blinders or blindspot

Buses and traffic discipline in Metro Manila

These were my comments on iReport's "Too many buses, too many agencies clog Edsa": (hat tip to Eugene for leading me to the article)
Margie Grey's PCIJ article on the travails of the public bus system in Metro Manila was (characteristically) well researched and gives a quick overview of the confusing governance of traffic numbers involved in the PUB system. Thank you, Margie, for pointing out that private vehicles outnumber PUBs 9 to 1. A viable traffic solution must involve reducing private car use -and that can only be accomplished by providing more efficient public transport.

Margie's article does fail to account for the role of the economic model of PUBs in the behavior of bus drivers. I believe this less an oversight of the reporter than it is a serious blindspot among our policy makers.

We seem to have taken the "boorish behavior" of buses on EDSA as a given, taken it as function of (at best) a lack of driver education, or (more often_ as a lack of discipline among bus drivers. But bus drivers behave the way they do, drive the way they do because of the economic drivers (no pun intended) behind their occupation.

The "boundary" or commission system ("12 percent commission if daily earnings are P10,000 or less and 14 percent if earnings are more than P10,000") dictates the driving behavior as surely as confusing layers of governance on EDSA.

As I wrote before:

The Boundary System is basically a vehicle rent system. The driver is "hired" by the transport operator, to run and maintain his jeep, bus, or FX cab. The driver can run as many trips within the boundary period (standard is 12 hours) as he wants but he basically has to pay the "boundary fee" (usually, daily) to the owner -and his source of income is whatever he makes over and above the boundary fee. The driver covers the cost of gasoline and minor repairs.

The boundary system brings a logic to earning money that shapes the driving habits of the renting drivers. If the driver only earns above the boundary, then logic dictates that he must get as many passengers as he can in as many trips as possible . The driver also benefits by having the vehicle on the road as many days as possible - as repairs and shutdowns mean no income for the day.

So, a driver will:
  1. soak up passengers by basically waiting as long as he can in a high traffic/passenger volume area and then
  2. speed up to the next high volume pickup point to soak in more passengers.
  3. he will also see other public utility vehicles plying the route as competition so waiting in a line does not make much sense,
  4. he will try to get ahead of the line (usually by doubling up on the pickup lane) so he can be closer to the "source" of passengers and so
  5. he won't be tied down on the line and can speed up to the next destination.
  6. It also means that shorter trips are preferred to longer trips and
  7. vehicle downtime and thus vehicle maintenance is kept to a minimum (=inefficient engines, =more pollution).
This system is behind the traffic chokepoints at the major junctions and intersections of our cities. (I've written extensively about how our disorganized public transport system has shaped the built fabric and the quality of life in our metropolis.)

We've thrown good money after bad in countless traffic control and traffic discipline systems to try to get the "boorish behavior" under control. The OBR is just the latest incarnation (remember Oscar Orbos' sticker system?).

I find it amusing that Director Lantion thinks that getting buses to compete on "brand" will be the best approach to getting better traffic behavior from our PUBs.

Changing the economic model - to a salary based system, where the driver's income is NOT based on how many passengers he can pick up, will change driver behavior overnigh and will restore sanity to flow of PUBs on EDSA even without the expensive RFID systems.

Benjamin de la Pena
a.k.a -Urbano dela Cruz

Image credit: EDSA Traffic
by Mon Solo


Eugene said...

I was thinking, what if we ban all private jeepneys and city-based buses just in Metro Manila, sparing the provincial buses, the FXs, and shuttles, and have the MMDA/DOTC operate their own Metro-Manila transport systems (based on buses or modern efficient jeepneys) with salaried drivers and conductors?

The provincial buses, FXs, and shuttles are left alone (and maybe regulated lest we have multiple companies fighting various terminals) since they don't choke up traffic hubs because they're a mostly end-to-end transport system leaving private operators with a capitalist system (and to fill out the long-haul routes).

An advantage of this is that the government can regulate the supply of public transport and there would be no need to construct expensive railways. The disadvantage lies in the scenario of the government managing a public utility.

Urbano dela Cruz said...

Hey Eugene,

You're right about government managed public transport having it's own problems. (I've written about this before)

"Many cities are in serious debt from maintaining municipal transport companies. As with any other endeavor the government enters into - government owned transport services, if badly managed (which is likely given that it is protected from market forces) quickly become money pits.

Government ownership means pricing strategy and route choice will be driven by electoral expediencies leading to even more inefficiencies and higher costs.

Private led transport industries are driven by the logic of profit and competition, so overhead costs are kept to a minimum and personnel are hired or fired based on performance and are not shielded by civil service laws."

It's not an either-or equation though. There are hybrid models, where the government can own all the hardware, and then it leases out franchises for services. (right now, all we franchise is the route.)

we can also cook up new models ala power decentralization -separating the equipment from the services -where companies can bid for the franchise to provide buses -and other companies can bid to run the services.

The companies who win the equipment franchise will be driven to maintain and prolong the life of their assets, so you get buses in better condition. Companies who win the service franchise will be driven to provide efficient scheduling.

Whatever the case, the boundary system must go.

All these models rise on fall on the organizing principles driving driver behavior.

The key point is: traffic behavior isn't just about traffic discipline.


Michael said...

BF is doing some civil works in major bus stops. There are now narrow concrete islands on the road itself, for 2 lanes of bus traffic (only in the vicinity of the bus stops). Maybe this is the first step to a BRT EDSA.

BF is also going to push through with the elevated U-turn ramp in C-5/Kalayaan intersection. This goes against your 30kph/30mph maximum manageable speed but I think this will solve the swerving to reach the U-turn slot problem.

Urbano dela Cruz said...


I've been waiting for BF to show signs that he is moving to a BRT but so far all the civil works seem to be about traffic discipline. I will keep my fingers crossed.

As to the U-turn flyovers, I'm generally wary of any infra solution to a traffic behavior problem, especially if the intent is to speed up traffic. Faster vehicle flows actually reduce road efficiency and just move the congestion to another intersection.

These infra solutions also make the roads even less pedestrian friendly and commit us further to a car-oriented metropolis.


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