Revolutionary colorum

01:36 AM November 28, 2014

Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya hit the nail on the head. If taxicab operators are worried that mobile-phone-based competition like Uber are luring away their customers, the solution is for the taxicabs to level up to Uber, and not for Uber to dumb itself down.

“People prefer to use these tech-based transport services because they are more convenient. It’s that simple. So my advice to taxi operators: Modernize, innovate and improve your systems and services,” Abaya said. “Commuters say they feel safer taking these private vehicles-for-hire, that the fleet is newer, that app services are faster and more efficient. So why put a stop to what is clearly for their benefit? Poorer services should be upgraded to match their competition, not the other way around.”


He has effectively repudiated the backward position taken by his subalterns at the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board, which has apprehended and fined the operators of private vehicles who offer their services to the riding public via smartphones.

This is all about the government’s Luddite rejection of new technology and new uses of old technology. Remember how, a decade ago, the LTFRB hounded the FX operators of Asian utility vehicles? The FX drivers had to peddle their services on the sly, as if they were trafficking cocaine, when all they were offering were nonstop, air-conditioned rides from Fairview to Ayala. In a country where schools offer fancy courses in entrepreneurship, for a decade we treated honest hardworking drivers as if they were coke dealers.


We again face the same regulatory dilemma today with motorbike-taxi services, the so-called habal-habal, that have long served communities in the Visayas and Mindanao, and today have emerged in the heart of the Makati commercial district, plying the Ayala-Fort Bonifacio route. (And—not to endorse the contraption—but you’ve got to hand it to Pinoy creativity when, in the provinces, they plunk a wooden plank across a motorbike to expand seating capacity and call it “Skylab.”)

Have they thrived despite government antipathy or even outright suppression? Yes! And why? Because they offer the consumer a real service at a cheaper price. There’s nothing wrong with that. That is exactly how markets work! This is free market capitalism in operation, and fortunately the capital outlay, at least for the FX or the habal-habal, is within reach of the balikbayan OFW or retired employee wishing to invest hard-earned savings.

For sure, with regard to mobile-app-based transport services, the government has legitimate concerns: reckless drivers and road safety, criminal syndicates who prey on their passengers, substandard equipment and the sheer volume of vehicles on the road. But it’s not as if heavy government regulation has saved us from all that aggravation!

The solution is not to force them underground and call them colorum. The solution is to license them so that they are more susceptible to public regulation however ineffectual. Even then, these mobile apps have admirably succeeded where government has failed—namely, quality control of service providers. These mobile apps offer clean and efficient services, and enable the riding public to evaluate each car and driver and tell riders whom to avoid or reward. Since Filipinos generally don’t rely on government accreditation for this, accustomed as we are to shoddy services, we rely on the market, through word-of-mouth endorsements and brand consciousness. The mobile apps merely up the ante and make it all digital.

We must recall where we got the term “colorum” to refer to unauthorized operations. It comes from “saecula saeculorum” (for “forever and ever,” or literally, “in a century of centuries”), a part of Latin prayers that pious Catholics properly call ejaculations. It first referred to an 1843 religious movement led by a disqualified aspiring friar, but eventually became the popular term for widespread anti-American uprisings in the 1920s that were portrayed as outcasts by the colonial government.

We refuse to license the colorums, and then punish them for being unlicensed. Yet licensing is no guarantee of good service, while a free, Internet-enabled market can effectively perform the quality control that public regulation has failed. The real test of a public utility service is whether it benefits the consumers and the riding public. By that standard, colorum is the true revolution. Who would have thought that it would take the Internet for “colorum” to finally recapture a part of its original liberative meaning?

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