A change to better commuting behavior
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - October 2, 2020 - 12:00am

The first two days of the return of provincial buses back on the roads of Metro Manila albeit on 12 routes only understandably turned out slow and low. It could hardly jumpstart back to life the moribund public transport business. After six months since March 15 when we had a series of community quarantines, many provinces keep their borders close where the routes of these provincial buses pass through going to and fro Metro Manila.

This is not totally unexpected. After all, the 16 cities and one municipality of Metro Manila comprising the national capital region (NCR) remain as the epicenter of the deadly coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19. Naturally, the local government units (LGUs) along these provincial bus routes fear of local transmissions to rise in their areas.

But more than any other reasons, it is obviously still the fears and concerns of the commuting public themselves from getting infected of the COVID-19 contagion. Thus, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) has come out with stringent health protocols to ensure the protection of the riding public in these provincial buses.

The LTFRB guidelines, among other provisions, require passengers to secure a travel authority pass in order to cross borders; to observe health protocols while inside buses like wearing of face masks and face shields; and, pre-booking of their rides. Eating, drinking, use of mobile phones, and talking to other passengers are likewise strictly prohibited during the trip, according to the LTFRB.

Both provincial and city buses are now required, too, Beep cards for cash-less payment of fares. Yesterday, Department of Transportation (DOTr) Secretary Arthur Tugade asked the consortium that operates the automatic fare collection system to just give for free the stored value cards or “Beep” cards to commuters once they buy the load for the fare.

For provincial buses operators, on the other hand, the LTFRB require them the use of thermal scanning gadget to check body temperature of their passengers; installation of footbath mats in all bus units, and, to limit load to 50 percent capacity to ensure the one-meter social distancing. These are the same requirements imposed by the LTFRB to city buses in Metro Manila, in addition to existing road safety requirements even before there was no COVID-19 pandemic yet.

These are the new commuting behavior under the so-called “new normal” while this public health crisis persists.

Once these provincial buses come in the NCR, it is the mandate of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) to ensure strict compliance of these so-called minimum health protocols imposed by the LTFRB in all these public transports. Both the LTFRB and the MMDA implement these anti-COVID measures in consonance with the quarantine guidelines set forth by the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging and Infectious Disease (IATF-MEID).

These were the reassurances to the public of LTFRB chairman Martin Delgra and MMDA general manager Jojo Garcia during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay via Zoom Webinar last Wednesday. Alex Yague, the official spokesman of the Provincial Bus Operators Association of the Philippines (PBOAP), joined us in our weekly virtual news forum.

The initial resumption of provincial buses back on the roads of NCR and 12 other bus routes in Regions 3 and 4A were provided for under LTFRB Memorandum Circular 2020-051. Initially, these include the LGUs along the bus routes in Batangas, Cavite, Laguna and Pampanga.

According to the LTFRB circular, authorized bus units to and from Metro Manila and San Fernando City, Pampanga, will be rerouted through Mindanao Ave., Congressional Ave., Katipunan Ave., on the way to Araneta Center, Cubao as their terminal. And all trips from Laguna, Cavite, and Batangas will end at Paranaque Integrated Terminal Exchange, or PITx.

All bus units and terminals are required to undergo regular monitoring and disinfection, LTFRB chief stressed.

The gradual re-opening of the initial 12 routes took long to implement, Delgra explained, because the LTFRB conducted first a series of consultation meetings with all the stakeholders. These included, he enumerated, the bus operators and commuter groups as well as the LGUs in Metro Manila and respective LGUs along the routes in Regions 3 and 4A.

“This is not only an issue of public transport, but of public health,” Delgra stressed.

The LTFRB chairman announced the next routes, including the “long-haul” trips of provincial buses would also be reopened soon following the same required consultation process. On his instructions, Delgra disclosed, the LTFRB regional offices have been conducting such consultation meetings with all the stakeholders concerned under their respective jurisdictions.

Speaking for the MMDA, Garcia welcomed the consultations being done with the Metro Manila Council composed of the Metro Manila mayors. The MMDA also sits as one of the members of the MMC. During our Kapihan sa Manila Bay Webinar, Yague attributed the very low turnout of provincial buses to the heavy financial loss being shouldered by the operators to strictly comply with the IATF regulations.

Yague warned this situation might become magnet for “colorum” operators, or those without LTFRB franchise to fill the gap.

Yague conceded, the bus operators can not unilaterally raise their fares to offset the additional costs of anti-COVID measures since they under the LTFRB regulation. To help ease some of their financial burden, Delgra informed Yague he will issue the guideline soon to waive the payment of the annual LTFRB supervision fee for this year charged to all bus franchise operators. This was in response to the letter/appeal of the PBOAP to the LTFRB. Delgra admitted this will cost the government P80 to P100 million foregone revenue from this source of the LTFRB.

This is the brave new world we live in. With the pandemic still hovering all around us, we have to adapt to the better commuting behavior while the anti-COVID vaccine has yet to come out.

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