27 DECEMBER 2007

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PUBLIC EYE

CROSSBORDER

THIS MONTH'S FEATURES



by MARGARET JAO-GREY

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.

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