Jul 7, 2008

[Environmentalism] The Need for Better Public Transportation

Metro Manila Skyline.Image via WikipediaAs a geeky pocket environmentalist, I have to admit that I always feel a little guilty about taking taxi cabs pretty much everywhere. In the beginning we used public transportation like jeepneys a lot more given our financial limitations at the time, but now it's hard to think back to those times. Of course can you blame me - how can one be expected to responsibly use public transportation consistently when we Metro Manila's joke of a public transportation "system" (if can even be called that) can't even begin to support the millions of people living the city now. If you doubt me, then just look at the MRT stations during the morning rush our and tell me that the sight of all those people crowding the station doesn't give you pause and cause for concern.

Thus we can't possibly become a greener city unless we make some really big changes, which in turn will require a lot of funding. Hey, we can all dream, right? Well, here's what I think needs to be done in order to improve things in the city from an environmental perspective. I know a lot of the ideas aren't very realistic given our country's situation and the current mindset of the population, but I'd feel better at least trying to get the ball of conversation rolling so we can all work possibly more feasible alternative approaches that work for the Philippines.

Kill the Jeepney - As much as I appreciate the jeepney as a somewhat cultural icon, we all have to admit that these days they're just too much of a hassle and a problem. They have shoddy diesel engines that clearly release a lot of health-affecting emissions into the air and the haphazard way in which they collect passengers just clogs roadways and distorts traffic flow. I think we need to get past the sentimentality of the vehicle and opt for something more practical. At the very least, perhaps the electric-powered "e-jeepney" might be a viable alternative since at least it will be more environmentally-friendly, but we still need to limit their numbers based on routing and volume.

Overhaul the Train System - The MRT, the LRT 2 and the overhaul of the original LRT were definitely steps in the right direction, but what then? It seems our public transportation plans and development have ended. Clearly given the volume, these trains alone are not enough to support the city. For the existing lines, we need better discipline, more trains and more regular trips if possible. In the long run, we need to figure out where else trains can be installed and perhaps consider subways if we have the technology and the finances for such undertakings. Without a strong alternative, people will continue to depend on their own vehicles to get around.

Regulate the Bus System - Buses are a great way to get around from an environmental-impact perspective since it means more people with less fuel expenditure and emissions. However since we rely on private groups running the buses, what we have is a mess of buses competing for passengers, thus creating slow traffic flow areas where they congregate and try to collect passengers. The MMDA has resorted to installing dividers to clearly define where buses can go and collect passengers. If we don't fix this part of the puzzle, buses will continue to generate traffic instead of easing it and people will not leave jeepneys and private cars without a viable alternative.

What has worked for other cities is controlling all buses centrally as one company, thus the focus is no longer competition and individual profit but more on efficient passenger pick-ups and organized bus stops. Thus we can potentially eliminate buses taking passengers at unapproved stops and of course those madcap drivers endangering everyone with the way they haphazardly maneuver around the city. I really grew to appreciate this concept when I was in Los Angles and got to use their Metro system, which controls both the buses and the trains as one group, so you can get transport discounts by using the vehicles in their system. Of course monopolies never seem to run all that great here, so the challenge remains who will take on this mantle - the MMDA perhaps? Yikes.

Push Petroleum Alternative Research - We need a strong government push in terms of development of alternative technologies to move away from petroleum products. Having taxi cabs run off LPGs is not at all comforting considering the dangers of going around the city with highly flammable tanks inside the trunk. There are a lot of scientists experimenting with various bio fuels like diesel alternatives made out of coconut oil and they need some kind of government funding to pursue their research. Then we can adopt our existing mass transit vehicles to these technologies to bring down travel costs (provided the government provides tax incentives for developing the supporting infrastructure) and make such vehicles / transportation options more affordable for the consumer.

Place Restrictions on Vehicles / SUVs - Perhaps an even more daring alternative is to do away with gas-guzzling SUVs entirely. They clog up the roads with their relative size and very limited passengers (on average just a driver and 1-2 passengers) despite their size. As a government, they can ban such vehicles in the interest of easing the traffic situation or apply stronger tax penalties for vehicles of a certain engine size / type. I know, the car companies will never allow for such a thing, but somehow has to make a stand and show them that unless they provide vehicles that work with the environment instead of against it, we're not going to support them.

Don't even get me started on the government's use of such vehicles right now - this is my idealist discussion entry, okay?

Otherwise, those are the major points I wanted to at least try to make. While I doubt any of this is going to happen any time soon given the current political climate and the power big business have over all of us around the world, a guy can dream green, can't he?

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Brad said...

Hi there,
A very good posting and one of great interest to me.
Sadly, as is often the case with these posts, you have overlooked the PNR and Northrail and what they could be to the traveling public should the Linkage project be completed and rail operations properly instituted.
Lets face it, the LRT and MRT are severely limited in capacity. You refer to them as railways, however they should be more correctly called 'Light Railways'. A elevated heavy rail system with much longer trains would have been far more beneficial.
Subways would be awesome for Manila, however the government seems to have enough trouble getting the Linkage project and Northrail going, so the massive costs involved in underground tunneling will probably mean we will never see this.
If it was to happen, I would dearly love to see the first being from Quezon City, along Commonwealth and eventually linking to Tutuban. Would likely be be far more expensive than the current light rail plan, but will be far more useful as population grows out there.

I know the government is already having bulk problems removing, what they like to politely call 'informal settlers' from their currently used ROW. However can we dream of a day they finally rebuild the railway line to Cavite?
This would, as a heavy rail system, be an incredibly busy railway serving hundreds of thousands of people, as well as the airport (which the new line would have to run under.
The Cavite line, as well as the also long removed Antipolo branch, had they been kept in the first place, would now be very important transport links for Manila and help remove a huge need for much transport usage.

In regards to Jeepneys. I don't agree with their removal from Manila. I do believe their use should be cut back though.
The long haul trips like Ermite to QC etc should be done by rail, the jeepney then serving as a feeder service to the hundreds of areas where rail just isn't viable and buses just can't get to.
Besides being an icon, which they certainly area, the jeepney can really pack in a lot of people and I am always amazed at how fast comes comes along when you are looking for them.
They do need to be more strictly controlled though, as do those psychopaths that pass for bus drivers. Allocated stops, off road terminals, transport rail/road hubs.
**** From a purely Jeepney fan point of view I do wonder why those e-jeepneys can't be made to look more attractive :-)

The ticketing system is also far from user friendly. Unlike many other places there is no real multimodal ticket or all day transport pass.
There are no transport maps outlining how best to get from place to place, there are no timetables (although most road transport is frequent) and seemingly no real strict guidelines on fares which seem to raise 100% when a foreigner gets on board.

Something needs to change, the Philippines, especially Manila, will be a disaster in coming years. Its near impossible now.
The people need a far better transport service and they need it YESTERDAY!

Philippine Railway SIG
Philippine Transportation

rOckY said...

Hey Brad,

Wow. That was a really healthy comment - I certainly appreciate the feedback and your insights! I have to admit the original goal of my post was primarily focused on the metro and hadn't even begun to consider the larger railway network beyond, which is also in dire need of rehabilitation. Pardon my use of the term "train" - I meant it more in an informal conversational sense above anything else.

As much as my writing a post like this can be construed as a step in the right direction, I'm practical enough to realize that the real challenge is not convincing the people at large but more the government officials holding office. I respect the power of the vote but I also acknowledge the power of money and what kinds of initiatives and attention that kind of power motivates instead of what is truly needed.

Again, my thanks for your dropping by. Your response is more than appreciated.

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