A couple of weeks ago, Filipino youngsters are back to school as face-to-face classes have officially begun. With the recent report by the World Bank, which says that around 90% of Filipino school children at the age of 10 have no reading ability, educators in the Philippines have welcomed these face-to-face classes as a way to ameliorate such a horrendous situation. While these students are returning to their respective schools, another perennial dilemma has also returned to the scene — the horrible situation of Philippine public transportation. As students start to commute, dishonest taxi drivers, rambunctious jeepney drivers, and unruly pedicab drivers are again literally taking the driver’s seat in the roads of the Philippines. In addition, long queues of peoples in train stations and airports are again highlighted as regular daily occurrences. Such is the dismaying state of Philippine transportation.
Why are these problems regarding public transport now becoming more observable recently? It is because there is an increase in demand for transportation as human interactions return to normal. This specially considers that, unlike other Asian countries, the Philippines is a predominantly service-oriented economy. In addition, it is also a reflection of an economy attempting to bounce back from the series of community quarantines and lockdowns. This can also be linked with Pres. Marcos Jr administration’s target to achieve upper-middle income country status during his term.
Philippine public transportation a century ago was an amalgamation of what’s traditional, Hispanic, and modern. The roads of Manila were shared by “kalesas”, streetcars, Ford model Ts, and also “karitons” running on cobblestones. The Americans were attempting to create a Philippine commonwealth in its own image and likeness, in accordance to their benevolent assimilation policy. Aside from the establishment of American-style political, educational, and health institutions, urban planning, housing, and even mass transportation systems were even adopted during the commonwealth years. Unlike typical British, German, or Japanese cities that depend more on reliable rail transport, American cities are known to promote automobile ownership instead, where cars are generally used to move from place to another. Just looking at how local government units in the Philippines generally resort to road-widening projects to alleviate the flow of traffic is a complete reflection of this American system.
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Another American inheritance that dominates the roads of the Philippines are the jeepneys. These public utility vehicles were initially military surplus hardware that were awaiting disposal after World War II. Eventually, they were reengineered to hold more passengers and went on to run the roads of the Philippines, most specially in highly urbanized cities like Quezon City, Manila, Davao, and Cebu. The jeepney has become the symbol of both Filipino ingenuity and innovativeness to create something original, and its indifference and resistance to change its structural predicaments. Massive dependence on these public utility vehicles has created dependence on oil, which causes environmental damage in the form of air pollution and carbon emissions. This has also been inconvenient for passengers as these jeepneys follow no regular time schedules, making the system very unpredictable. To worsen things, these interest groups intervene in the adoption of more efficient and effective means of public transport. It is completely understandable because many families depend on it for their livelihood.
Aside from these jeepney woes, traveling by air is another predicament of Philippine transportation. Philippine Airlines (PAL) is the oldest Asian airline, but has been overtaken by other companies like Japan Airlines, Thai Airways, Korean Air, and Singapore Airlines. This demonstrates how the entire industry had lost its competitiveness. Infrastructural inconveniences are also present in the Philippines, where even major airports like Manila and Mactan-Cebu are not connected by trains to the city center. This is a complete opposite of the likes of Hong Kong, Taipei-Taoyuan, Narita, Kansai, and Incheon, where reliable and affordable transportation makes traveling easy for everyone. For the Manila International Airport and its four terminals, airport shuttles that connect these terminals run infrequently. It, unfortunately, incentivizes taxi drivers to gouge passengers with exorbitant fares. To make matters worse, these things are just tolerated. How will the Philippines become the hub of the Asia Pacific if these kinds of problems are present?
With such a chaotic situation in the Philippines, reforms in Philippine transportation is long-overdue. A passenger-friendly transport system will create a more efficient economy, as it also generates new businesses and employment opportunities. Mass transportation in the industrialized cities of Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, and Metro Davao should also be given priority, knowing that these metropolises are the engines of economic growth of the country.
One of the easiest methods of mass transport that the country can easily adopt are streetcars or trams in major cities. The European cities of Edinburgh and Prague, and Japanese cities of Hakodate and Nagasaki have relied on trams to transport people within them. These can be easily adopted since it only entails partial reconfiguration of roads while purchasing these streetcars from overseas makers that have the know-how in maintaining these machines. Since they can be treated similarly with jeepneys that are more predictable with scheduled departure and arrival times, Filipino commuters can easily adapt.
Another possible solution to relieve Metro Manila of its traffic woes is to empower the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) by restructuring the National Capital. With a faulty presidential system, the Philippines rarely gets decisive MMDA chairs like then-Marikina city mayor Bayani Fernando during the Arroyo administration. Cities that comprise the National Capital Region (NCR) have competing, vested interests, where they attempt to accumulate and concentrate employment and investment opportunities as much as they can. This intense competition between cities, in turn create an unmanageable traffic situation. Just look at how disorganized EDSA is. Motorists call it the “mother of traffic” and avoid it all costs. The presence of a Metro Manila governor, who is hierarchically above these NCR mayors, may bury the hatchets of these squabbling city mayors.
Finally, amending the 1987 constitution’s protectionist stance with its 60-40 system should be done to allow the entry of foreign direct investments. Facilitating infrastructure-related investments with foreign entities who have the expertise and experience in mass transportation would be greatly beneficial to the economy as a whole. Not only that it will provide employment opportunities to ordinary Filipinos, but the whole country would also benefit from the multiplier effect caused by these kinds of investments. In the long run, the Philippine economy would be more productive and competitive through these projects.
A commuter-friendly Philippines is a consumer-friendly Philippines, but currently, the country is not friendly to these lowly commuters. Because everyone is a consumer of public transport in one way or another, Filipinos should not tolerate Philippine transport to languish and be derailed with political bickering and leveraging.
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