No more ‘boundary’

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

On May 13, 2011, journalist Lourdes “Chit” Estella-Simbulan was in an Abu Abbey taxi on her way to the University of the Philippines in Diliman, where she was teaching journalism, when the taxi made a U-turn along Commonwealth Avenue near the UP Technohub and was hit on the right side by a Nova Auto Transport bus.

Relatives said Chit was still able to text that she had figured in a vehicular accident, moments before the stalled taxi was rammed in the rear by a Universal Guiding Star Bus. Chit died of injuries in the back of her head.

Commonwealth is called the “killer highway” because of the high number of fatal vehicular accidents on the avenue. The accidents are blamed on speeding, so after Chit’s death, a speed limit of 60 kilometers per hour was imposed along Commonwealth. This was lowered last year to 50 kph for buses, trucks and tricycles.

For buses, the speeding and reckless driving were blamed on the so-called boundary system, under which drivers and conductors are paid based on the number of passengers they pick up. Bus drivers are then compelled to compete for passengers, picking up people even in the middle of the street, speeding to reach waiting commuters first, or else blocking roads by waiting too long at various stops.

So the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board and Department of Labor and Employment decided to put an end to the boundary system. In 2012, the DOLE required bus operators to pay their drivers and conductors fixed salaries. DOLE certification of compliance with this rule then became a requirement of the LTFRB for a bus franchise.

Like many executive acts in this country, however, the directives became bogged down in litigation. Bus operators challenged the directives all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that these were unconstitutional because they effectively told the private sector how to run their business. The SC junked the case with finality in September last year.

The fixed pay scheme is going into effect only this month, after the implementing rules were released by the National Wages and Productivity Commission.

Whether this will end the dog-eat-dog competition for passengers remains to be seen. The new rules also allow bus operators to give their drivers performance incentives based on revenue, ridership, safety and specific conditions of routes. So drivers may still look forward to additional pay if they have more passengers.

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Alex Yague, executive director of the Provincial Bus Operators Association of the Philippines, the group that brought the case to the SC, has warned that the fixed salary scheme would put many bus operators out of business.

Last week, however, Yague told The Chiefs on Cignal TV’s One News that many bus operators especially outside Metro Manila have been paying fixed salaries for a long time now, and those who might go out of business would be the mom-and-pop operators of one or two buses.

The type of bus that is cleared for mass transport operation in the country is an expensive model, costing from P6 million to P11 million each, Yague told us. He stressed that an operator does not put a reckless, inexperienced and poorly paid driver behind the wheel of such an expensive vehicle. So the large bus lines make sure their employees are sufficiently trained and properly compensated.

The major operators – those with fleets of about 15 buses or more – have also been following predictable schedules for departures and arrivals, Yague said.

How is this possible? He explained that in many cities and municipalities, the number of residents and transients can be tracked with some accuracy. School, office, commercial and other business activities and hours are also known, so the total number of commuters and passenger densities at certain hours of different days along various routes can be predicted along with the potential bus earnings.

Operators have an idea of how many buses their competitors own. They can estimate passenger share throughout the different hours of the day and night, and field buses accordingly, Yague explained.

It could be possible even to follow strict schedules for unloading and picking up passengers at designated stops. This is already being done in some provinces where there are bus monopolies, or where smaller operators band together to coordinate vehicle deployment, Yague told us.

This system is difficult to implement when there are numerous small operators. If you have only one bus, of course you want to maximize revenue, so the driver must pick up as many passengers as possible per trip. And incentives are given to the driver for this.

In Metro Manila, Yague said there is one thoroughfare where there are about 100 such small operators: EDSA.

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How did all those operators get franchises?

The idea was to discourage monopolies and liberalize the industry, Yague explained, and it began shortly after the 1986 people power revolution. No one foresaw what the operators were prepared to do to compete for passengers and make their businesses turn a profit.

Combine this with an ever increasing population and vehicle density, plus kotong traffic enforcers who look the other way when buses literally race against each other for passengers, or block busy thoroughfares, and you have the regular “carmageddon” all over Metro Manila. 

There are still many areas in the country where the population is too small to sustain large bus companies, and where only mom-and-pop operators can survive. In these areas, single-bus operators provide an important public service so they deserve a franchise.

On heavily congested routes such as EDSA, however, the unbridled issuance of bus franchises needs to be reviewed.

Chit Estella is sorely missed, but her death at least would not be in vain if it leads to safer roads, less traffic, and better pay for bus drivers and conductors.

So far, it looks like only the last one is certain.

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