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The Metro Rail Transit System (MRT3) is one of the three elevated railways servicing the Metro Manila megapolis. (c) www.urbanrail.net

#MRTChallenge and #BusChallenge: Do we really have to take it everyday?

A regular Filipino commuter wakes up between 4 to 5 AM everyday in order to avoid the early morning rush going to the school or office. The darker outside it is, the better. Unfortunately, all commuters now troop to the MRT and bus terminals at the same time during these ungodly hours, hence, defeating the purpose of waking up early.

During the rush hour, the sight of people jostling each other is not an abnormal sight. And the scariest things that can happen while commuting these days? The train stalling in the middle of EDSA, or the bus being held up by hooligans taking advantage of the heavy traffic.

The reality of public transport in the Philippines

Everyday, over 33,000 (National Statistical Coordination Board [NCSB], 2012) buses travel nationwide to service a lot of commuters. Of these, 7,000 traverse Metro Manila alone. In fact, they largely occupy the twelve lanes of EDSA. There are lanes designated especially for them, but for some reason, bus drivers do not respect this; hence the congestion and the vehicular accidents.

As most motorists say, these bus drivers are the “Kings of the Road”. It cannot be denied, however, that these buses offer the convenience that other modes of public transportation do not. Buses are still preferred than most modes of public transportation because of the comfort and convenience factor (read: cushioned seats, air-conditioning, and televisions) even if the trip takes longer.

On the other hand, the MRT-3 does not occupy EDSA, although riding in one is more of a challenge than riding in a bus. One gets to be sandwiched, sardined and crushed inside—but most people do not mind if they can get to their destination right away. According to the Travel Time and Fare Guide of the Metro Rail Transit, the route from North Avenue and Taft Avenue roughly takes only 30 minutes compared to more than an hour spent inside a bus—sometimes two, if traffic is really bad.

Currently, the MRT-3 has 73 cars, up to 60 of which operate everyday. Each train can seat 80 passengers and carry up to 394 commuters. All the trains can carry 23,000 passengers per hour per direction daily. However, it has already breached its maximum capacity, with the NCSB reporting that a whopping 174.5 million passengers took the MRT in 2013 alone.

On top of the daily heavy traffic caused by copious buses, jeepneys and private vehicles on the road, accidents abound. The year 2014 saw several bus accidents claiming the lives of innocent people only wanting to get to their destination. In 2011, the MMDA reported a total of 6,940 bus accidents during that year. According to the data, most accidents happen during noontime and the morning rush.

Is banning private vehicles the solution?

In the years 2011–2013, an aggregate of seven million motor vehicles were registered in the Land Transportation Office (LTO). During the same years, over 4 million Filipinos were issued driving licenses and permits (LTO, Statistics Section, 2013). More and more people wanted to learn how to drive before or after buying their own private vehicles. In the Philippines, owning a private vehicle is such a status symbol that ultimately, this resulted to roads getting more congested than it can actually take.

Recently, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) proposed a new traffic scheme for EDSA, giving priority to public utility vehicles (PUVs) during the morning rush hours on weekdays. As proposed, from 6 AM to 9 AM, four days a week, private vehicles will not be allowed on EDSA. The rationale of the propsosed scheme is that private vehicles can find other roads compared to PUVs, which can only navigate approved routes. LTFRB Board Member Ariel Inton, who proposed the scheme, had in mind an EDSA that is a “big restroom” where everyone is accommodated. Early birds like students, teachers, and employees go first, followed by middle managers, and those occupying top positions who are not in a hurry to go to their offices.

When news of the proposal broke out on social media, netizens did not lose time to react and to comment. Some were receptive of the idea, however, with some apprehensions. In an article posted on the Philippine Star’s website, one netizen remarked: “This is very simple and long lasting solution… Those who have cars but don’t have their own parking space should never be allowed to use EDSA on weekdays. NCR’s space is getting tiny but the cars grow in volume per day. People were buying cars but the road space remains the same. Hassle sa gabi nasa kalye lang pumarada. Time to discipline the Filipinos.”

However, majority thought that the scheme is an unwise and preposterous stupid idea: “[LTFRB Board Member] Inton, as a private vehicle owner, I pay my share of the road user’s tax. Why will you inconvenience us who follow the rules, and instead favor bus drivers who defy the rules at any time of day (and most specially at night)?”

Another netizen said: “I have a better solution Mr. Inton. First solution, change all board members of LTFRB. Second solution, the new board members must remove all colorum buses along EDSA which the old Board cannot do. Third, apprehend and penalize traffic violators, most especially the drivers of the buses owned by the generals and other high ranking military officers.”

As expected, the MMDA immediately rejected the proposal. Chairman Francis Tolentino was quoted saying that “until an efficient mass transport system is implemented on EDSA, the private motorists cannot be swayed from using their vehicles.” Further studies should be implemented before a scheme like Inton’s can be accommodated. He also stated that there are more private vehicles than buses plying EDSA and if private vehicles were to be banned at a certain time, the buses may not be able to accommodate the volume of people prevented from using their private vehicles.

Accidents despite the existence of many laws

Under Executive Order No. 202, the LTFRB has the supervision and control over all land-based public transportation. It issues certificates of public convenience, investigates and decides related incidents, and conducts hearings and imposes. Likewise, it promulgates rules and regulations, imposes requirements to promote safety, protection, comfort and convenience to persons and property (Sec. 5, E.O. No. 202).

It has always been said that public land transportation is imbued with public interest. Therefore, it is one of the duties of PUV operators to provide safe and dependable services through strict implementation of policies, programs and projects (Memorandum Circular No. 2011-004). In relation to this, utmost care for the safety of passengers should be exercised, avoiding endangering of their lives at all costs. PUV operators also have the obligation to exercise diligence in the selection and supervision of their drivers, conductors, agents and inspectors. They should be courteous, of good moral character and with no conviction of any crime.

Operators who act in violation of existing memorandum circulars will be penalized by suspension of operations or fines. Likewise, existing jurisprudence [see e.g., Jardin vs. NLRC, G.R. No. 119268, February 23, 2000; NLRC, vs. Dinglasan, 98 Phil. 649, 652 (1996); Magboo vs. Bernardo, 7 SCRA 952, 954 (1963); Lantaco, Sr., vs. Llamas, 108 SCRA 502, 514 (1981); Doce vs. Workmen’s Compensation Commission, 104 Phil. 946, 948 (1958); Citizens’ League of Freeworkers vs. Abbas, 18 SCRA 71, 73 (1966); Martinez vs. NLRC, 272 SCRA 793, 800 (1997)] states that under the theory of respondeat superior, the PUV operators shall be responsible for violations of the drivers and other employees that they hire.

However, despite numerous circulars reminding operators and drivers to exercise a certain degree of care and diligence in transporting of passengers, accidents still happen. Take for example the case of the Don Mariano Transit that killed 21 people when one of its buses crashed along the Skyway in December 2013. The bus had been speeding on a rain-slick highway when it struck the railing and fell four stories to the road below. The bus was found to have bald, worn-out tires. The Court of Appeals upheld the cancellation of Don Mariano Transit’s certificate of public convenience.

Months before, another bus met a fatal accident when it fell down a ravine in the Mountain Province. GV Florida Bus was found lacking the proper permit to operate and was using fake licenses. Despite this, the Court of Appeals revoked the suspension of their licenses saying that the LTFRB committed grave abuse of decision in suspending GV Florida’s bus units.

These bus companies often challenge the suspension and cancellation orders on the ground that many of their employees will be left unemployed. But a dilemma may be interposed: which is heavier, the bus employees’ rights or the lost lives of thousands of passengers? The question remains unresolved, and the answer essentially depends on the circumstances of each case.

The PH Gov’t amidst the entire public transport hullabaloo

In view of all the accidents and non-compliance with existing public transportation rules and regulations, the government and its agencies seem to think that the solution lies in coming up with more legislation.

After the GV Florida bus incident, Senator Grace Poe submitted Senate Resolution No. 512 “urging the Senate to review, in aid of legislation, existing State policies in providing safety of common carriers, with the objective of recommending a more efficient and effective regulatory system, a sufficient safety policy and a speedy claim procedure to further protect the commuting public.” According to Sen. Poe, preventive measures are needed, considering that since 2008, road crashes were found to be the leading cause of death in the Philippines.

Following suit, the National Center for Commuter Safety and Protection (NCCSP) said they will submit a draft of the Magna Carta asserting the right to safe and efficient travel to pressure the government to establish an effective regulatory system for public transportation and implement safe policies to prevent road crashes that claim lives of passengers.

Pending approval and implementation of the Senate resolution and the proposed Magna Carta, commuters will have to content themselves with the present situation and to strategize their daily commute. However, the heavy traffic will probably not let up. Improvements in the public transport system in the Philippines are said to be underway, so there is still hope for all the commuters out there.

Recent public-private partnerships that were bid out to interested investors include several expressways and mass transportation projects. However, these will take years before they become operational. Further, the procurement orders for new MRT carriages would nut be delivered until the latter part of 2015. Until then, as columnist Michael Tan rightly said, “public transport remains a bangungot, a nightmare” (Moving People, Phil. Daily Inquirer, January 29, 2013). P

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