What's stopping you from using public transport?

Published on Friday, 26 August 2016

Published by Haidy Ear-Dupuy on Friday, 26 August 2016

Commuters hop on a public bus in Manila.
Commuters hop on a public bus in Manila.

In anticipation of ADB’s upcoming Transport Forum, we asked the question in our monthly blog poll: ‘How can we get people to use public transport more?’ 

This question has been a part of my daily commute for the past four years, as I’ve weighed all the options to commute in Metro Manila, to get from Ortigas where ADB headquarters is located to Alabang, a residential suburb in the South. While I love the cooler air and greener spaces of Alabang, getting to and from work each day was a drag. The thought of driving my car onto the streets of Manila used to bring knots to my stomach as I left the office at the end of each working day. Will there be a truck broken down in the middle of the road? Will there be an accident along the way? Or did I leave the office at the right time to avoid the bottleneck of Bonifacio Global City? These are just some of my daily preoccupations with Manila traffic. 

Every day, I admire all of my courageous Filipino colleagues who live farther South and commute faithfully. Some have done it for more than twenty years, and many use public transport because they do not have any other choice. For those with access to private vehicles and drivers, being stuck in a car with a smartphone is an opportunity to clear the email inbox. The lucky few with the means to buy a car and hire a driver have less need to think about public transport. Why care? The problem is not solvable.

So what will make people use public transport here in Manila? Answering that question requires a more comprehensive look at the entire Metro Manila and its surrounding infrastructure.

 A March 2014 report by the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Philippines National Economic Development Authority conducted a review and outlined a roadmap for transport and infrastructure development for Metro Manila, where the need for improving infrastructure is immense.  The population growth of the city, through a high fertility rate and inward migration, have increased faster than the development of its roads and public transport system.  In 2010, the Greater Capital Region (GCR) had a landmass of 39,500 km² accommodating 34.6 million inhabitants. There is not enough public transport to serve the needs of this mega city.

Although Metro Manila was the first big city in the region to develop a modern urban railway, development and improvement of the system have not kept up with the time and changing needs of the population. According to the 2014 study, “the railway system serving the GCR spans 79 km in 4 lines, and carries about 1.3 million passengers per day. Only 5 km of the 73-km planned expansion (laid out in 1998) got built in the last decade.” The Metro Rail Transit (MRT) system that was designed to meet the needs of 360,000 riders now serves 560,000 riders per day, with demand expected to rise to 1.2 million in the near future. The report cited the road network as in better condition, but its distribution is inadequate with 424 vehicles per km.

The report further listed public transport as comprising privately-owned tricycles, taxis, community taxis called FX vans, jeepneys and buses. The iconic jeepneys of the Philippines number 48,366 units in the GCR, covering about 600 routes according to a 2007 survey. They compete for passengers in scarce roads, creating more traffic than it solves and moving at a speed of 12-15km/h. In reality, what we have in Metro Manila is a mix of mostly private solutions to a public problem. Thousands of little white vans ferrying passengers crammed together, hundreds of old, smoke-spewing jeepneys with passengers hanging on for dear life, and speeding buses (about 3,000 units covering 62 routes) racing to catch the most passengers are not public transport at all. 

Given the limited availability of public transportation, what can each of us do to help improve the system? Take the first step by using it. Dare to commute with the masses. I’ve recently made the decision to move from Alabang to Makati and to use the MRT. If public transportation will not come to me, I will go to it… though at a significant cost to my rental bill. In return for that I’ve benefited from a short commute – from one hour to 15 minutes, saving Php2,000 in gasoline each week while helping the environment.

Some of the reasons holding back other colleagues from using public transportation include that trains often break down, are full of pickpockets and prone to petty crimes, and do not have enough connections. The choice lies with the individual, but reducing traffic on the road starts with each one of us taking our cars off the highway. If all of us were to use the MRT, we can help to make it better. So, why aren’t you using public transport?