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Luzon-wide transport ban hurts the poor, subverts public health

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Kailangan ng taong pumunta sa palengke para bumili ng pagkain, sa botika para bumili ng gamot, at sa ospital para magpa-check-up o magpa-opera. Paano makararating sa ospital ang buntis para manganak at si lola para magpa-dialysis kung walang pampublikong transportasyon? (People need to go to the market to buy food, to the drugstore to buy medicine, to the hospital for a check-up or an operation. How can the pregnant women get to the hospital to give birth or the grandmother for her dialysis if there is no public transportation?)

In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the island of Luzon has been placed under “enhanced community quarantine,” which includes a total ban on public transport. This means that while essential trips — such as those related to healthcare and food — are allowed, there are no trains, buses, jeepneys, utility vehicles, and tricycles, except for those identified as shuttle services for frontliners and the occasional ordinary citizen.

While the health objectives of the quarantine are understandable, this blanket policy must be relaxed to allow limited public transport operations that can serve all essential trips of frontline workers and ordinary citizens (e.g., for food, healthcare, medicine).

First, a ban that allows only private cars, bicycles, or walking does not consider the reality of our city. A 2015 study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency found that only 12% of Metro Manila households have a car. Currently, there is no need for a study to see that Metro Manila is ill-equipped for cyclists and pedestrians.

Second, government-operated shuttles for frontline workers — while commendable efforts — are insufficient and do not provide direct access to their homes. Beyond trunkline services, many are left without proper first and last mile connections.

Third, the ban fails to consider citizens who cannot walk and who, additionally, may need access to regular healthcare services. While hospitals typically have ambulances to transport patients that need urgent attention, these vehicles are not enough to serve all citizens that require access to services such as pregnancy checkups, chemotherapy, or dialysis. Practically speaking, ambulances may also be too wide to pass through some neighborhoods.

Fourth, it should be noted that many other cities dealing with COVID-19 have kept public transport operational. In Singapore, public transport workers are considered as frontline staff, together with healthcare workers, civil servants, and cleaning staff. In Daegu, South Korea, the capacity of public transport was increased to avoid crowding and to allow people to observe social distancing measures. In Europe, while the European Commission has proposed the restriction of non-essential travel to the European Union for 30 days, the mobility sector was not brought to a halt — fast lanes were even designated to give priority to essential travel. In China, while mass transit was suspended in Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic, other major cities such as Shenzhen kept public transport operating at reduced capacity.

The suspension of mass transit in Luzon has led to grave consequences for our fellow Filipinos. Expectant mothers are left with no means to go to the hospital. Cancer and dialysis patients are forced to walk for hours to access essential treatments. Healthcare workers with no access to shuttle services or alternative transport modes are compelled to walk home after their 24-hour shifts. Ordinary citizens have limited access to basic needs such as food and healthcare.

With the onset of the dry season, walking several kilometers under the heat of the sun becomes more difficult, especially for patients, persons with disability, the elderly, and other vulnerable groups, and this may negatively impact their immune system against COVID-19 and other illnesses. For the less able, these barriers make access to basic needs extremely difficult, if not downright Impossible.

In order to provide essential mobility for all while observing necessary health protocols to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) must allow local government units to:

1. Identify skeletal public transport routes necessary to serve essential trips for frontliners, healthcare workers, and even ordinary citizens within their locality, provided that safety measures are strictly observed. These public transport services may include buses and jeepneys, and should serve main transit corridors.

2. Permit tricycle operations at limited capacity, provided that safety measures are strictly observed. Tricycles can provide a point-to-point transport option for the 88% who do not have cars to take necessary trips, similar to how car owners are able to access necessities while practicing social distancing.

In his Memorandum dated March 16, Executive Secretary Medialdea noted that establishments providing basic necessities related to food, medicine, banking, energy, water, telecommunications, and media, shall remain operational, along with the skeletal workforce of export-oriented companies.

Based on the July 2019 Labor Force Survey, the National Capital Region has an estimated 5.4 million labor force. On a high-level analysis, it is estimated that 11.8% of this work in the services mentioned above. This equates to around 637,200 people who need transport options to enable them to continue working for the establishments. If we are to serve 50% of this daily demand (~320,000 daily trips), and assuming that each trip of a bus and a tricycle will be limited to 20 passengers and one passenger each, respectively, then a high-level analysis shows that we need to provide:

1. 1,000 buses doing 10 trips per day = 200,000 person-trips; and,

2. 6,000 tricycles doing 20 trips per day = 120,000 person-trips.

These must be deployed in various critical routes identified by the LGUs and the IATF-EID to sufficiently serve the necessary work.

Moreover, normal citizens that need to access food and healthcare must be provided public transport services so that their families can remain healthy. According to the PSA 2016 Household Population Survey, Metro Manila has an estimated 3.1 million households. Assuming that these households each take one necessary trip per week, then it is estimated that around 440,000 trips need to be done per day. To serve 50% of this demand (~220,000 daily trips) and assuming the same passenger capacities as above, government is recommended to provide an additional:

1. 500 buses doing 10 trips per day = 100,000 person-trips; and,

2. 6,000 tricycles doing 20 trips per day = 120,000 person-trips

Safety measures must of course be observed for all transport operations. This should include, but not be limited to: providing protective equipment to drivers; restricting passengers per trip to half of the vehicle capacity for PUVs (e.g., 20 people for buses), and to one passenger for tricycles; installing physical barriers between the driver and passenger/s; limiting human contact when giving cash payments; observing social distancing even while queueing; providing regular disinfection services to all operational vehicles; and regulating the number and service hours of PUVs and tricycles on the road.

Public transport is a public health issue. By making necessary or unavoidable trips inconvenient and unsafe for frontline workers and ordinary citizens, we are exposing our people to unnecessary risks during an already difficult time. We need to provide our people with clean, efficient, and safe public transport for essential, unavoidable trips. Without these safe options, we are putting our people at risk of getting unnecessarily tired, going hungry, and ultimately being more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.

 

Sarah Arrojado, Regina Mora, and Jedd Ugay are members of AltMobility PH, a group of urban transport experts advocating for sensible and humane transport policies. AltMobility PH is a partner of Action for Economic Reforms.

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