Governing the Edsa headache
“EXPECT TRAFFIC buildup on Edsa,” bannered an article on Monday’s Inquirer, alerting readers that the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority
(MMDA) has authorized at least 100 additional buses along the route for the Holy Week recess. Restrictions on where provincial buses may pick up passengers are also temporarily lifted, in an effort to ease the humongous crowds at bus terminals that mark the season’s exodus to the provinces.
But even in normal times, anyone passing Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, billed in Wikipedia as the most important road artery in Metro Manila, could easily tell that far too many buses ply the route. While no one seems to know for sure how many there actually are, MMDA estimates their number at 3,500. But a well-cited study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) had indicated that 1,600 would well be enough. And yet, operators keep on fielding their buses anyway, suggesting that they remain lucrative even as most of them run half-empty during rush hours—and even at prevailing levels of passenger fares and petroleum product prices.
Transportation and Communications Assistant Secretary George Esguerra partly attributes this to how some operators evade regulatory costs illegally. Practices known as “buntis” (pregnant), “kabit” (mistress) and “colorum” abound. With “buntis,” up to five buses use a single license plate; “kabit” is where others piggyback on one operator’s government-issued franchise, for a fee. Most common is “colorum,” where buses are fielded even without a franchise, or in routes not authorized by their franchise.
There’s another reason operators can find it worthwhile to field buses even well below load capacities: drivers are mostly paid on commission basis, or depending on how many passengers they manage to pick up. Fielding half-empty buses is thus not nearly as costly to the operator as when drivers must be paid a fixed wage based on actual effort—clearly the fairer way to compensate them for a hard day’s work. If we see buses deliberately blocking each other’s way, straddling two lanes as they load or unload passengers, or furiously racing each other at the stretches, we know why. Such behavior naturally arises when bus drivers have to fight for passengers all day long, as their very incomes depend on it.
We all know what that leads to. Bus stops, especially major ones like the Guadalupe area in Makati, are perennial traffic choke points, with obliquely stopped buses protruding beyond their designated yellow lanes. And at the stretches, drivers risk passengers’ lives and limbs by handling their buses like sports cars. My daughter who used to be a regular Edsa bus rider once came home a nervous wreck, literally in tears, because the driver of her bus drove like a killer, and the experience was not uncommon, she told me then.
We could easily blame lax traffic enforcement for these colorums and daredevil drivers. But MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino informs me that they have only 1,600 traffic enforcers in the entire metropolis, with about a third assigned along Edsa. Given the sheer number of buses alone (let alone jeepneys and private vehicles), enforcement, even if done faithfully, would simply be beyond MMDA’s resources. This tells me that we need to move upstream to the policy and engineering level for more efficient and effective solutions. We could well start with requiring fixed compensation for bus drivers. Operators and possibly even some drivers would initially resist, for sure. But once traffic eases as it leads operators to get rid of excess buses and drivers to abandon their congestion-creating behavior, buses could make more trips, hence more revenues, per day. It could yet be a win-win solution for Edsa traffic in the end.
Another key policy reform is the redefinition of bus routes to avoid the overlaps that lead to overcapacity along Edsa. Esguerra informed me that they have been closely studying the example of Seoul, Korea, which changed hundreds of bus routes to rationalize the system. Similar reforms for Metro Manila bus routes are to be undertaken in the near future, he said. Government is also studying a single dispatch system for fielding buses, so that bus trips along designated routes are properly timed and synchronized regardless of operator.
There are engineering solutions already in use elsewhere that have long been proposed (some volunteered by readers), like elevated loading bays (ELB) and bus rapid transit (BRT) systems. In the ELB, entrances to the buses would be set too high for entry from street level, thereby eliminating indiscriminate loading and unloading. In a BRT system, popular among environmentalists, buses ply dedicated lanes in single file, in the same way trains travel on the same tracks. Esguerra mentions these as options being seriously studied as well.
For MMDA’s part, approaches being taken are operational ones as their role in Edsa is limited to that. Tolentino takes pride in their program to train and field women bus drivers, along with promotion and clearing of “Mabuhay Lanes” (actually alternate North-South routes that avoid Edsa), among a number of other on-the-ground solutions, some more effective than others.
Surely, there are similar Edsa headaches elsewhere in the country. A reader called attention to a similar headache at C-5, where overdevelopment in the Eastwood area now chokes up traffic daily to the torment of commuters there. In the end, better foresight, planning and policymaking could have prevented all of that. And this is where our governance still has a lot of shaping up to do.
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