Mobility crisis

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - October 16, 2019 - 12:00am

They picked the wrong guy for the commute challenge, according to presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo.

“Laking kalye ako,” Panelo says.

In college, he says he jostled daily with other commuters for a ride on the JD Transit Bus from his Quezon City home to the University of the Philippines in Diliman.

Even back then, he told the four incredulous UP alumni co-hosts of “The Chiefs” last Monday on Cignal TV’s One News, the daily commute was already tough.

I do remember squeezing into packed JD buses, with their wooden sliding windows and dirty red paint, which I took to UP after a jeepney ride from my home in Manila. But this was many years after Panelo graduated from UP.

Perhaps despite the much smaller population at the time, there also weren’t enough buses and other public utility vehicles to meet the demand. So even if the JD buses looked like they were about to collapse from exhaustion, they were always full.

But I also remember that traffic in my university days was never as bad as today’s regular “carmageddon.”

Yesterday I spent nearly 15 minutes trying to get past one street block in Las Piñas – a distance of about 100 meters. The morons in the city traffic bureau got the brilliant idea of making motorists take a circuitous route around the block occupied by the Southville International School, instead of the logical and efficient straight line from point A to point B. The only reason I can think of for implementing this madness is because the traffic (mis)managers can.

In several congested areas, traffic is aggravated because motorists are forced to divert to much longer routes. The result is that everyone must drive past shopping malls or new property developments, raising suspicion that this is the real purpose of the rerouting rather than traffic management.

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This much Panelo is willing to admit: there is a traffic crisis. I’m sure part of the blame goes to human incompetence.

Panelo, however, is still not conceding that there’s a transport crisis, since he says the transportation facilities are there, limited as they are; he managed to get four jeepney rides in his commute challenge, didn’t he? But he’s willing to concede that there might be a “mobility crisis.”

Because he announced the day he would take on the commute challenge, no media organization heeded his call for no coverage. But he promised us that he would commute again, this time with the day and route no longer announced to the press.

What does he think might be a solution to the mobility crisis? Because of the limited space on the ground, Panelo says more skyways can work.

With less than three years left, of course, the best that can be done before President Duterte’s term ends in 2022 – even if he gets emergency powers to fast-track transport infrastructure projects – is to break ground on any new skyway in Metro Manila and perhaps Metro Cebu, which is also facing a serious mobility problem.

Thanks to Sen. Grace Poe, Panelo said Duterte has given up on seeking emergency powers.

One takeaway from Panelo’s Friday commute: seeing how limited the mass transport facilities are, he says he may agree with the call of jeepney groups to slow down the timetable for the phase-out of the traditional jeepney, currently set on July 1, 2020.

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Perhaps in his next commute, Panelo can try one of the modern jeepneys, whose common feature is that they are tall enough to allow passengers to stand along the aisle. There are hybrid electric-solar models without air conditioning, but with WiFi and gadget charging stations.

Along E. Rodriguez Avenue last Monday, I saw an air-conditioned PM Jeepney that looked like a bigger, sleeker version of the classic Sarao / Francisco Motors model. Its route was painted around it: Manila City Hall and Quezon City Hall. The fare is P11 – just P2 higher than the fare on the non-air-conditioned old model.

Sounds good, Panelo said, but there are still too few of the modern jeepneys. And jostling for a ride is tough enough with what’s currently available.

Commuting is not for the faint of heart and the physically unfit. Panelo, who won’t disclose his age although he must be in his 70s, claims he can do from 100 to 150 push-ups in two minutes. That’s about one per second, believe it or not, he told us, so he’s certainly up to commuting. (All the men in our newsroom said the push-up claim is not possible for his age.)

*      *      *

So is he willing to take up the next challenge of activists who hurled the original dare – this time to commute once a week?

Like Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who said you don’t need to go to the moon to believe it is there, Panelo sees no need.

He was miffed that activists tagged along in one of his jeepney rides. They don’t make activists like they used to, lamented Panelo, who told us that before martial law, he had organized farmers in Albay to get a fair share of the harvest profits. The Philippine Constabulary issued a shoot-to-kill order for him, he recalled. On the other hand, he said, the communist New People’s Army suspected him to be a double agent. Back in the day, he said, activists were not “bastos” or rude like those who joined him in his commute. UP activists were respectful, he recalled.

The “rude” militants contributed to the unpleasantness of his commute, and Panelo – like the typical motorist in Metro Manila – is not about to shelve his Toyota SUV for mass transportation.

Even if business class coaches are added to the glitch-plagued light railway services, as proposed by Senator Poe, Panelo says he needs no further convincing about the mobility problem in Metro Manila.

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