Of course, Silicon Valley would be rejoicing. One of their own, ride sharing network operator Uber, has recently been granted legal status in the Philippines. This development offers a ray of hope for embattled Uber which has been subject to strong pushback across Asia thanks to public transport operators, specifically taxi fleet operators, who feel threatened by the additional competition they bring to the markets they once practically monopolised.
According to Jun Abaya secretary of the Philippines’ Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC), “App-based transport services help address the increasing demand for mobility spurred by rapid urbanization.”
What Abaya does not mention, however, is that the Philippines’ public transport services are basically a chaotic mishmash of private operators pretty much left to their devices. “Regulation” may be a word enshrined in city ordinances all over the archipelago, but like everything else concerning rules in the Philippines, it is all form wrapping very little substance. It also helps to note that under Abaya’s watch, the Philippines’ once-modern commuter train systems have deteriorated beyond recognition, which puts into perspective his quickness to embrace this shallow “win” for the Philippine government.
The Philippines’ public transport system defies systematisation thanks to a transport franchising approach that dates back to post World War II settings when desperation rather than thinking drove the “development” of public transport services. Back then, derelict US Army jeeps were put to use to address the commuting needs of Filipinos scraping together livelihoods in devastated cities. Unfortunately, that stroke of “ingenuity” stuck as a source of national “pride” and the “jeepney” became both a source of national identity and a cornerstone of the Philippines’ automotive industry.
Today, the jeepney remains the pre-eminent operating model at all scales of the Philippines public transport infrastructure. From the large buses that ply the country’s main thoroughfares down to the smallest tricycles and pedicabs that serve smaller streets, the Philippines’ monstrous decrepit fleet of “public utility vehicles” (PUVs) scramble on top one another to scoop up paying passengers from sidewalks in a frenzy of dog-eat-dog entrepeneurship that Filipinos call their public transport “system”. There are no schedules or optimised routing systems. Even the country’s relatively-modern commuter train system is operated and maintained on a hope-for-the-best basis.
Uber vehicles and their drivers will merely add to the scramble. The new transport network’s veneer of “modern” technological gloss is really nothing more than an automated version of the human hawkers and dispatchers that infest the thousands of formal and informal PUV stops and terminals that dot the Philippines’ congested cities. For the Philippines’ growing class of Smartphone warriors, taps on touchscreens would now replace hand signals ordinary peasants haplessly throw from the roadside, much like the way urbane Filipinos set themselves apart from the masses who eat with their hands.
For now, using the Philippines as a poster child to herald “another” triumph of the latest “technology solutions” over the human condition is a public relations coup for Uber. It remains to be seen, of course, but there is wisdom in the old saying; that automating a flawed manual process can only take one so far and may likely create the same sort of unintended consequences techos who are beholden to their technological marvels often fail to foresee.
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