Solving the mass transport problem of large Philippine cities is one of those hard problems. Much of its hardness is accounted for by that inescapable fundamental nature of the poverty that defines the Filipino’s very existence — the Filipino’s habit of entering into commitments that they are inherently incapable of honouring. Such commitments are almost overwhelmingly related to the Philippines’ immense population. To say that the population problem is more about a lack of economic opportunity rather than a problem of our huge numbers simply highlights the problem even more — Filipinos continue to multiply (thereby locking themselves into commitments to employ more of themselves) without the slightest clue around how to create those “economic opportunities” that they keep lamenting is missing.
The problem of modernising Philippine public transport has an obvious solution — junk the antiquated infrastructure (the vehicles and the management and regulatory system itself) and start fresh with an architected system. Unfortunately the problem of what to do with the massive unemployment such a solution will create is an intractable one, because those who will be affected the most (hundreds of thousands of drivers and operators who will be left unemployed) are voters. No Filipino politician in their right mind will touch such a solution even with a ten-foot pole.
Nevertheless, let us pretend for a moment that solving the mass transit problem in the Philippines is actually a worthwhile undertaking deserving of a Filipino politician’s time. What follows are what would be my three vital few issues around which a solution would be engineered and an execution plan developed.
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Delegation of mass transit capability to private enterprise
This is perhaps the most fundamental problem with the way public transport is being managed in the Philippines. Buses and jeepneys plying key city routes in major Philippine cities work under the “boundary” system. In essence private enterprise owns both the vehicles and the rights to ply these routes (said rights issued under a government-managed system) with these vehicles. The vehicles are then “leased” to drivers who agree to pay a fixed minimum daily fee (the “boundary“) to the lessor. The drivers (or the employers of these drivers, who could also be the vehicle owners themselves) are then free to pocket fare they collect above that minimum “boundary” (less fuel costs, in most cases).
One form or another of this “boundary” system is applied from the biggest transport operations (full-sized buses), to mid-capacity operations (jeepneys, mini-buses and shuttle services, and taxis) to small mom-and-pop cottage operations (tricycles, pedicabs, and motorised pedicabs called kuligligs).
The extent that Government sees itself as accountable, as such, does not go further than regulating the number of operators authorised to ply its portfolio of routes. And even that is subject to abuse and mismanagement as it seems many of these routes have been over-subscribed way beyond their capacities to accommodate transport operators.
Aversion to walking
Filipinos don’t walk. Or more specifically, only the poor walk. That’s the thinking of this famously backward society. In practice, of course, it is not only the rich who are of that view, as many middle to lower-middle-class people also do see themselves as being above walking in the sun — which is why tricycles and pedicabs also have a market for transport over tingi (short-run, otherwise walkable) distances.
There is a stigma attached to walking in the Philippines. Perhaps to be fair, spending even just ten minutes walking out in the equatorial sun and the drenching humidity that accompanies it is enough to make one feel like taking a long shower. But then that may be partly because of what society dictates is decent or even dress-for-success attire in the islands nowadays. Indeed, appropriate attire on a tropical island is really what the original pre-European ancestors of “Filipinos” wore, and not the sort of Euro-inspired attire that Filipino would-be fashionistas prescribe.
In short, to have to come to work in a European costume is what makes most Filipinos averse to exposing themselves to the tropical climate — a climate that is, ironically, a lot less demanding of one’s clothing sensibilities than that of a setting further north or south of the equator. How long can one spend outdoors in Manila wearing a long-sleeved shirt and tie before one starts to feel like a sweat-hog?
While I don’t have data to show exactly what proportion of jeepney or even bus trips involve commute distances of less than 500 metres, I’d hazard a guess that it is most likely a big proportion. It can be argued then that it is the Filipino’s aversion to walking that contributes to the big snarl that is Manila traffic.
Add to this, too, the astoundingly un-pedestrian friendly streets of Manila, its open sewers, its walls and sidewalks coated with human urine and dotted with greenish sputum, and the retail operations that squat on these with impunity, and it becomes no surprise to most just how big a problem is faced by those who try to even just imagine life in Manila without jeepneys, tricycles, and pedicabs.
Stunted ethic of working to schedules
Filipinos are very demanding transport consumers. They want their transport service serving them door-to-door any minute of the day. Trouble is, Filipinos cannot afford conventional taxi cabs (the kinds that are powered by four-cylinder engines and run on four wheels). So they rely on transport delivered on the cheap — courtesy of the vast pool of dirt cheap labour willing to spend their days delivering such a service for loose change.
As such, a scheduled, limited-route mass transport service, is simply unable to compete with the sort of extremely personalised and extremely flexible service available in a society where labour solutions are overwhelmingly preferred over systemic solutions. So we are stuck with an army of able-bodied predominantly male Filipinos whiling away their time in jeepney and tricycle queues — a sea of human vitality pathetically idled and now representing a vast social problem (an immense unemployment problem just waiting to happen).
There is a price to pay for a more system-based solution to mass transport, which is a willingness to be subject to schedules. Unfortunately, Filipinos seem to lack the cultural wiring to embrace schedules. Indeed, many are familiar with the concept of Filipino time which essentially can be described in four words: no concept of time.
Such an ethic is interwoven tightly into the very cultural fabric of the Filipino and can be traced to a fundamental cultural flaw — a lack of respect for others’ property. Time is a resource that Filipinos often take for granted is precious to others. As such, Filipinos do not see any value in a collective capability to manage at tight schedules because they fail to grasp the value of the time that could be harnessed from systems that enable such capabilities. Time, in the way that the sorts of minds that design highly scheduled systems regard it, is quite simply an alien concept to the Filipino mind.
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Note that the first is no more than an administrative issue. Unfortunately, the other two represent cultural defects that remain entrenched at the very fibres that are woven into the very fabric of Philippine society. A comprehensive and systemic solution to address mass transport in large Philippine cities, therefore, will require hard decisions to be made. Unfortunately democracies are not exactly famous for rewarding such sorts of decisions — specially in the Third World.
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