Driving on the expressways around and outside Metro Manila isn't a regular thing for me.
I'm fortunate enough to not actually need to take an expressway to get to my office. That was by choice; I never considered living in the south or the north and add toll fees to a writer's salary.
That also means I never saw the need to subscribe or acquire any of these electronic toll collection (ETC) devices or systems for the expressways. I mean, if I can count on one hand the times I take an expressway in a month, it just wasn't worth it to get a specialized device that would allow me to take a special lane at the toll booth I so infrequently pass through.
That, of course, all changed with COVID-19.
Masks, face shields, hand sanitizers, vitamins and social distancing; these are all terms we are tired of hearing about now, but that doesn't mean they don't work. The pandemic made it very clear that close contact with other people is our vulnerability, and reducing that contact by any means is going to be the answer... for now.
Make no mistake about it: these precautions aren't ultimate solutions. These are just meant to buy time until a vaccine can be ready. That's it. And while our government's faults are many, they are getting the message across: we can't do anything but take the precautions as seriously as we can and hope for the best.
One of those measures is to remove our reliance on cash. Money in the form of paper and coins is a dirty commodity, no doubt about it. The risk is there given how many hands a bill or a peso can pass through. Our parents were right: we were told to wash our hands after handling money.
And so came the order to try and transition to a zero contact society, one that relies on digital transactions with digital money. That was the idea behind online ordering, electronic tap cards for public transport, and the drive to phase out cash transactions at our expressways.
On a recent trip, I finally got myself an Easytrip RFID tag for my vehicle that would enable me to conveniently drive on the NLEX, SCTEX, CALAX, Harbor Link, and other expressways under the Metro Pacific group. I had intended to get the Autosweep RFID as well but the lines were still long on my last SLEX drive, so I'll save that for another time.
This past Sunday (October 18, 2020) I had decided on an impromptu drive with my new vehicle. Not really a long drive, but enough to stretch its legs a bit after several weeks of just urban traffic and the potholes that come with this wet weather. About an hour before I left, I logged on to my BDO account and reloaded my Easytrip for the first time since I got it. I had tried to create an account with the Easytrip app (on the Google Play Store) to check if my reload was active, but the email verification link took forever to open, so I just left.
Typical Japanese expressway toll plaza
I lined up at the leftmost RFID toll gate at Balintawak, waiting for my turn to drive through. Actually, it's more of a crawl through as our RFID systems can't really hold a candle to similar systems at more developed countries like Japan.
Instead of using passive RFID stickers, they use transmitters built in or wired into the car, and all you do is insert your Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) debit card. You don't have to stop or creep your way through; all you have to do is slow down to about 20 km/h and the barrier will open, and you can speed up again.
Japanese ETC 2.0 unit built-in
When the line cleared, I crept my truck forward, and guess what: the barrier didn't open. Payment Rejected.
"Sir, did you load your Easytrip?" asked the teller behind a desk. I told him I had used the BDO online bills payment system to load the Easytrip.
"Ah, sir bukas pa iyon lilitaw sa account ninyo. Atras po kayo at pumila sa RFID Reload booth."
[Sir, that will only show up in your account tomorrow. Please back up and line up at the RFID Reload booth.]
So now I had to perform the tricky process of backing up out of the toll gate. That wasn't easy given that there were vehicles already lined up behind that had to put their transmissions in reverse. This was one of the times that the Navara's 360-degree camera system really came in handy.
I backed up enough to be able to line up at the RFID Reload booth about 3 toll gates to my right, and behind about 8 vehicles total; just like the cash lane. That was the time that my Easytrip account finally got verified, and I was able to check via the app. I uploaded vehicle information, my account number, and even a photo of the truck (the app required it), and then I was able to see the balance. 16 pesos.
Now I'm worried. 1000 pesos was debited from my BDO account earlier in the afternoon to Easytrip Services Corporation. I double-checked the official infographic that had the instructions I used for the process, and I did follow everything for the online banking segment.
What I didn't spot in my rush was the notice at the bottom: The load will be credited after 24 hours except for holidays or weekends wherein the load will be credited on the next business day.
That one is on me. It was there in black and white, even if the font was blue. I should have known it would have been similar to a bank check deposit; there's a clearing process. Always read the fine print. They do find ways... just not the one I needed.
Surveying the other RFID toll gates around me as I sat there in line, it was clear that I wasn't the only one with problems with the RFID system. You can tell by how many reverse lamps light up; I counted at least 5. There was also a heated debate between the teller and the driver in front of me. When I handed over a 500 peso bill and my Easytrip card to the lady at the reload booth, I found out why.
"OK sir, I need another 54 pesos for the Balintawak toll fee." said the teller.
Perplexed, I asked what for.
"Sir, it will take 1 hour for this 500 load to be reflected in your account."
Now I know what the driver of the car in front of me was pissed off about. Any load you enter at the toll gate will be stuck in limbo for 1 hour. I can't blame the nice lady at the counter; it wasn't her fault. There was clearly a problem with their processes beyond her control. That delay also means the load might not be there when I make the return drive because I only really wanted to go to Tabang and back.
An hour later I checked my Easytrip app and saw that the 500 pesos was already credited. So when I entered the RFID lane for the return drive, I fully expected it to open. It didn't. Payment rejected again. The explanation from the staff at Tabang entry was that while the load was now in my account, it may not have reached their system at Tabang yet. This makes me want to pull my hair out.
When you buy a cellphone load from even the most remote sari-sari store, the money you pay is instantly credited to your sim card. Sometimes you have to give it a few minutes, but the load will get there quickly and ready to use right away. With Easytrip, I was already loading my account at what is effectively their home base at Balintawak on their own point-of-sale system by their own employee (I think). There are no middle men to cause delays, but somehow, there is a 1-hour delay between me handing them my money and that load being reflected in my Easytrip account.
Is there some kind of government-style digital bureaucracy built into Easytrip's software and systems? James Deakin, my ex-boss and mentor (I prefer the latter; it makes him sound older), perhaps coined the best term for this: convenientitis. That means if something is too convenient, they'll find ways to make it less so.
There are many ways to load Easytrip like going to a 7-11. I opted for the online BDO bills pay option, but that 24-hour delay means I won't be doing that again. I could have used my BPI, but the cheapskate that I am scoffed at the inconvenient PhP 15 "convenience" fee. There might also be a 24 hour wait with BPI, so I won't bother with it either.
The best one, according to friends, is GCash. Loading via GCash is supposedly real time for Easytrip (and Autosweep too, from what my friends say). Somehow, that makes no sense. GCash is under Globe, and that means it's part of Ayala. Easytrip is Metro Pacific while Autosweep is San Miguel; if there's a payment system that should have delays, it's GCash. As to why using GCash to load an Easytrip is more instant than loading at an Easytrip teller booth at NLEX Balintawak is beyond me. Looks like I'll be signing up for a GCash account then.
The point of mandating contactless forms of transactions, however, wasn't convenience; it was safety amidst this pandemic. Yet somehow there are major problems that sorely need ironing out, and it's not limited to RFID. Remember when the Department of Transportation (DOTr) mandated those not-for-free Beep cards for the EDSA Busway? That was a big issue, and a huge burden on an already frustrated riding public. They found a workaround and eventually made the cards free-of-charge, but the initial issues that resulted in ridiculously long lines to buy one were worrying. Now imagine if one person in that queue was unknowingly positive for COVID-19.
If the intention was to reduce or eliminate unnecessary person-to-person contact, clearly there is a fail that needs fixing with RFID. And the problems are not at the teller/toll gate level.
Side note: the 1000 peso load from that Sunday transaction just reflected on my Easytrip today. Tuesday.