Last November I wrote about how taking the LRT and MRT has become an ordeal, nothing short of a descent into hell. Many readers responded, giving their stories, their analysis of the problems, and possible solutions.
I’ve promised to take on the improvement of LRT/MRT as a personal advocacy, including a column synthesizing the solutions proposed by readers. Meanwhile, though, I thought that I should give a social history of mass transport systems in the Philippines, to better contextualize the LRT/MRT. I will also describe the irony of Manila once being relatively advanced when it came to mass transport in Southeast Asia, before lagging far behind our neighbors.
The ability to move or transport large numbers of people is always a good indicator of both technological and social development. The technology part is the more obvious but we tend to forget that efficient, affordable and safe mass transportation speaks well of a society’s concern for the collective welfare, going beyond the individual or family.
Think of our own precolonial balangay, large boats that were estimated to be able to take as many as 90 people. It is not surprising that the term has since been adopted, as the barangay, to refer to the basic political unit in the Philippines. The balangay, and larger seafaring vessels that came during the Spanish colonial period, played vital roles as people began to explore new places, engage in trade, and, sadly, go into warfare and raiding expeditions. When the Spaniards came to the Philippines, they recognized the expertise of the indios, for building ships, as well as for seafaring. Some time back I wrote about some historians’ view that San Pedro Calungsod may actually have been a seafarer, one of many in the 17th century looking for work, and landing in a ship that ended up in Guam on an evangelizing mission.
Mass transport on land came much later, catalyzed by urbanization and the large populations needing transport, as well as by the Industrial Revolution and the need to transport raw materials to and finished products from factories. In the 19th century western European countries pioneered in the development of mass transport systems: buses and trams and subways within cities, and railways to connect cities.
The Philippines was not to be left behind. Gary Satre’s “The Metro Manila LRT System—a Historical Perspective” has a fascinating history of Manila’s tranvias. Jacobo Zobel de Zangroniz and other partners formed La Compania de Tranvias de Filipinas to build and operate tranvias between Manila and Malabon. The first tranvias, inaugurated in 1888, were horse-drawn omnibuses that covered 16.3 kilometers, quite impressive for the times. The Manila Railroad Company followed shortly after, its first line running 196 km from Manila to Dagupan.
During the US colonial period, the tranvias expanded under the Manila Electric Railroad and Light Company, Meralco for short. The horse-drawn omnibuses were replaced by electric streetcars, which expanded to cover 63 km of track. The railways were also developed, not just in Luzon but also in Mindanao.
Alas, World War II destroyed our tranvias and we came to rely on buses and jeeps, the latter involving American surplus jeeps converted by Filipino entrepreneurs into colorful folk art on wheels. Today, both the buses and jeeps symbolize urban blight. As for the railroads, we allowed them to go to waste, only recently launching anemic rehabilitation efforts.
The great cities of the world built subways and similar rapid transport systems as early as the 19th century. In our part of the world, Japan pioneered with the Tokyo subway built in 1927. It took several decades before other East Asian countries caught up. In China, the Beijing subway came first in 1969, followed by the Tianjin Metro in 1976 and the Shanghai Metro in 1995. Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway was inaugurated in 1979, before the turnover of the then British colony to China.
We didn’t do that badly, being the first in Southeast Asia to come up with a rapid transport system, the LRT inaugurated on Dec. 1, 1984. It was not until 1999 that Bangkok inaugurated its Skytrain and Singapore its Light Rail Transit, but both cities have surged ahead. Bangkok’s Skytrain and a newer Metropolitan Rapid Transit now cover 82 km, compared with Manila’s LRT 1, MRT 2 and MRT 3 for a combined total of 51 km. Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway, which started out only five years earlier than Manila’s, has 211.6 km of railways.
When my column on the LRT/MRT came out last November, there was a small debate among readers about the fares, with at least one reader arguing that these should be increased, not just to cover maintenance but also to discourage lower-income Filipinos from taking the LRT/MRT, which would then decongest the trains.
But that defeats the original purpose of mass and public transport. Countries all over the world have subsidized public transport systems as a vital social service, as important as healthcare and education. I suspect Jacobo Zobel de Zangroniz went into the tranvias in part because he was a liberal. He had seen, and tried to replicate, social reforms he saw in Europe, such as expanding public education and democratic institutions. Public transportation was high up on the agenda of liberals, a low-cost and efficient mass transport system being essential for a healthier and more productive citizenry, whether workers in factories and offices, traders transporting goods to markets, and young people getting to schools.
The rise of modern rapid transit systems in many cities during the last 30 years came out of worries about too many personal vehicles being used, and their pollution, as well as growing population that were threatening to lead to excessive urban sprawl.
Singapore and Hong Kong have converted the mass transport lines’ stations into urban hubs, each one with their self-contained residential and commercial establishments, as well as schools and hospitals. Note, too, that in Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok, the rapid transit systems are linked to the bus lines and, in Hong Kong, to their older tram system. Hong Kong and Bangkok have also kept their quaint ferries, something we keep trying to do with limited success for the Pasig River.
We did well with the balangay, ferries, tranvias, railways and, initially, the LRT. Then we regressed. Just look at the mess we’ve created in Manila through our neglect of mass transit and our fragmented transportation planning. The worst part is that people have to still pay exorbitant fares that eat up their already meager salaries or, for students, their tiny allowances.
Someday, we’re told, we’ll have an expanded LRT/MRT system, with connections from Baclaran to Airport Terminal 3, Marikina to Cainta and Masinag, a Commonwealth Avenue line going through Caloocan and ending at San Jose del Monte, and the grandest of them all, a 48-km MRT-8 that will go from Sta. Mesa to Angono and Pililla in Rizal and Sta. Cruz in Laguna.
Dream on. Till then, public transport remains a bangungot, a nightmare.