Three fundamental roadblocks to improving Philippine public transport

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.

Pre-colonial Filipinos possessed a fashion sense more suitable to the climate.

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.

Time dominates transport systems in advanced societies.

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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21 Comments on "Three fundamental roadblocks to improving Philippine public transport"

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Orion’s glowing, gushing ovations of Third World BRTs in Latin America aside, I believe a big part of the reason public transport will never really take off in Manila is the fact that there are seventeen mayors for the Metro alone, whom I presume have antagonistic relationships against each other if not lackadaisical attitudes toward their voters as mention above. The MMDA chairman answers to them, rather than them answering to him. I’m not sure which category of the three you mentioned the whole “aversion to authority” fits into. Maybe all of them. But I’ve noticed that what made third-world… Read more »
Hyden Toro

In other European countries; that are very much concerned with their environment pollution. They have a set-aside space on their roads and highways, for: people riding in bicycles…Bicycles do not use fossil fuels…they are clean and do not pollute the air…they can be powered by humans…and they can take you anywhere, you want…
I went bicycling with my friend in Germany, last month…I enjoyed the landscapes…we met other people, on the way…we stopped and chat…afterward, we stop at a wayside Inn to enjoy German Beer and Sausages…very memorable experience in Deutchland…

I must say this is a good article to discuss. This is, unfortunately, one of our biggest problems –transportation. Too many vehicles, too many commuters, too many everything. Your solutions are great and, yes, you made a lot of valid solutions on how to solve the transportation problems we’re having, but I like to discuss about your solutions based on my opinions on why things are still the same as they are. Ok, honestly, I hate citing data or statistics, they seldom help because sometimes experts do some “magic trick” on them to make it appear that there is no… Read more »
Paul Farol
Hi all! Here’s an old and very expensive idea: Why not eliminate the need to travel all together? Build “worker centers” where all labor intensive manufacturing factories will be located. Provide “free” shelter, utilities subsidized by their jobs, low cost food (especially if it is located near agricultural production centers), health, etcetera for workers — free and subsidized only if they have a job in any of the factories. The same idea can be applied to commerce centers where business people and executives can live, work, and do business all within a ten minute walk. Government centers and education centers… Read more »
I like your point about Aversion to Walking. Seems most Filipinos are ashamed for the wrong reasons when it comes to many things. But in the case of transportation, they’d rather be rudely waiting for PUVs in the middle of the road, asking the driver if they can get off in the middle of a busy intersection, or crowding like wolves who smell blood at “no loading or unloading” zones. Of course there are lines occasionally, but I notice this mostly on scheduled shuttles and taxi bays. It’d be nice if people showed this kind of discipline for all types… Read more »

[…] your recyclables and biodegradable waste from your other trash? Do you walk a few blocks, or do you take a tricycle? Did you plan all your children, or are one or more of them “happy […]

The key to aversion to walking lies in making it an attractive alternative. Not only does the climate and fashion norms but also the lack of infrastructure make it an unattractive option. To be more specific, that would be the lack of usable sidewalks, adequate street lighting and pedestrian crossings discentives as bad as street crimes. The best example of making the urban scape pedestrian-friendly would be the De La Rosa Walkway stretching from Greenbelt to Rufino Ave. It gives pedestrians a roof to shield them from the sun and rain and allows them to be above the vehicle traffic… Read more »
‘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.’ It might be that I am not as daunted or as mindful of possible stumbling blocks as you are, but if we aren’t especially committed to keeping to schedules, why not design a transportation system that caters to that without the mess and the… Read more »

[…] problems for years. Unless the government recognizes the futility of tingi-tingi solutions to three (3) fundamental roadblocks to solving the Philippine public transport system in the Philippines then the problems will […]