Pandemic triggers public transport modernization

THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan - The Philippine Star

The onslaught of the Wuhan virus brought conflicting challenges to the DOTr. On one hand, it must re-configure jeeps, buses and trains to avoid the transmission of the virus among passengers. On the other hand, it must ensure that there is adequate public transport capacity despite having to slash the maximum number of passengers allowable per vehicle.

The DOTr, under the baton of Sec. Arthur Tugade, has come up with innovative plans to address these conflicting challenges.

The first solution is the obvious one – it is to enforce a seating protocol in jeeps, buses and trains to ensure proper spacing between passengers. This has already been done.

The consolidation of jeep and bus operators and the rationalization of their routes is the second solution in the pipeline. Most jeepney and bus routes have evolved over time with no rhyme or reason. Many of them are overlapping and too long to be efficient. The DOTr has re-plotted the routes to make the passenger’s journey shorter and with less waiting time between stops. The rationalization will also improve the load factor (and profitability) for the PUV operator. Meanwhile, jeepney and bus operators are being consolidated to achieve greater economies of scale.

Dedicated lanes for buses will be implemented in Metro Manila and key cities, hopefully within the next 12 months. This will allow buses to ply the route more frequently during the day, thus achieving a faster turn-around time. It will compensate for the limited number of passengers allowed per bus.

Studies confirm that dedicated bus lanes are more effective if they take the inner lanes rather than the outer lanes. While this will require the construction of cross-over walkways and conversion of bus doors to the left side, it is said to be more efficient as it prevents indiscriminate loading/unloading and swerving across lanes. This is something the DOTr may consider.

The DOTr will soon require bus and jeep operators to rig their fleet with a GPS system so they can be tracked in real time. With the use of a phone app, commuters can monitor the exact location of their ride and determine its exact time of arrival. On the part of the operator and government regulators, it will enable them to track driver behavior, the number of trips made, number of kilometers travelled and deviations from the pre-approved route.

The automated fair collection system (AFCS) has been in the works for several years now. With cash payments in PUVs now a safety hazard, the DOTr is expediting the full implementation of AFCS within the year. Other advantages of the AFCS is that it prevents incidences of passengers being short changed and/or incidents of cash pilferage. More importantly, it prevent drivers from randomly increasing their fares during days when PUVs are scarce.

In tandem with GPS and AFCS, the DOTr is creating a platform (an app) whereby commuters can book their rides in advance. It provides a more dignified commuting experience for our people as it negates the need for long waiting times. It also assures every commuter a seat in the vehicle.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) are already in use in our toll roads. This will soon become the norm, rather than the exception, as we avoid physically handing cash to toll booth cashiers.

In a move to rapidly migrate from manual to digital transactions, all transactions with DOTr-related agencies will soon be done online. This includes payments of permits, fees, as well as processing of drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations. The absence of over-the-counter transactions will also minimize graft.

Another reform contemplated by the DOTr is incredibly simple but ingenious – it is to encourage government agencies and private enterprises to provide shuttle services for its employees instead of car plans. Not only will it decongest our roads and public transport modes, it will also lower the carbon footprint.

As sensible as the transport modernization framework may be, I think that the plan to consolidate jeepney and bus operators can still stand some improvement. With the existing plan, it will still be difficult to enforce proper spacing between passengers since jeepney and bus operators are profit driven. As such, they are constantly under pressure to pack the vehicle with as many passengers as possible to achieve their boundaries and maximize revenues. To have them conform with capacity limitations is like forcing a hungry man not to eat the food in front of him. It goes against the very nature of drivers and operators.

Hence, I suggest an alternative. Perhaps government will consider leasing all 55,000 jeeps and 8,000 buses in Metro Manila from their operators at a rate equivalent to their daily boundaries. With jeeps and buses under government control, government can regulate their capacities, safety protocols, routes and fares.

This will allow government to provide formal employment to the drivers at fixed salaries with benefits, not commissions. It will release drivers from the pressure to jockey for passengers and break traffic rules in the process. With the fleet under government control, it can calibrate routes and schedules with greater predictability and reliability. All revenues derived from PUV operators go to the government.

Leasing the jeep and bus fleet of Metro Manila is the first step toward phasing out the franchise system and replacing it with a transport contracts system where government awards only a handful of transport operators who are able to deliver the most efficient transport services at the highest standards and the lowest price. Government receives all the revenues for public transport and is the one that pays the transport operators a pre-determined fee, based on public bidding. This is the same system employed by the cities of Seoul, London and most advanced countries.

Secretary Tugade is wise to use this crisis as a defining moment to modernize our transport system into one that is technologically driven, sustainable and efficient. If he pulls it off, he will come down in history as the most astute Transportation Secretary the country has ever had. Let’s hope the next few months will be revolutionary for Philippine public transport.


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