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A looming public transport crisis?

Cars and buses fill one part of EDSA during rush hour in Quezon City on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, the first day of work for the majority of Filipinos after the New Year holiday. PHOTO BY MIKE DE JUAN

COMMUTERS in and around Metro Manila returning to work for the first business day of the year on Tuesday morning found themselves facing an unexpectedly difficult situation, which appears certain to only worsen if comprehensive action is not taken quickly by the Land Transportation and Franchising Regulatory Board (LTFRB). Unfortunately, it seems that agency is currently working in precisely the opposite direction, making changes that will further constrain rather than enhance the vital public transportation system.

The first sign of trouble emerged early Tuesday, when there were widespread complaints about the lack of taxis and ride-hailing vehicles — the so-called Transport Network Vehicle Service, or TNVS operated by Grab and JoyRide — by commuters who use those services. Elsewhere, commuters who regularly use the UV shared-van services that travel to and from major terminals located at SM malls also found the number of available vehicles sharply reduced or not traveling their usual routes. And finally, the LTFRB on Tuesday reduced the number of daily buses plying the EDSA Carousel bus route by more than 200 units, as well as ending the permit of certain point-to-point buses to use the busway for faster travel.

All of these situations have explanations, but none of them are at all encouraging.

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As for the shortage of taxis and TNVS units — the latter being more critically affected — the immediate cause was the ongoing chaos at Ninoy Aquino International Airport as it recovers from last Sunday's shutdown of the air traffic control system. According to a number of Grab and taxi drivers we spoke with on Tuesday afternoon, almost all available drivers and vehicles had worked overnight on Monday, shuttling passengers to and from the airport, and were simply unavailable Tuesday morning due to taking some badly needed rest.

By midday that situation had corrected itself, but it served to highlight a nagging problem of a shortage of TNVS vehicles. Any situation that causes higher than usual demand, such as what happened at the airport, or even a holiday or busy payday weekend, leads to a shortage of available rides and sharply higher fares for those that are available. Grab has estimated that it needs another 8,000 drivers and vehicles to meet its demand, and has complained frequently about the LTFRB's apparent reluctance to expedite the process — or even just to proceed at any pace — of increasing those numbers.

As for the constraints on the UV services, this was entirely due to the astronomical 300-percent increase in terminal fees charged to transport cooperatives by Park Solutions Inc., the contractor that operates the parking facilities and adjoining transport terminals at SM malls. The increased fees took effect on January 1. Various transport groups protested the increase when it was first announced last month, but the issue was not so much as acknowledged by the LTFRB. To cope with the higher costs, transport operators said Tuesday, many drivers have reduced their number of trips, or shortened their routes to avoid the SM terminals altogether.

Move people

The reduction in the number of buses on the EDSA Carousel was explained by the LTFRB as a consequence of the expiration of the government's Libreng Sakay (Free Ride) program. The implication here is that bus riders having to now pay for their fares will reduce demand for buses, but that doesn't seem to have happened; many stations along the route for both the morning and evening commutes on Tuesday and Wednesday appeared to be more crowded than before the holiday season. A proper study needs to be done to determine if that is actually true, of course; but based on appearances, we are quite certain the result of that would not show a change in ridership that would justify a nearly 30 percent reduction in the number of buses.

The chaos at NAIA over the weekend has been said to illustrate the poor state of the Philippines' public transportation system, and while there are many problems that will take time to solve, it is unconscionable for the LTFRB, the agency most responsible for public transportation as it currently exists, not to be maximizing what it is available. It should be sternly reminded that its main job is to move people, not paperwork.

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