A real benefit of COVID was that I didn’t have to travel on Edsa. Zoom did it for me. Sadly, that benefit is fading away, and the deathly crawl along Edsa is returning to its average 15 kilometers per hour. I could run faster than that when I was young.
There’s nowhere to build another road. And we forgot to put a metro underground when everybody else was building one. So what to do? My good friend Eddie Yap, the Edsa busway advocate, has worked ceaselessly for a solution. At least for those who need it most, the 350,000 daily commuters who waste two to three hours of their day standing in the heat and rain with a patience I’ll never understand. These commuters are the backbone who help run our economy. They deserve far better treatment than what they’ve had to endure for so many decades.
There is a train above Edsa, but it can’t begin to handle the mass of humanity that just wants to get to work and home. The thoroughly disorganized bus system spent its life blocking other traffic from wending its way home or to the office. So it needs to go.
That’s where Eddie comes in. He has fought for, initially, a busway along the median of Edsa that would increase efficiency and passenger throughput. This step has been done. With buses now confined within the busway, they no longer compete for road space with privately owned vehicles, so they can run unimpeded by traffic. The private vehicle lanes continue to be severely congested but with efficient, modern buses traveling unimpeded, maybe many will ditch their cars for the bus. Next step is to upgrade the busway into a full bus rapid transit (BRT) system using a series of buses on rubber wheels operating like a train on the busway. BRT is recognized the world over as the most cost- effective urban mass transit system. It uses the latest generation of electric- powered, high-capacity commuter buses as an alternative to trains. These buses approximate the efficiency of a rail train, but at a fraction of the cost. Here, these buses will be articulated with two coaches which, because of their length will have higher capacity, these buses are called bus trains, but run on rubber wheels on a normal, existing road, not steel wheels on a steel track. They are capable of being programmed for autonomous driving guided by sensors embedded in the busway. These buses will run on the existing inner-lane busway, not at the traffic-prone kerbside lanes. With properly designed bus stops, (well, they’ll be more like a train station actually) positioned strategically along the route. And accessible by disabled-people friendly overpasses.
These bus trains are ideal for Edsa, being the densest commuter corridor in the metropolis, especially to meet passenger demand surges during morning and evening peak hours.
So this is where we need to go, electrically powered two-coach buses fully automatically controlled. Running just with the barest minimum gap or headway to provide a continuous stream of buses to meet passenger demand and reduce waiting time at the station.
For it to succeed and come into place fast, it must be the private sector to do it, in toto. The government does not have the capability, or the money. My preference would be for one concessionaire for the entire system. Let that winning bidder build the needed infrastructure, stations and access facilities, control center, and supply of the buses. Then, operate and maintain it under the watchful eye of the Department of Transportation, which must provide all the needed policy and regulatory support. It may take a little longer, but it should, preferably, be under the solicited mode of bidding with terms of reference based on strict and consistent application of the BRT standard as the performance metrics to make it objective and completely equal for everyone to enter the bidding, while providing the basis for evaluating the performance of the concessionaire after award.
New Transportation Secretary Jimmy Bautista is all for upgrading this busway to global standards under the public-private partnership development modality, and is fully on board (and I’m sure literally will be on the first bus). I’ve known Jimmy since his Philippine Airline days. This is a man who gets things done. So we can expect rapid progress toward its eventuality. And here’s where the President can step in. Use his awesome powers to find legal ways to cut the convoluted bureaucracy down to an absolute minimum. He can bring Anti-Red Tape Authority into the picture to help get this done. Otherwise, we’ll be waiting till eternity before we can step onto a bus.
If I were the secretary, I’d put Eddie on an advisory board to assist the bids and awards committee in their evaluation. I’m sure, with the dynamism and support of Bautista, this project could be completed within 2023. Miracles do happen, may this be one of them.