Nationalize public transport
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
September 16, 2020 at 4:05 am

The latter part of the President’s Monday night talkathon went something like this: The Department of Transportation’s (DOTr) new rules reducing, somewhat, the social distance required on public transport raised a ruckus from a public informed enough to know that this was a state-sponsored raising of risk for the commuting public. So, obviously, government had to weigh in. The Secretary of Health proceeded to demonstrate his hand-washing skills by saying the decision was wrong, only to be countered by the presidential spokesperson who said that in meetings, the Department of Health had OK’d the scheme (the Health Secretary then replied that he himself had not). The President was inspired to weigh in with some homespun, homegrown, skepticism about the value of social distancing, only to be gently chided by the Secretary of the Interior, who insisted on the importance of social distancing, which led the President to relent somewhat and ask for a briefing by means of pictures to help make up his mind.

A sub-argument was that the decision of the DOTr was approved by the IATF, while the chairman of the IATF said this simply wasn’t true; Hairy Roque, trying to be helpful, said what IATF approved was increasing the amount of available transportation and not reduced social distancing rules. A side story the next day was how the Secretary of Transportation, for his part, insisted there was some sort of science behind their decision, while another side story (or sideshow) was the President’s political appendix, Sen. Bong Go, taking a cue from his master’s voice (act like an opposition, the Great Eagle Father urged Go during his Monday night talkathon) and saying the reduced social distancing mandated by the DOTr should be reviewed before being implemented.

What’s beyond doubt is that six months into regimenting our lives in the name of fighting COVID-19, our officials are divided on specifics even though on the whole, the strategy of the government was decided early on: to institute a lockdown for as long as the economy could stand it (which was more or less until July), and then to take an increasingly relaxed, even fatalistic attitude after that, to keep the economy from flatlining.

As it is, our cash-strapped government presiding over a comatose economy still has obligations mounting in cost regardless of what’s going on. A case in point is the MRTC of the Sobrepeña group, which is guaranteed a 15-percent return regardless of how the MRT’s revenues turn out. One can understand, then, why whatever its public statements, the government is in tacit agreement with the private sector that the economy has to revive even if there will be risks to public health.

Here a glimmer of good sense, if not actual hope — because it’s just an idea at this point—has made itself manifest through the proposal of Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo to radically increase the supply of public transport seats: This strikes many as full of common sense, because the past few months have seen the non-vehicle-owning majority punished by drastically reducing the availability of public transport. The result has been counterproductive, to say the least. You may experience social distancing once you get on a rare bus, but beforehand, a long, cramped wait is required. Quimbo and others have seized on the idea of service contracts to replace a fixed fee for plying a route, instead of the boundary system of old in which individual vehicles competed with each other to fill themselves up.

In other words, a hybrid kind of nationalization is being proposed. We would have what fully publicly-owned transport systems have to offer in other countries — a fixed schedule, and capacity per route met in a rational manner — without, for now, affecting the ownership structure of the public transport operators, whether individual entrepreneurs (which jeepney drivers are, for example) or taxi and bus line operators. It is, perhaps, the best that can be suggested on the part of our legislators, since they have to take into account the blunt reality that there are politicians who own, or have interests in, transport companies. At least a proposal to guarantee fixed incomes, in exchange for a more holistic approach to scheduling and the allocation of vehicles to routes, can be pitched as a win-win for passengers and transport owners alike.

Something beyond the norm is definitely the call of the times. The manner in which buses were moved from the outer to the inner lane of Edsa, finally integrating the bus system with the rail system instead of privileging access to malls, is an example of a previously unthinkable, but worthy, scheme made possible by the COVID-19 emergency.

Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @mlq3

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