Transport planning, then and now

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For a long time, little was done by successive administrations to develop and improve the country’s transport system; this allowed many existing transport modes to deteriorate. The cases of the Philippine National Railway and the Manila trams operated by the Meralco from 1905 to 1945 are good examples. The PNR, which started construction in 1889 and operation in 1892, also did not survive the neglect of the government. The more-than-900-kilometer railway was operated until the 1970s when it was allowed to deteriorate. The liberation of Manila in 1945 destroyed the trams and was never reconstructed.

In its place, the jeepney took over and underwent a lot of transformation without the benefit of any government regulations on passenger and safety designs. The jeepney also influenced, to a large degree, the land use development that eventually ensued in the National Capital Region. Although we are one of the first, if not the first in the region, to have a railway, we have been overtaken by our neighbors like many other things that we have pioneered. With a country of more than 7,000 islands, one would think that the first priority of any government would be to develop an efficient transport system to maximize the country’s potential for economic development. Unfortunately however, this was not the case. Our transport infrastructure deteriorated and lagged behind our neighbors and it is only now that the government is beginning to invest huge amounts of money in order to catch up. And although most Filipinos live in the 11 biggest islands of the country, the predominant transport mode is primarily road-based. The Land Transportation Office and The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board remain as the primary agencies that regulate land transportation—the LTO for vehicle registration and the LTFRB for public transportation. The LTFRB’s authority to regulate public transport come from the old Public Service Law passed in 1936 during the Commonwealth period which is now badly in need of urgent amendments to make it more relevant to the times. We are the only country in the world that I know that relies on private companies to provide public transportation. In most countries, it is the government, whether local or national, that provides most public transportation needs. This is partly the reason why the chaotic system that we have in the NCR is avoided by these countries.

The Department of Transportation was established in 1979 by President Ferdinand Marcos with the appointment of the late Minister Jose Dans Jr. as the first department head and as far as I know, he remains the only civil engineer appointed to that position to this day. The first years of the agency were hectic years principally because it was the first time that transport problems and plans were integrated to come up with an overall national action plan. Many of the projects being implemented today were first planned during those years which also goes to show how slow we go about implementing projects. LRT1 was planned and implemented during those years. Originally planned to be constructed at ground level, Minister Dans elevated it due to the perennial flood problems of Metro Manila.

Other light rail routes were also identified like MRT3 along Edsa together with the MRT2 along Quezon Avenue going to part of Marikina. LRT1 was originally planned to go all the way to Cavite which is only be started now, 37 years later. On the current monstrous traffic problems in Metro Manila, which was already beginning to be felt by that time, transport planners reduced the number of bus operators by forming 10 cooperative bus companies and requiring all bus operators. This reduced the huge number of operators.

For the not-so-young readers, the famous and efficient air-conditioned love buses was one of them. When President Corazon Aquino took over, however, the government reverted to the policy of allowing anyone to operate a bus service and that is the reason why we now have thousands of buses operating along Edsa alone.

Jeepneys and tricycles were also banned from operating along Edsa. But now jeepneys are back and planning was also started for the eventual abolition of jeepneys in Metro Manila in stages. The traffic training center in the University of the Philippines was established to improve the competence of government traffic personnel. The Transportation department was also supported with a lot of foreign traffic and transportation engineers supported by World Bank grants. All projects were thoroughly studied prior to implementation by an assigned project manager. Even the simple establishment of a department library was thoroughly studied necessitating a trip to the American Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. s to request for assistance in establishing a first class transport library.

Unfortunately this project like so many projects was never implemented. Today, when the DoTr wanted to phase out the jeepney, it backed down when confronted by a series of jeepney strikes. The plan has now been changed by prescribing passenger and safety design improvements which is better than nothing but completely misses the point of the exercise that the jeepney is no longer a viable mass transport system in a highly urbanized city and the limited road system in the NCR.

The DOTr may also have failed to consider that the people will continue to motorize thereby reducing dependence on the jeepney in the long run. Yes, a lot of people still use the jeepney but this is largely due to the inefficiency of the light rail and buses. Improve the reliability and efficiency of these two and dependence on the jeepney will eventually go down.

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