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Mass transport one of the keys to economic recovery

By Revin Mikhael D. Ochave, Reporter

OF THE many that need to happen for the economy to recover, perhaps the most overlooked is the state of the mass transport industry.

Robert Y. Siy, a development economist and city and regional planner, believes a stable public transportation system is crucial for keeping essential services running, eventually facilitating the reopening of the economy.

On the other hand, inadequate mass transport is a risk for crowding — which in turn is a risk for further outbreaks.

“If public transport is insufficient, people will be forced into long queues or crowd into limited public transport at stops, stations and terminals. Crowding increases the risk of virus transmission,” Mr. Siy said in an e-mail interview.

Mr. Siy said supply needs to increase, or at least to be kept from collapsing in the short term.

Failing this, commuters need options, like safe walking and cycling lanes. Such mobility options in turn decongest the transport system.

Bicycle and walking lanes “are also health-inducing and environment-friendly modes of travel, so it makes sense for the government to invest much more in public transport infrastructure and to allocate more road space to these modes,” Mr. Siy said.

“Apart from funding these improvements in our streets and bridges, a low-cost and high impact measure is to make selected streets in neighborhoods closed to through traffic, so these areas can be converted into parks and community public space while being safe for walking and cycling,” he added.

In July, the Department of Transportation (DoTr) opened a 313-kilometer Metro Manila bike lane network traversing Pasig, Marikina, Quezon City, Caloocan, Manila, San Juan, Mandaluyong, Makati, Pasay, Las Piñas, Parañaque, and Taguig.

The DoTr said the bike lanes are 1.5 to 3 meters wide depending on the availability of road space. The Metro Manila bike lane network is part of a broader national effort that also includes 497 kilometers in Metro Cebu and Metro Davao.

It added that the network can accommodate a total of 1,250 cyclists per hour for every meter of road space.

Mr. Siy urged the government to authorize all open-air jeepneys to operate, citing their ventilation advantage during the pandemic.

“Airconditioned buses, jeepneys and UV Express vans should be instructed to operate at all times with some windows open so there is constant air exchange,” Mr. Siy said.

He said there is also a need to review the rules on plastic barriers in vehicles and on motorcycle taxis.

“The plastic barriers within the vehicles may actually hinder the air exchange; on motorcycle taxis, there is questionable value in having the plastic barriers between the driver and passenger; it has also been reported as making the motorcycle less stable during travel,” Mr. Siy said.

John Paul C. Dungo, an architect, uses public transport to get from his home in Mandaluyong to work in Pasay.

Mr. Dungo typically rides tricycles, buses, and trains to get to work. Despite the pandemic, he said the number of commuters he encounters during his daily commute remains the same, which makes him wary.

“I usually catch three rides to get to the office. However, it is stressful especially during rush hour since there are a lot of people outside,” Mr. Dungo said in a mobile phone interview.

According to Mr. Dungo, vehicles he uses observe health protocols such as social distancing, with the exception of buses.

He said bus operators typically do not observe face shield rules and carry more passengers than the prescribed capacity.

“There are times when I ride a bus that people are standing in the middle with their face shields not worn properly. I am scared to go home during rush hour due to the volume of commuters which is why I usually let rush hour pass even if I get home later than usual, just to be safe,” Mr. Dungo said.

He said the operators are not entirely to blame, as often “it is the passengers who do not follow.”

Mr. Dungo said his company has offered a dormitory in Pasay to accommodate employees living some distance from the office. However, he opted not to live in the dormitory in an effort to limit his expenses.

“Employees in the dormitory do not pay rent. They just pay for utilities such as water and electricity and their daily needs. But I did not avail of the dormitory benefit because I want to save some money,” Mr. Dungo said.

Mr. Dungo said he has as yet remained safe and uninfected by coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

“There have also been no reported COVID-19 cases in our office since we follow protocols,” Mr. Dungo said.

Rene S. Santiago, a transport expert, said in an email interview that the government needs a more scientific approach to making transportation more resilient against the pandemic.

“In the early days, the government imposed so many requirements without science. The poster child is the plastic barrier for motorcycle riders, which are useless. More science is needed. It may involve systematic trial-and-error, as differentiated from error after error,” Mr. Santiago said.

Mr. Santiago said that economic recovery will falter if transportation does not improve.

He said more investment is needed in city sidewalks, adding that bike lanes should be more than “decorative.” He said more immediate alternatives are needed beyond long-gestation railway projects.

“Very little money is required to have mainstream mobility as a service,” Mr. Santiago said.

Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) Chairman Martin B. Delgra III said in a television interview in August that public transport in Metro Manila and across the country has returned to about 85% of pre-pandemic levels.

He said health protocol violations are still being reported in public transport like the absence of plastic barriers, overloading, and failure to wear face masks and shields.

During his sixth and final State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July, President Rodrigo R. Duterte touted improvements in the transport system, such as the improved Metro Rail Transit Line 3 (MRT-3), where train breakdowns have tailed off and capacity and speed have increased; the opening of the Light Rail Transit Line 2 (LRT-2) East Extension Project; and the opening of the Stage 3 of the Metro Manila Skyway.

Mr. Siy said work-from-home arrangements should continue, adding that companies that offer shuttle service to employees must do so with proper ventilation, which means open windows.

“The pandemic has demonstrated that many business and office functions in both the public and private sectors can be handled through work-from-home. As much as possible, to reduce the potential for virus transmission within an enclosed office space, such jobs should be permitted to continue done home,” Mr. Siy said.  

Ira Cruz, director of transport advocacy group AltMobility PH, said transportation should not be viewed as a medium for COVID-19 transmission, but instead as a means to move essential personnel, such as health workers and other frontliners.

Mr. Cruz said by mobile phone that the pandemic has “simply amplified” transportation issues that had not been addressed by the government.

“Mobility is a basic component in order to build livable and resilient cities — and a resilient city is conducive for economic growth. Mobility across cities plays an important role in supporting economic activity, which is why the efficient movement of people and goods should be guaranteed,” Mr. Cruz said.

“Suspending or limiting public transportation or condoning harsh conditions for pedestrians and bikers impairs the critical services that they provide — healthcare, food, and supplies,” he added.

Mr. Cruz called for the passage of the Magna Carta of Commuters to promote active forms of transportation.

According to Mr. Cruz, the bill aims to update government policy and standards to improve overall mobility, starting from better sidewalk design and implementation of bike infrastructure.

“The bill covers better pedestrian infrastructure such as sufficient and unobstructed sidewalks, favoring at-grade crossings, the availability of end-of-trip facilities such as bike parking, lockers, showers, and protected bike lanes,” Mr. Cruz said.

“The proposed bill also includes the prioritization of public transportation from road space to traffic signals, provision of decent and sufficient transit stops, availability of transit information, updated service standards, and a dedicated office for commuter welfare, among others,” he added.

George I. Royeca, co-founder of motorcycle ride-hailing firm Angkas and the organization’s chief transport advocate, said the private sector should continually invest in making public transportation more efficient via the use of technology.

Mr. Royeca said in a phone interview that such investments can include mobile applications for the scheduling of mass transit.

“If we had an app to find out exactly what the schedule is, it will make it more efficient for us to plan our day. You see this in other countries, with their trains and buses. So even something as simple as a scheduling app I think will make a huge difference,” Mr. Royeca said.

“We need to treat COVID as endemic. It is something that is going to be living with us just like traffic and we need to constantly find ways to make sure that we are protected from it. There are two things we need to think about. One is safety and protection from accidents on the road for our commuters, and number two is safety from any type of transmissible disease,” he added.

Meanwhile, Mr. Santiago, the transportation expert, said companies should draft hybrid working protocols to be able to operate even during lockdown. He said the pandemic made things especially difficult for the few commuters that needed to travel, thus increasing the risk of transmission.

“We have to learn to dance with COVID-19 and future epidemics. Business resiliency demands preparing flexible, smaller teams that can spring into action and sustain operations even if in degraded mode,” Mr. Santiago said.

Mr. Royeca of Angkas said work-from-home arrangements are going to be part of the landscape moving forward, but said face-to-face interaction is still necessary in many industries.

“You will need public transportation and you will need this kind of mobility because as we saw just before this lockdown, and as we vaccinate more and more people, we’ve had a sneak peek of the traffic we can expect all over again,” Mr. Royeca said.