Mobility in the new normal Part 2 - Increasing public transport capacity
STREETLIFE - Nigel Paul Villarete (The Freeman) - May 26, 2020 - 12:00am

It is obvious, of course, that one aspect of the new normal is to reduce trip demand, which we will discuss later. But assuming that demand remains the same, the supply side has to make the drastic changes required by social distancing. The first automatic direct change is a reduction in vehicle capacity when a minimum distance is required between passengers. Considering only seating capacity, keeping one seat vacant between passengers automatically means a 50% reduction.

But most, if not all, of the efficient public transportation, pre-pandemic times, includes standing passengers, which, evidently may not be allowed in the new normal unless strict distancing is enforced. We can remember images of passengers being forced-crammed into trains in Tokyo and elsewhere. The buses in EDSA, or even the MyBus services in Cebu always have standing passengers, almost as many or even more than the seated ones. If buses and trains are to resume, we are looking at capacities of maybe 12% to 25% of the old normal.

But (again, assuming nothing is done with the demand), the system is expected to move the same number of people each day as before the pandemic. With such an overly depressed capacity, there are three things that can be done: 1.) Increase fleet capacity, 2.) Increase vehicle capacity, or 3.) Increase the frequency. Most probably a combination of two or all three. This is simply warp speed, of course, because even without the pandemic, this is the due course in public transport improvement, especially on the increasing vehicle capacity aspect. There should have been a constant shift towards bigger moving capacity system, from multicabs, to jeepneys, to buses, and to mass transport like BRT’s and rail-based transport.

The first step is to upgrade jeepneys to mini-buses or buses. The PUJ modernization plan which sometimes resulted to even smaller capacities, is something I never fully understood. This time, government is forced to deploy buses. For all urban transport trips! (We’ll discuss about the fate of the jeepneys in the next write-up). This should be in tandem with the deployment of the Cebu BRT, from Bulacao to Talamban (or beyond), which can be rolled out fast, even without the segregated lanes. Then the frequencies can be adjusted. This should work well with the provincial trip demand, too. Compensate the social distancing capacity reduction with bigger capacity of more efficient vehicles, and fixed, manageable frequencies.

There’s a big issue associated with this, however --social distancing is most needed at boarding and alighting point, and the lesser there are, the better for everybody. Taking two or more trips to work, doubles, triples, and multiplies your risk of catching COVID-19 --it’s in the transfer areas that people mix (and in a hurried, careless manner at that!). Direct trips are better at reducing contagion, and that’s why new routes have to be established based on the most recent origin-destination (O-D) data, especially for home-to-work trips. The new network/system should be able to carry the demand, pre-pandemic, and even more. There’s a huge cost, though, which we will try to tackle in the next write-up. (To be continued)

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