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Commentary: Troubles in transportation

Hordes of passengers endure congestion in trains or long waits in traffic as they brave the struggles of getting around Metro Manila everyday. The recent incidents in the past month that brought attention to flaws in the transportation system gave way to claims of a “mass transport crisis” in the nation’s capital.

In contrast to Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo and the Metro Manila Development Authority downplaying the problem as a “traffic issue”, Vice President Leni Robredo and Samar Congressman and Chair of the House Committee on Transportation Edgar Mary Sarmiento, were more direct in acknowledging the unfortunate state of affairs.

Those on the side of the administration may argue that the current problems do not constitute a crisis, while the multitudes that experience the ills of the transportation sector may beg to disagree. Regardless of what the concept of a “crisis” entails and whether it applies in the present context, one truth cannot be denied: the transportation system is plagued with troubles.

By rail

For the Manila commuter who relies on public transportation to get to and from school or work every day, the inescapability of patronizing a defective transport sector must be an exhausting reality. 

Of the three train lines that connect different parts of the Metro—the Light Rail Transit (LRT) 1, LRT 2, and Metro Rail Transit (MRT) 3—not one is free from constant issues; the first week of October alone saw technical problems across all of them. In a span of two days, LRT 1 had to close two stops, while LRT 2 and MRT 3 had to suspend operations for a period of time, all due to glitches.

Within this period, the Light Rail Transit Authority also had to stop its services in three contiguous LRT 2 stations, after a fire hit one of the line’s power transformers, causing what is expected to be a months-long closure.

But these are only the latest cases in a history of breakdowns. The MRT 3, for instance, has been hit by malfunctions since 2012—a fact acknowledged even on its own website. The same source reports that in 2014, the railway’s trains had become slower amid an increase in passenger count.

The regular train passenger is too familiar with the mental image of queueing for and eventually squeezing into a worn-down train, which may or may not suddenly break down mid-ride.

By road

When the train network proves unreliable, many passengers resort to other modes of public transportation instead, with options such as taxis, jeepneys, buses, and UV Express vehicles. Those that choose this option, however, run the risk of getting stuck in Manila’s gridlock, which on average takes more than an hour off of motorists’ and passengers’ time each day, according to a 2017 report by the Boston Consulting Group. 

But just when efficiency is crucial for the commuter, that is, during peak hours, the traffic time was found to rise by 132 percent. This means that those who travel during rush hour in the morning and at night could be on the road for over three hours daily.

Even when the three primary railways run at full—or more accurately, beyond full—capacity, commuters already struggle to hail their rides. The hundreds that are affected by offloading incidents or suspension of operations add to this difficulty. Thus, one should not be surprised to see many of them flock the streets, competing for seats in public utility vehicles (PUVs), as the demand rises way beyond the usual.

When a normally thrifty passenger is unable to catch a ride on a jeepney, a UV Express car, or a bus, they may not be left with any other option besides taking a cab, which is obviously more expensive than other modes of transportation. But getting one that is not already occupied can be just as challenging, and using a ride-hailing app only adds to the cost.

For the PUV patron, the dilemma is clear: spend more time and energy or spend more money.


Ending indignity

The difficulties of using the mass transport system have therefore given rise to the sentiment that commuting in Metro Manila is undignified. As a potential remedy, the rights of commuters have been outlined in two bills, The Dignity in Commuting Act and The Magna Carta of Commuters, filed in the Senate and the House of Representatives, respectively.

These measures both direct the government to “ensure that adequate public transportation services are available to meet the needs of commuters” among other provisions. The version in the upper chamber expounds on this by outlining the provisions for the adequacy of passenger vehicles, which it says must be sufficient in both quantity and frequency such that commuters will not have to wait for over 10 minutes at stops and terminals even when demand peaks.

Other common stipulations in both are guarantees on rights to fair shares of public road space, compensation in cases of breakdowns or deficiencies, and participation in relevant decision-making processes. As an expected result, the quality of public transportation services will have to improve for passengers’ welfare.

This means making the daily commute experience not only bearable but satisfactory. Toward this end, appropriate and adequate infrastructure has to be put in place and current networks have to be made more efficient so they can cater to more areas and more passengers.

But, of course, none of these is achievable if government officials do not first recognize that the problems in transportation exist and that they are actually as dire as they sound, maybe even more so. The defectiveness of the transport system is there. Commuters live through it. Everyone else sees it; government officials should too.

By Jan Emmanuel Alonzo

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