Too many buses, too many agencies clog Edsa

ON ANY given day, 2.34 million vehicles pass Metro Manila’s main circumferential artery, Edsa or C-4. Of the total, 139,227 are public utility buses (PUBs), both air-conditioned and ordinary. In a range of colors and brand names that nobody quite remembers, these giants of the road are perceived to be the bane of Metro Manila motorists and traffic enforcers, even though privately owned cars make up the bulk of the vehicles on the streets of the National Capital Region.

Traffic experts themselves say the high number of privately owned vehicles on Metro Manila thoroughfares is one of the main reasons why traffic in the metropolis has gotten worse through the years. But the boorish behavior of many public buses — as well as the fact that far too many of them are on the road — aggravate the situation. Official statistics even indicate that at least 80 percent of the buses in Metro Manila figured in traffic accidents in 2006.

Buses have thus been prime targets for regulation by authorities, and efforts to discipline them and weed out the rogue ones have been stepped up in the last few years. The problem, however, is that there is some confusion over which government agency should take the lead in regulating bus operations. The result is a gridlock in the implementation of rules, thereby leaving bus operators and drivers to continue to do as they please much of the time, including illegal practices that have curious names such as “buntis (pregnant)” and “kabit (mistress).”

“It’s a question of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing,” says Primitivo Cal, a former Public Works and Highways undersecretary, referring to the agencies that all have a hand in regulating the operations of public buses. Cal, who is currently the dean of the University of Philippines School of Urban and Regional Planning (UP-SURP), adds, “When you get down to it, Metro Manila’s main traffic problem is that the population of vehicles, including PUBs, is growing faster than capacity or the construction of more roads. The solution is to either modify travel demand or capacity.”

Under the present set-up, the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) manages the flow of vehicular traffic in major thoroughfares such as Edsa and monitors only city-based public buses under the organized bus route (OBR) program. The Land Transportation Office (LTO), meanwhile, issues the yellow license plates indicating that both city- and provincial-based buses are for hire. Not all buses registered with LTO, however, are authorized by the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) to accept paying passengers.

Local government units (LGUs) likewise play an important role, particularly in the flow of traffic along Edsa, which stretches from Kalookan City in the north to Pasay City in the south and passes through parts of Quezon City, San Juan, Mandaluyong City, and Makati. Buses from nearby provinces such as Cavite, Laguna, Rizal, and Bulacan also pass through Edsa daily.

Confusing counts

It is telling that the agencies involved in regulating public bus operations have conflicting data on the number of buses plying the streets. But they seem to all agree that there is an oversupply of buses in Metro Manila, and especially on Edsa, where these are especially aggressive in getting passengers.

The 2006 final report of the “Edsa Bus Route Revalidation Survey” funded by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) shows there is a 50 percent oversupply of buses during the morning peak period between six and nine in the morning. The study notes, “Against an authorized level of 3,414 buses, a reduction of 1,700 units would only cut down service headways from one bus per 11.2 seconds to one bus per 22.5 seconds.”

It has a similar conclusion for the afternoon peak period of five to seven, when most employees leave their places of work and return home.

MMDA’s count of city-bound buses in August 2006 was 3,290. JICA estimates there are close to 5,000 of such buses regularly plying Edsa. LTFRB’s updated count is 3,800, half of which are provincial-based.

“The real numbers are probably 30 percent, plus or minus, the JICA figures,” admits Thompson Lantion, a retired general appointed by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to head the LTFRB in the last quarter of 2006.

The disparity in the figures arises from three illegal practices popular among bus operators. One is called “buntis,” in which the license plate of one bus authorized to ply a specific route is currently used by four other buses. There is also the “kabit,” which takes place when a bus allows other individuals or companies to piggyback on its government-issued franchise for a fee. But perhaps the most common industry practice is the “colorum,” where a bus company without a franchise fields buses or where a franchised bus company fields buses in unauthorized routes.

LTFRB management information division chief Nida Quibic recently told PCIJ that their “conservative estimate” is that there are some 2,000 colorum buses on Edsa.

Getting rid of kabits

Former LTFRB chairperson Elena Bautista thought she had a solution that would quash at least the “kabit” in mid-2006: the voluntary segregation program. Under Memorandum Circular 2006-035, the franchise holder is, in effect, penalized, paying P25,000 over a 12-month period for each “kabit” unit that made use of its name; and the secondary franchise holder pays P50,000 for every unit that will be given proper LTFRB papers.

“I am still reviewing the voluntary segregation program,” says Lantion, whose office has no idea how many operators have applied so far under the program. A court case filed by a bus company has also hindered the program from moving forward.

In the meantime, operators are also watching closely the proposed congressional amendment of Commonwealth Act 146 or the Public Service Act, particularly the provision on the duration of a franchise.

Lantion says that the purpose of franchising is to “eliminate excess buses.” But it’s unclear to what extent such should be imposed on buses plying Edsa. Although bus ridership on the popular thoroughfare is about a third of the 420,000 daily commuters using the faster and schedule-conscious MRT-3, many commuters would be stranded if the buses were to go on strike or cease to operate altogether.

“MRT-3 cannot handle the added volume,” concedes MMDA division chief for planning and design Neomie Recio. “During the times when MRT-3 has no power, buses are the only available and affordable form of public transport along Edsa.”

Nelly Gonzales, who commutes five days a week from her Quezon City home to her place of work in Makati, says she still takes the bus instead of the MRT. “Taking a bus is still cheaper than taking the train and, chances are, I don’t have to stand up during the entire ride,” she says. “The so-called time-saving advantage of the MRT is not exactly true. If I take the MRT during rush hours, I still would have to wait 15 minutes or more for a train that is not overcrowded. Then, I would have to get out at the Ayala station and walk to my place of work, which is 15 minutes away from the station.”

Compared to the situation on Edsa, the role of buses along Taft Ave., which hosts LRT-1, is less important. There buses account for only 4.6 percent of total vehicles on the road while jeepneys account for 18.6 percent. “Perhaps because it is not as profitable, there are fewer buses plying Taft Ave. than the Quezon Ave./Commonwealth/España route or Roxas Blvd., both of which are not passed by trains,” says Recio.

Debates and disputes

Yet while no one disputes that buses are crucial to Metro Manila’s public transport system, debates continue on just how many should be on the road, where, and at what time. These have been accompanied by bickering on which government agency or unit should determine such details.

“To a large extent, LGUs decide who ply their streets,” observes Cal. “They monitor demand and supply in their areas of jurisdiction, not the LTFRB, whose franchising system is quasi-judicial.”

“Admittedly,” he adds, “the technical capability of many LGUs in the field of traffic engineering and management is weak. However, this situation also exists in national government agencies, including MMDA.”

The way the MMDA sees it, though, up to 25 percent of the traffic problem can be traced to the interference of non-traffic professionals at the local level. Translated in layman’s terms, that means LGU-appointed traffic aides who are often thrust upon motorists with little preparation for their job.

“The control of traffic in one area affects the control of traffic in another area,” says MMDA chairman Bayani Fernando. “You can’t pinpoint responsibility if all the LGUs want to assert their authority. If there is to be a unity in command, there is a need to revisit the role of LGUs in managing traffic.”

But Mandaluyong City Mayor Benjamin Abalos Jr., president of the City Mayors League of the Philippines, says that the MMDA cannot enact ordinances — something that can hinder the agency from implementing its traffic rules all throughout Metro Manila. As a compromise, he says, “The mayors have agreed to attend the regular meetings with MMDA, instead of sending their city administrators. This way, we understand where we are all going and we can work together.”

Lanes, queues, and terminals

In any case, the MMDA has gone ahead with designated bus lanes on Edsa, where pink fences and yellow lines segregate buses from private motorists. It also has the Organized Bus Route (OBR) program, which controls the supply of city-based buses on the road through the issuance of queue cards (Q cards) to buses waiting in four MMDA-designated main terminals and 11 satellite terminals. When it was first implemented on December 3, 2003 to monitor bus violations such as overtaking and bypassing, the program lasted just one day because of complaints from bus operators. But the MMDA relaunched it in 2005 and now calls the program a success.

Aside from being issued Q cards, which controls when they can go on the road to take passengers, all buses plying a route are given the same color-coded ID stickers that must be prominently displayed on their windshields. The sticker color for Edsa, for example, is pink. This means that MMDA personnel along the 19 loading stations along Edsa will flag down any bus without the pink sticker and will check its LTO/LTFRB documents to ascertain its legitimacy.

“By the standards we’ve set internally, the program has been successful,” says MMDA-OBR deputy for administration and operation Santiago Frivaldo. “We have eliminated the ‘colorum’ problem among city-based PUBs. We have reduced bus emissions. We have also made PUBs more efficient and, therefore, more profitable.”

The LTFRB may disagree with Frivaldo’s claims about colorum buses, while environmentalists would probably challenge what he says about bus emissions. MMDA records do show, though, that a bus currently makes only three to four round trips a day, each time with an average of 60 passengers. In comparison, a bus before OBR made between five and six round trips a day, each trip with 30 to 35 passengers. By eliminating the “out-of-liners,” the load factor or the ratio of number of passengers and seating capacity of OBR participants has thus improved from 70 percent to 80 percent in the last two years.

Improved load factor, but lower earnings

Still, improved load factor has not automatically translated to increased earnings for bus drivers and conductors. Ferdie Rania, a conductor whose bus plies the Navotas route, gets a 12 percent commission if daily earnings are P10,000 or less and 14 percent if earnings are more than P10,000. He says, “We’ve never made more than P10,000 since the OBR was implemented.”

Driver Orlan Galay, who plies the Fairview route, says his bus grosses an average of P8,000 a day, from which he gets 10 percent. Even then, Galay is luckier than Albert Tabor who has been driving only for a month and whose bus route through Fairview grosses about P4,000 daily.

The PCIJ found Tabor’s Sta. Maria, Bulacan-based bus lining up for passengers at MMDA’s OBR terminal in Baclaran, which could only mean the bus managed to sneak through the MMDA personnel on the street. The LTO’s Law Enforcement Service also admits that it has yet to computerize its files and has been unable to keep track of bus firms that perennially violate traffic rules or their franchises’ stipulations. Even private motorists who are veteran recipients of traffic-violation tickets say they usually get away with not paying any fines because their infractions — which include invading the lanes supposedly meant only for buses and other public transport vehicles — go unrecorded.

The MMDA, however, is optimistic that city-based buses may have a harder time violating the OBR once it finishes installing radio frequency identification (RFID) chips in all of them. Working much like the tollways’ e-pass or the Government Service Insurance System’s smart card, each RFID chip costs about P1,000, which will be fully borne by MMDA.

“The system itself is good and is in use in many developed countries,” comments Cal. “What I cannot understand is the direct involvement of MMDA in bus operation and not just in policy-making. Would MMDA be liable for any PUB operator’s loss caused by its direct involvement in bus operation? This aspect should be resolved between MMDA and bus operators.”

As it is, the Provincial Bus Operators Association of the Philippines (PBOAP), which has seven active members north of Metro Manila and eight members south of Metro Manila and as far as the Visayas, disputes the oversupply theory.

Trim-down tactics

Before she was moved up as transportation undersecretary last year, Bautista had even vowed to reduce over a period of time the number of buses in the metropolis to only 1,000 units. MMDA’s Fernando, for his part, dreams about a one-road-one-bus-operator system that in other countries has made dispatching more efficient.

There is also a proposed multibillion-peso intermodal transport system in which provincial-based buses would no longer be allowed to enter the metropolis. Instead, they would drop off their passengers at designated terminals at the periphery of Metro Manila. These passengers would then take city-based buses or use the loop of interconnecting mass transit systems.

But PBOAP President Homer Mercado argues, “There is a need to quantify and define the role of PUBs. Reducing the number of buses will only mean an increase in the number of FXs (multiple-passenger non-metered taxis) on the road because there are not enough public transport units around. At the end of the day, we are more efficient because a bus can seat an average of 60 people while an FX, excluding the driver, can seat 10 at most.”

Bus operators, however, may have to contend not only with diminished fleets (if they are not forced to close down altogether) sometime soon. Says LTFRB’s Lantion: “I want the franchise to be good for only five years, renewable up to 15 years, depending on the franchise holder’s fleet modernization program and consumer service record. Before I leave, I want to have an industry fleet that is not more than 10 years old.”

In assessing the applications for franchise renewals, LTFRB has now adopted SPEED, an acronym that looks at the five criteria of good service, performance, efficiency, effectiveness, and discipline.

Sixty percent of the country’s passenger buses are currently between 11 and 15 years old. Industry refleeting is placed at only 10 percent a year, in part because even a brand-new China-made bus, which is already 20 to 30 percent cheaper than a similar second-hand unit from Japan, still costs between P2.6 million and P5 million.

Industry players say 70 percent of any refleeting program has to be bank-financed, which only means the bus companies must be credit-worthy or profitable.

It’s a move that has operators howling, but industry observers say it has been long overdue. And for all his criticisms of the efforts of the various government agencies to rein in bus companies, Cal says, “What is happening right now is deregulation, accompanied by strict enforcement in technical aspects such as safety and level of service. Right now, passengers don’t choose a bus because it offers better service compared to others. They just take the first available bus.”

“With less operators,” he continues, “the concept of branding will take hold. Passengers will be able to patronize a bus company, which gets them to where they want to go safely, politely, cleanly, and fast. It’s doable.”

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