Solving the NCR mass transport crisis

October 28, 2019

by Sonny Africa

The mass transport crisis is real.

Millions of commuters in the National Capital Region (NCR) suffer inconvenient and inefficient travel every day. Average commuting time was around 37 minutes in 1980 and 51 minutes in 1996, according to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). A survey by commuter group Komyut reported this rising to as much as 3-4 hours today.

Commuting can also be made even more affordable. As it is, the poorest low- and middle-income earners already suffer the most from the stress, less rest and recreation time with the family, and lower quality of life from difficult travel options.

The main reason for the hellish daily commute of millions is the government orientation of privatized mass transport amid irrational profit-driven urban planning. This is instead of ensuring mass transport as a public service.

Mass transport in NCR spans rail, bus, jeepney and tricycles as well as taxis and the more recent Transportation Network Vehicle Services (TNVS) such as Grab and Angkas. A section of lower income groups have their own motorcycles, while higher income folks largely commute by private cars (and even helicopters).

The government’s approach to mass transport is overwhelmingly to rely on the private sector. The Light Rail Transit (LRT)-1, LRT-2 and Philippine National Rail (PNR) railway lines are all government owned, although LRT-1’s operation and maintenance is run by a private corporation. Metro Rail Transit (MRT)-3 is privately owned and government operated. The remaining public transportation system of buses, jeepneys, tricycles, taxis, TNVS and ferries are all privately owned.

This privatization-driven approach has resulted in insufficient trains, buses and jeepneys for the growing population, uncomfortable and poorly maintained and at times unsafe vehicles, and an extremely fragmented and unreliable public transportation system.

Poor public transport has resulted in the proliferation of taxis, TNVS, and, for those who can afford this, private cars and motorcycles. Road and parking space are so scarce that traffic reached crisis levels long ago.

NCR is a metropolis of 16 cities with a population of some 12.9 million. It is so poorly planned that 10 of its cities are among the 50 most congested on the planet, out of some 1,860 big cities worldwide. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) notes that Metro Manila taken in its entirety is the most congested city in developing Asia. Manila was meanwhile reported this year as already the most densely populated city in the world. NCR is a bloated center of economic activity where real estate development is dictated by the profit-seeking of developers, oligarch firms, and foreign transnational corporations rather than the logic of livability and ecological soundness.

Employment and livelihood opportunities are scarce in the rest of the country so residents stay in NCR and are joined by a steady stream of work-seeking migrants from the provinces. According to the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), an additional 2.7 million commute daily from Bulacan, Cavite, Pampanga and Rizal. The resulting strain on social and economic infrastructure is inevitable.

All this combines to create a seemingly irresolvable mass transport crisis.

Yet, the mass transport crisis can be solved.

There can be sufficient, efficient, convenient and affordable public mass transport for all. The Duterte administration just has to acknowledge the crisis, take responsibility, and assert its regulatory authority over the transport system and regional development.

The government can immediately take steps to fix privatization-driven mass transport problems and irrational profit-driven urban planning. The following are proposed:

  1. Address corruption and inefficiency. The government agencies and corporations responsible for the poor rail service and frequent breakdowns should be held accountable and penalized. Self-serving and inflexible contracts should be rescinded and irregularities exposed. The operations of transport services should be open to public scrutiny.
  • Increase the capacity and reliability of current rail systems. Rolling stock and rails have to be added and upgraded. The rail systems are clearly deteriorating – average monthly passenger traffic of LRT1 (11.2 million in August 2015), LRT2 (5.2 million as of August 2019), MRT (8.7 million in 2018) and PNR’s Metro Manila commuter service (1.1 million in 2018) are all much smaller than in 2014. Fewer trains are in service because of safety issues and increasingly frequent breakages and accidents, among other reasons. PNR’s operating distance has fallen to just 100 kilometers or less than one-tenth of 1,100 kilometers of route in the 1970s.
  • Add buses and jeepneys with government support. Buses and jeepneys are visibly overloaded especially during rush hour and in heavy routes. Yet they are essential mass transport options and already account for 69% of the total number of trips taken in NCR every day. The average occupancy of buses is 35.3 persons and jeepneys 10 persons compared to just 1.7 persons for cars. Jeepney modernization must be done without displacing small operators and drivers and in a way that actually improves their conditions.
  • Reduce the volume of private motorized vehicles especially in the most congested streets. Additional public road transport requires additional road space. Private vehicles only account for some 31% of trips in Metro Manila per day but take up 78% of its road space. EDSA has a maximum carrying capacity of 6,000 vehicles in one direction per hour but the current volume is 6,800 to as much as 7,500 during rush hour – yet 66% of vehicles are unfilled private cars and only 3.5% are over-crowded buses and jeepneys. Cycling and walking should also be encouraged for shorter trips.
  • Integrate the different transport modes. The different rail, bus, and jeepney services need to be made more seamless and convenient. Coordination between the Department of Transport (DOTr), MMDA and local government units has to be improved. There must also be proper regulation of bus and jeepney franchises and licenses. A rational mass transport scheme is needed including commuter-friendly route rationalization.
  • Improve the flow of traffic. Proposals to restrict and regulate the number of private cars on the road should be prioritized. However, other proposals such as opening up the exclusive gated communities and private subdivisions scattered across NCR that block or otherwise impede the smooth flow of traffic should be considered. Mobility is a public good that the majority should be able to benefit from.
  • Arrest the explosive real estate development. The relentless building of office, retail, residential and leisure/hotel space in Metro Manila has fueled the explosive wealth of real estate tycoons. Driven by business process outsourcing (BPOs) and Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs), office space expansion has risen to double the historical average and Metro Manila is set to become the world’s third largest office market. Real estate profits are soaring at the expense of gravely worsening congestion and straining heavily overburdened transport infrastructure.

These will however only be stop-gap measures in the absence of more far-reaching medium- and long-term measures to develop mass transport as a public service. Major improvements will only be possible with greater and more responsible government ownership and control of the public mass transport system. The government needs to continuously improve its expertise and capacity to provide quality and cost-efficient services. Transport solutions that support industrialization and give attention to the many legitimate environmental concerns should be prioritized. The uncontrolled and worsening congestion of the NCR also needs to be addressed.

The following are proposed:

  1. Renationalize the rail system. The government has a long history of running rail transport systems and only started privatizing these in recent decades. This essential service and backbone of mass transport has to be taken out of the hands of private companies and returned to public control. This will also allow for a more organized and unionized workforce.
  • Nationalization of buses and jeepneys. These have been largely private-run in the country. The process can be phased starting with cooperativization, then joint ventures, and eventually nationalization. Likewise, this will allow for a more organized and unionized workforce.
  • Disperse economic activity to surrounding regions. Moreover, livable Metro Manila cities and real balanced development is only possible with a general national program of agrarian reform, rural development and national industrialization.

All these must be done according to a comprehensive and rational mass transport plan. This will inevitably require significant amounts of government support. Mass transport is intrinsically expensive because of its capital-intensive nature and the need for subsidies to ensure that it is affordable to commuters of all income levels; usage also varies widely across different routes and times.

Resources can be raised for this. This should primarily be from a more progressive tax system giving stress on higher direct taxes on income and wealth. Taxation always involves trade-offs and balancing costs and benefits. But the most important operating principle is taxing according to the ability to pay to provide a public good such as mass transport, that the majority should benefit from most of all.

The grossly regressive Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) law and its other proposals should be corrected to increase personal income and estate taxes on the wealthiest families and to increase corporate income taxes on large corporations.

Further revenues for the transport system can be raised by taxing extremely profitable real estate interests which are currently the main beneficiaries from public transport infrastructure. This can include taxing windfall gains for real estate developers, differentiated rates and additional fees for high value properties or developments in congested areas, and reducing or removing fiscal incentives for Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA)-registered office space in Metro Manila. Other possible revenue sources include taxing private car users more – congestion road charges, taxes on luxury or multiple car ownership, parking fees, and the like can be considered more seriously.

The mass transport crisis is just another stark symptom of deeper problems of anarchic, elite-driven, and market-oriented development. It is clearer than ever that radical solutions are needed to solve the mass transport crisis in Metro Manila. This is just a stop away from realizing that radical solutions likewise are needed to solve the social and economic crisis suffered by tens of millions of Filipinos. ###

Photo from Manila Today