During rush hour in Manila, it would be quicker to walk the 6.5km from Renee Karunungan’s family home to her office. Today we use public transport, and it takes almost two hours. We use a jeepney (a cross between a jeep and a van), a bus, then two more jeepneys and a motorised tricycle. The city’s 2.2 million vehicles frequently grind to a standstill, and it is not unusual for commuters to be stuck for for three to four hours. When torrential rains flood the city, it can be much worse.
As the bus pulls onto EDSA, Manila’s notorious main thoroughfare, the honking is almost constant, drivers ignore the road markings and pedestrians frequently walk in the road – pavements are often absent or very narrow. This is the city’s most dangerous street, responsible for more traffic casualties than any other. In the last two decades 57,000 pedestrians have been hit in Metro Manila; 3.2% were fatalities.
Known as “carmageddon” to locals, the traffic crisis in the Philippines’ capital rose up the political agenda in the weeks ahead of the recent national elections. Six months ago, the city was named as having the “worst traffic on Earth” in a survey of 50 million drivers across 32 countries, conducted by the smartphone navigation app Waze. It has become a major economic issue, thought to cost the metro area 3bn pesos (£45m) every day. In January, a senior adviser at the American Chamber of Commerce warned local media that, based on current trends, the city could become “uninhabitable” within four years.
In practice, Manila is not one city but 16, plus a municipality. Over the years they have conjoined to form Metro Manila, one of the most decentralised and heavily populated urban areas in the world, according to online journal site, Demographia (pdf). More than 22.9 million people are now packed into 1,632 sq km, a population density seven times greater than New York and 2.4 times greater than Shanghai.
In Manila, motor vehicles are thought to be responsible for around 80% of the air pollution, putting its inhabitants at heightened risk of stroke, heart disease, cancer and asthma.
The traffic also brings a social cost. Karunungan, a 26-year-old young professional, no longer travels this route. Two months ago, she decided the traffic had got so bad she moved out of her family home, where she had lived free of rent, bills and grocery costs. Now she lives in a flat on her own, just 10 minutes walk from work.
“It was accumulated anger and distress over time,” she says. “A lot of people are angry on the road. You can see it. You can feel it. There is a lot of road rage. It’s so draining that when I get to the office I am already tired and I just want to rest.”
Others have it worse. Karen Juanson, 36, has started staying at a local hostel rather than going home at night. The Alliance Francaise where she studies is 16km from where she lives but the journey takes almost three hours.
“It’s exhausting. You’re not productive at all – stuck in stinking transport touching skin with someone who is as sweaty as you. How can you do anything?”
It takes the man next to me in the jeepney, who wishes to remain unnamed, two hours to get home. “That’s not so bad,” he says, and shrugs his shoulders. “[It’s] average. But I hate it because I have three children. I always get home late. I never see them.”
Now those in power are taking note. The presidential candidates were competing to make promises to ease Manila’s traffic woes. In their final televised debate, now-president Rodrigo Duterte promised to increase the capacity of the train system, while Grace Po heralded road expansion and clearing projects and improved enforcement of road rules. Meanwhile Miriam Santiago, who had run for president three times, called for investment in infrastructure to take people out of the capital and stricter discipline on the roads.
With a mind to this, in September former president Benigo Aquino handed control of traffic management on EDSA over to the national police force. In April the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) launched a flagship project to hold traffic violators to account by installing 400 CCTV cameras across the city, with plans for 400 more. Already their statistics show that the number of motorists being caught has doubled.
Corazon Jimenez, general manager at the MMDA, is not worried that the city will become uninhabitable by 2020.
“It’s an exaggeration. We’ve been here for the last how many years. This is Metro Manila … By 2020 there will be a change in terms of infrastructure and how the economy progresses in Metro Manila. Each city is doing redevelopment.”
It is true that the former government has invested heavily in large scale infrastructure projects to ease Manila’s traffic. Last year Aquino launched $8.42bn-worth of new schemes, including two railways and two major road projects, including the “Skyway stage 3” an elevated expressway that will connect those on the north and south of the city.
But according to the MMDA, there are already 2.2 million vehicles on Manila’s roads. Last year, sales of cars and trucks soared by 23%. So will the new road projects be part of the problem or the solution?
“In my opinion the preference of the national government is to build more and more roads,” says Cresencio Montalbo Jr, professor in the school of urban and regional planning at the University of the Philippines.
“We have said this is the wrong thing to do – for a while those roads will befree of congestion but eventually they will be full of cars. Building more roads encourages more people to buy more cars … The traffic condition in Metro Manila is prevailing and paralysing. The solution – and this is true globally for cities – is you need high quality public transport.”
He is more hopeful about the 4.8bnpesos bus rapid transit system (BRT) the president approved in December. Part-funded by a loan from the World Bank, it will link Manila’s city hall near the waterfront with Quezon city, the metropolis’ largest, through a 12.3km segregated route.
“Its cost effectiveness, rail-competitive passenger capacity, shorter construction time, possibility to absorb some of the existing public transport workers, and its potential to affect public transport reform are among the BRT’s strengths,” Montalbo in his recent report on the topic.
Others believe that electrification is the way to incentivise commuters to leave cars at home. Freddie Tinga, former mayor of one of Metro Manila’s cities, is one of a number of entrepreneurs who hopes it can transform the Philippines’ most ubiquitous public vehicle of all – the jeepney.
An industry that emerged from adapted US army vehicles left abandoned from the second world war, Metro Manila’s fleet of 75,000 jeepneys are impossible to miss. Many are emblazoned with religious or political slogans or the names of American basketball teams (a popular sport in the Philippines).
As dusk falls I jump onto a jeepney with neon disco lights that’s blasting out a drum and bass remix of Madonna’s “I should be so lucky”.
Passengers pay around eight pesos (12p) to sit on cramped parallel benches – or on each other’s laps – and have no choice but to inhale the toxic black fumes that spew out of its efficient diesel engines and in through its open sides. The drivers receive no salary and so are incentivised to speed, work long hours and cram in as many passengers as possible.
Two years ago, with a little help from Barack Obama, Tinga launched Comet, a pilot fleet of 29 electric jeepneys. He believes the vehicles – better known as “e-jeepneys” – can fight the pollution and the worst practices of the traditional industry. They are part of a wider push for electric vehicles in the Philippines – there could be 1 million by 2020, according to the Electric Vehicles Association of the Philippines. Their members (not including Comet) currently run around 100 e-jeepneys in Metro Manila and 250 e-trikes.
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Their target has been given a boost by the government’s commitment to phase out all jeepneys in the capital that are more than 15 years old by 2018. Tinga’s e-jeepneys, among others, will replace the old vehicles so that they are not creating more congestion.
Comet’s clean white e-jeepneys lack character but are spacious, quiet and use a prepay card system. Drivers are contracted, paid a salary and work fixed eight hour shifts. The company expects to be operationally profitable by June, after which it plans to implement fixed schedules, designated stops and an Uber-style booking app so customers can book rides in advance.
As Karunungan’s experience suggests, comfort will be key to the challenge that lies ahead for Manila.
“If we can give people a better ride they will leave their car at home,” says Tinga. “Outside it’s an unorganised mess. We ride in jeepneys because we have no choice. We want to build an A-grade first world vehicle that’s is good enough for a developing world country – in developing countries we’re always forced to settle. Why?”
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Senator Pia Cayetano. RYAN LEAGOGO/INQUIRER.net FILE PHOTO
MANILA, Philippines–Electric jeepneys’ being environmentally friendly is not a sufficient reason to allow them in the Philippines, especially if the roads are congested and those jeepneys are imported rather than locally developed, according to Sen. Pia Cayetano.
Cayetano, in a recent hearing on sustainable transportation, said bringing in electric jeepneys must be part of a traffic management plan.
Just because electric jeepneys are considered beneficial to the environment does not mean there is automatically room for them in Philippine cities and towns, she said.
“Of course, I want something environmentally friendly, but environmentally friendly alone does not necessarily tackle other issues like traffic management,” she said at last week’s hearing.
“We’re so proud that e-jeeps are environmentally friendly that we let cities get 20 or 100 of them. But that’s still more rolling vehicles on the road that cannot afford to have a single extra vehicle,” Cayetano said.
She noted that not all of the electric jeepneys in the country are covered by franchises. Rolling out electric jeepneys must be part of a comprehensive plan that would take into consideration how big the vehicles should be and how many could be deployed, she said.
The lack of planning is “very frustrating,” she added.
Cayetano said she had been a supporter of the electric jeepney, earlier calling on the government to grant franchises to e-jeep operators.
But she had assumed, she said, that the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) was doing a study to determine whether there was a need for additional vehicles on the road.
Cayetano also pointed out that most of the electric jeepneys in the country are imported, when the Philippines has a jeepney industry that should be supported and developed.
Jeepney is Filipino
The jeepney is a Philippine invention that has become a big part of the country’s cultural heritage, and it must not be overshadowed by imports, she said.
“I don’t find it acceptable that one group is rolling out e-jeeps that are imported and we have a local jeepney industry. Sustainability means providing jobs. And thats’s also where one of my strong advocacies comes in. That’s our heritage, that’s our culture, this jeepney culture,” she said.
She said she would not want to see a proliferation of imported electric jeepneys or other countries selling electric jeepneys to the Philippines as an alternative to locally built jeepneys.
Instead of replacing the local jeepneys with foreign-made ones, the government must step in to transform them into a more sustainable form of public transportation, she said.
Assistant Transportation Secretary Sherielysse Bonifacio said during last week’s hearing that the DOTC’s National Implementation Plan was focused focused not only on environmentally friendly forms of transportation, but also on sustainable ones.
Bonifacio said the goal was to provide accessible, affordable, safe, resilient and sustainable transport systems.
She said this was the goal of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and an Asean commitment to which the Philippines adhered.
As for electric jeepneys, the DOTC has no policy yet, but it entertains every application, she said.
To determine whether there are enough public vehicles, there must be an origin-destination study, which has not been done since 1996, she said.
Such a study shows where people are going, and ideally it should be done every five years, she said.
The Metro Manila study, however, is being updated by the Japan International Cooperation Agency and results are expected next November, she said.
Bonifacio said Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya was looking for a scientific way of awarding franchises for public vehicles.
At present, the issuance of franchises, which is based on public demand in a particular transport corridor, is “very subjective,” she said.
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TAGS: E-Jeepney, Ejeepney, Electric Jeepney, Senator Pia Cayetano