Expert warns of impending public transport crisis
The Department of Transportation (DOTr) said that traditional jeepneys come third in priority since modern jeepneys have higher capacity and are equipped with automatic fare collection system that prevents physical contact.
The STAR/Boy Santos, File

Expert warns of impending public transport crisis

Franco Luna (Philstar.com) - May 21, 2020 - 2:24pm

MANILA, Philippines — At best, the current novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) crisis is a "golden opportunity" to pursue a more humane and livable public transportation system in the country, regional planners, and lawmakers alike have said over the past week.

But at worst, it can detonate the ticking time bomb that is the public transportation sector from which the country stands to lose billions if left unchecked—along with a massive second wave of confirmed patients of the new pathogen. 

READ: Traffic builds up on first working day under MECQ

Speaking during an interview with OneNews' The Chiefs, transport planner and advocate Robert Siy said that as some workers begin to go back to work in areas where it is permissible, the current transportation options are nowhere near enough to serve the commuting public with the new restrictions due to COVID-19. 

"COVID-19 is pressuring people to use private vehicles. There is now a lot of apprehension about using public transport. Whoever has a car or a motorcycle is now incentivized to use a vehicle every day. If we thought traffic was bad months ago, expect something even worse," Siy said.

"We have lost already more than half of our public transport capacity. That is a staggering number. Pre-COVID we already had huge crowds lining up waiting hours to get to public transport. It's going to be a lot worse," he added. 

"But that's only part of the environment that we will be facing. The other part is that many of our transport operators have an uncertain future if they have to rely mainly on fare box revenues."

'Ticking time bomb'

Like Siy, the transport sector has been making noise, warning of what they say is an impending mass transportation crisis. On May 12, a coalition of transport planners and advocates, of which Siy is a member, said there is a risk of “massive loss of human life from a second, more severe wave” of COVID-19 cases if the infamous congestion of public transport is not resolved.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak originated in Wuhan, China, labor and transport unions in the Philippines were tagging the situation as a crisis: long lines and technical malfunctions were commonplace in the lives of commuters. 

Senators Pia Cayetano and Ralph Recto earlier acknowledged that the administration had "ghosted" the needs of the sector. 

"Here, we are in a very tough situation because all of a sudden, our operators will only have 50% or less of their seating capacity. This renders a big chunk of them automatically financially unviable. And in the next few months, many of them, I would say 50% of them, will go out of business," Siy added. 

"Our first wave in the public transport sector is that physical distancing has reduced our capacity and we stand to lose a further major cut as transport operators go out of business. If you can imagine, this is like a ticking time bomb, and this is what I want to sound the alarm at this point."

In an earlier interview with Philstar.com, Siy said: "If people feel that I can move faster using public transport, then more people will leave their cars at home. That’s the attitude you want people to have, that if I used public transport, I would be home already much earlier."

'Opportunity to shift to sustainable transport'

In a statement, Cayetano, who chairs the Senate Committee on Sustainable Development Goals, Innovation, and Futures Thinking, said that bicycles have "particularly become essential for workers and frontliners" owing to their safety and efficiency amid the "new normal."

"We need more planning and coordination. [It is estimated that] 50-75% of the workforce can go back to work physically within a certain period of time. [But] there is no way that our public transportation, as it stands, can sustain them considering the [situation] we are in," she said.

As it stands, the lawmaker said, the current public transport system cannot possibly service the volume of employees projected to return to work.

RELATED: ‘2 million commuters to swarm public transport after ECQ’ | One-meter distancing to be imposed in public transpo under GCQ — DILG

"That is why the messaging and the planning for this shift to a sustainable program for transportation must be considered carefully," she added.

"We want to ensure that these people will be biking within a reasonable time, not three hours of biking per day. These are shifts made by other countries in the past. It requires a little bit more planning and rethinking. But this is the perfect time to do it."

Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade said in response to Cayetano that his agency is ready to promote bicycles as an alternative means of travel during the new normal, adding that the department was set to submit to the Senate its plan on implementing this. 

The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board has not yet responded to requests for comment, though LTFRB chief Martin Delgra has said that the current system "is enough" according to their computations.

Getting on track

Separate studies by the Japan International Cooperation Agency have shown that only 12% of households in Metro Manila have access to a private car, while 78% of total daily trips rely on public transportation.

Asked how government could go about changing the car-centric mindset among Filipinos, Siy said: "First we must assure that public transport operators will be out there serving the public. What I would advocate is that government goes into what we call leasing or services contracting or chartering. Meaning they would assemble operators, ask them to form consortia, then give them contracts to provide the service." 

"This is how public transport is organized in the highest quality cities. This allows the government to set quality standards along with penalties. This motivates them to deliver better services," Siy added. 

Commuter advocacy group AltMobility PH echoed this sentiment in an earlier online exchange with Philstar.com, saying that the lower volume of commuters could also spell further difficulty in covering costs for operators. 

"If operating at 30-percent capacity, operators may not be able to fully cover their costs. They may not be interested run services in the first place if without subsidy. Probably the best option is for government to create service contracts which dictate the services that need to be provided by operators in adherence to social distances guidelines. Service contracts can enable resumption of services regardless of passenger volume," Jedd Ugay, AltMobility PH chief mobility officer said. 

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