The Filipino commute
I once read somewhere that a good indicator of a progressive country is not that everyone owns or can own a car, but that even the most wealthy use public transportation.
That has stuck with me ever since. By that standard alone, we are miles away from being considered progressive.
Last Monday, a nationwide transport strike of public utility vehicles (PUVs) was held to protest the government’s PUV modernization program. The program aims to implement a modern transport system by June 2020, a notion supported by many among a severely exhausted commuting public. But some jeepney operators are wary of the high cost of the modern units they are required to get, as well as other costly requirements such as maintaining a depot.
Last Wednesday, the Metro Rail Transit Line (MRT) 3 temporarily stopped operations in the morning, which led to 508 passengers walking on the tracks between the Ayala and Magallanes stations.
Taking just these past week’s events alone, a working public transport system already seems like such a daunting concept in the Philippines. The daily commute here makes one a warrior. The mere thought of going through it already exhausts me. A sad thought, too, because if our jeepneys, the most common mode of transport, are our cultural icons, then riding them should be a positive experience.
I remember having to learn how to ride mass transit on my very own for the first time, and I was flustered. That was in Bangkok, on its BTS Skytrain, with train stops that were then incomprehensible to my mind. Prior to that, my only mass rail transit experience was a Light Rail Transit (LRT) ride, and it was both sufficiently convenient and confusing, even when I was with a group. But in Bangkok, it only took me half a day to learn the system, and I found myself commuting from my residence in Ari to destinations in Chit Lom, Nana and Ekkamai in absolute commuting bliss.
I’ve prided myself on my ability to enjoy train travel since then. From the BTS to the MRT, I can do it like a local. However, with my very own MRT and LRT in Manila, I still can’t do solo, though I don’t have to. I have the jeep, which I take daily in my hometown and which I insist on taking in any city in the country.
Efficient public transportation is characterized by these baselines: accessibility to the general public, regular operations over established routes and affordable fare for its service. It should also operate on a fixed schedule; however, not all public transport observe that, our jeep being a prime contender.
Considering our shared global issues on burgeoning city populations and the impact of climate change, public transportation also plays a part in our sustainable future. In Rotterdam, for example, the European Investment Bank has approved a 115-million euro loan for 105 electric buses and 103 hybrids. The Netherlands is aiming for 100-percent electric buses by 2030. In Sydney, a contactless payment system is on its way to completion, which means that commuters can pay even with their smartphones that have paying ability. In Estonia, buses are free of charge in 11 out of 15 counties, and is very well on its way to becoming the first country with free transportation nationwide.
Elsewhere, public transportation remains a challenge, none perhaps more stark than here—or at least that’s how it feels among those of us stuck with it. We really do need to talk about these problems more seriously and collectively as a society. Except that we don’t as much, because we’ve succumbed to the system. Or, for some, because they can easily exit it, what with accessible car loans and carpooling. Individually, we ease our way out of commuting hell and leave the jeepney-PUV conversation entirely.
It’s dreamy, the fact that elsewhere in the world you can ride alongside bankers on the train or observe senior citizens and toddlers effortlessly navigate their way across train stops unassisted. But here?
Public transportation is a taxpayer’s right; it needs to be efficiently operated and maintained by the government with the end view of keeping commuters’ safety and dignity intact. A good system should put private cars off the road and consequently reduce carbon emissions. It should bring us from place to place fast and securely, with the least fuss or hassle. Public transportation is our fight. It should be a solution to the Metro’s bloating, not an additional problem to it.
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