Transport new normal
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - June 3, 2020 - 12:00am

Early in the pandemic, a government official voiced something learned from the COVID quarantine: if you want to empty the streets and force people to stay home, suspend mass transportation.

In fact it was a combination of factors that forced compliance with quarantine rules (with the exception of privileged VIPs like Koko Pimentel and Debold Sinas), foremost of which was a genuine fear of coronavirus infection.

But yes, the lack of public transportation made it impossible for many businesses to operate, including those that were allowed to remain open throughout the pandemic such as food service establishments.

Only a few companies (like the PhilStar media group) have shuttles for employees.

Gradual reopening of the economy means the gradual return of mass transportation. The challenge is to have the public transport capacity match the demand.

I don’t know if there was any effort to calculate the number of people who would be returning to work in Metro Manila last Monday, the first day of the shift to general community quarantine or GCQ. Maybe even the highest-capacity computer would have been unable to make a rough estimate.

Schools remained closed but enrollment started on June 1, and government offices operated at just 50 percent capacity. Dining establishments operated at about 30 percent capacity without dine-in or remained shuttered. Shopping malls also operated at limited capacity. Couldn’t the numbers have been crunched for a ballpark figure on the mass transport demand under GCQ?

At any rate, it was clear throughout Day One of the GCQ that the public transport facilities allowed to operate were pitifully inadequate.

Commuters complained of waiting up to four hours to find a ride. Some had to walk several kilometers before they could get a ride, and then they had to forget physical distancing as they jostled for a spot on the few buses available. Others gave up and informed their employers that they couldn’t make it to work.

*      *      *

For motorists, that’s one thing I miss from the enhanced community quarantine: my daily drive of an hour to the office cut to just 30 minutes. The five-minute challenge of driving from Cubao, Quezon City to Makati was finally met during the ECQ.

On Monday, there was traffic buildup on certain major thoroughfares along my route, but overall, traffic was still pretty light. But this was in the early afternoon. The evening rush-hour traffic on roads such as Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City looked bad.

A new phenomenon on the thoroughfares was the increase in the number of motorcycles and the new favored mode of transportation, bicycles.

Following their disastrous commute on Day One of GCQ, I can bet that more people are considering buying bicycles – that is, if they still have money to spare in this pandemic.

Across our newspaper office in Manila’s Port Area, even motorcycle riders are buying bicycles. The demand is so high that the Department of Trade and Industry is reportedly considering imposing price controls at least on the low-end and midlevel bicycles.

The development of a cycling culture, which is kinder on the environment, is one of the pluses that could come out of this crisis.

Transport authorities are now seriously considering the provision of special bicycle lanes and parking stations in more areas in Metro Manila. Several cities already have such areas, but these could become more ubiquitous in the new normal.

*      *      *

Cycling is a clear winner in this pandemic, but there are many losers. In the mass transport sector, the biggest loser is the traditional jeepney.

Albert Suansing, Department of Transportation assistant secretary for the road sector, categorically told “The Chiefs” on One News / TV 5 at the end of GCQ Day One that traditional jeepneys will no longer be allowed to return along the key thoroughfares of Metro Manila, even when all quarantine restrictions are lifted.

After June 21, when more restrictions are expected to be eased (unless there’s a spike in COVID cases, and we return to ECQ), only “standardized jeepneys” would be allowed to resume operations, Suansing told us.

Standardized jeepneys are the modernized versions where passengers board from the side, and the aisle is wide enough for people to stand, like in a mini bus. They are typically electric-powered, or run on a combination of electric and solar power. Many offer free WiFi and gadget charging outlets, silent TV viewing and digital computation of fares.

Some standardized units are now painted in the gay Pinoy fiesta motifs of the traditional jeepney.

Suansing said the original June 30 deadline for the jeepney modernization (the word “phaseout” is being avoided) and shift to the standardized units would push through.

Jeepneys would henceforth be relegated to smaller, less busy streets in urban centers, and in the countryside. Less busy, however, means fewer passengers and therefore lower earnings.

While this is not a total phaseout, it would take the traditional jeepney out of the main routes. In Metro Manila, this could include the most profitable routes such as those around Manila’s University Belt, Quezon Avenue, Rizal Avenue, Commonwealth, Boni, Gil Puyat, C.M. Recto and Taft Avenues.

The government had been discussing the public utility vehicle modernization program with jeepney operators and drivers since 2017, Suansing pointed out, and the pandemic would allow the PUV program to finally push through.

He says there have been too many jeepneys allowed particularly in Metro Manila, and too many bus companies given franchises.

The overcapacity has meant dog-eat-dog competition for passengers, with PUVs stopping even in the middle of the street to pick up a single passenger. It meant traffic chaos.

*      *      *

Under the transport new normal, bus franchises in Metro Manila will be drastically reduced from the current 96 to just 31. Bus deployment will be rationalized, increasing during rush hours. Along the busiest route, EDSA, the number of buses allowed along the dedicated bus lanes will be cut from the current 2,500 to just 600.

An initial 2,000 standardized jeepneys have been allowed in Metro Manila – way below the current 55,000 traditional jeepneys.

Traditional jeepney operators and drivers have been given until June 30 to consolidate, rationalize their franchises and possibly jointly invest in the standardized units. Otherwise, Suansing said, “they lose their chance of (getting) another franchise to operate on that route.”

The operators and drivers have until December to appeal any cancellation of franchise.

Yesterday, as promised by the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, hundreds of additional buses were fielded, and there were no more stranded commuters.

The gradual reopening of economic activities in the next few days will indicate whether the country is on the right track in creating a new normal in public transport.

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