By Arjay L. Balinbin, Senior Reporter

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION should not be suspended whenever the government implements lockdown or quarantine measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), a business group said.

The Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) on Wednesday submitted to Transportation Secretary Arthur P. Tugade a set of recommendations to further improve the state of public transportation amid the pandemic, including allowing rail transit to operate at 50% capacity and adopting a congestion pricing scheme for private vehicles in Metro Manila.

“COVID-19 is a virus we may have to live with over an indefinite period requiring periodic quarantine/lockdown (hopefully on a localized basis); thus, we strongly recommend that public transportation be reclassified as an essential industry that must not be suspended during a selective quarantine/lockdown but the number of buses, jeepneys, light rail trips and tricycles should be reduced to comply with the level of quarantine/lockdown,” the MAP said.

The business group suggested allowing the rail transit system in the National Capital Region (NCR) operate at a 50% load factor, similar to jeepneys and buses under a general community quarantine (GCQ).

The MAP noted the movement of people and cargo via rail is “one of the most efficient forms of public transportation as it allows high passenger throughput, exclusive right of way and use of full rolling stock.”

Light Rail Manila Corp. (LRMC), the private operator of the Light Rail Transit Line 1 (LRT-1), told BusinessWorld the Philippines is the “only country in the world left with tight load restrictions.”

“All ASEAN countries have lifted public transport restrictions. Rail also offers the fastest journey. It is safer since there is less time for possible exposure….  We are confident that we’ll be able to continue operating LRT-1 safely should the rail transit system be allowed to operate at a 50% load factor,” Jacqueline S. Gorospe, LRMC corporate communications head, said in a phone message.

With Metro Manila under GCQ, the LRT-1 is allowed to ferry 158 passengers or 12% of its capacity per trip, while the LRT-2 can ferry 160 passengers or 10% of its capacity per trip. The Metro Rail Transit Line 3 is allowed to have 153 passengers or 13% of its capacity for every trip, while the  Philippine National Railways train can have an average of 148 passengers or 20% of its capacity.

To address problems regarding public buses, the MAP said all buses should have speed limiters to ensure they will comply with the maximum speed limit of 40 kilometers per hour. Buses should also follow a fixed headway of two to three minutes, with one minute to unload and pick up passengers at designated stops.

“The timing of the bus arrivals and the MRT arrivals/departures from the MRT station should be synchronized as much as possible so that a seamless flow between MRT and bus passengers is achieved,” it said.

The MAP also suggested stiff penalties for bus drivers who violate speed limits and loading/unloading times. A bus driver may face cancellation of driver’s license, while the bus operator may be slapped with a P50,000 fine. 

Ang average speed naman talaga sa EDSA is less than 40 kilometers per hour…. Siguro they recommended that because there are barriers on the side and we saw a lot of accidents because of that,” Victory Liner Spokesperson Alex R. Briones said in a phone interview.

Mr. Briones said there are already existing regulations on speed limits, so what is needed is strict implementation.

Meanwhile, the MAP emphasized that jeepneys are necessary to meet the transport demands in Metro Manila. The business group proposed a fixed salary for jeepney drivers and the reorganization of routes.

“There is a need to deploy jeepneys as soon as possible due to public need for which rationalization of jeepneys should be considered in terms of consortia, a strict vehicle inspection system and driver’s fixed salaries (rather than the current boundary system),” the MAP said.

For the medium term, the MAP suggested a congestion pricing for private vehicles in order to address NCR’s traffic problem.

“Congestion pricing should be considered for private vehicles to manage congestion in the still to be identified business centers and chokepoints in the 17 LGUs that compose the NCR,” it said.

Transportation Assistant Secretary Goddes Hope O. Libiran told BusinessWorld via phone the concept of congestion pricing, which has been proposed by various groups, is not a priority of the department for now.

“It’s not timely to implement that kasi may mga limitations pa sa travel because of the general community quarantine. I proposed that five years ago because of the traffic congestion, but it cannot be immediately implemented because you need time to put the electronics, the devices to implement that. It needs about a year or two to do that,” transport expert Rene S. Santiago told BusinessWorld in a phone interview.

“It’s worth a study now but you cannot implement it during this time…. Apply the road congestion pricing when all the transport capacities are all there,” he added.