whose driver has prematurely called it a day.

Because more and more people are now venturing out of their homes and going to work, the dispatcher should put more buses on the road. The headway or waiting time must be reduced to less than three minutes during peak hours.

Ed Yap, the private businessman who championed the EDSA busway observed that on the whole, “the busway is working efficiently day and night, rain or shine. Buses are running unimpeded and not just stagnating in traffic unlike before.”

It is good to note that Sec. Tugade seems to be on fire these days, impatiently moving his projects. He didn’t wait for IATF to rule on the number of passengers to be allowed on jeepneys and buses. He went straight to the President during a Cabinet meeting and got approval to increase load by letting passengers keep one seat empty between them.

Tugade directed DOTr agencies to adhere to their OPLAN AIR (Add routes/PUVs, Increase speed/capacity, Reduce travel time). Even the LTFRB seems to be moving faster in opening more public transport routes and authorizing more provincial and city buses, as well as public utility jeepneys to operate.

I am glad that all the pressure Sec. Tugade got from a lot of sources is starting to bear fruit. But his support staff must do better preparatory work to avoid loose ends resulting in embarrassing problems like what happened with the beep cards.



Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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