Ask anyone what they think of the MMDA, stand back and watch the sparks fly.
Corrupt. Inept. Pink. Blue. Bastards. And that's still mild by comparison.
We've dealt with them before, usually on the receiving end of the ticket, but what is it really like for them on the other side? So, after a little chat with their new Director of Traffic Discipline, we got a chance to join them for a day of operations just to get a feel for their jobs, their challenges, and their triumphs as the guardians of the streets.
The history lesson
I was actually surprised to find out that the MMDA traces its roots all the way back... to our martial law years. Personally, I was too young to remember those times, as I was just 4 years old when it ended in 1986.
Ruling by Presidential Decrees, Ferdinand Marcos created the Metro Manila Commission, appointing his wife, Imelda, as its Governor.
The MMC was reincarnated in 1990 during the Presidency of Cory Aquino, this time as a league of Metro Manila Mayors who elect amongst themselves a Chairman (no longer Governor) with Makati's Jejomar Binay emerging as the first Chairman of the Metro Manila Authority.
In 1995, the MMA underwent another makeover, this time from the upper and lower houses of our our legislature with the passing of Republic Act 7924 that created the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, the current MMDA.
A lesson in perception... since 1995
I make no bones about it, the MMDA has a bad perception in my book. I can't speak for other people's experiences, but I have several of my own.
I first got my license in 2000, and I've dealt with the MMDA's street enforcers several times. The first one involved the number coding scheme, or the Unified Vehicular Volume Reduction Program (UVVRP). This scheme aims to reduce traffic by banning certain vehicles during the work week (plates ending in 1-2 barred from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM on Monday, 2-4 on Tuesday, so on) which, in theory, should reduce the cars on the road by around 20%.
Back in college, heading home after waiting out the coding window (7:15 PM), I was waved to the side of the road by a gang of about 5 MMDA officers. The apprehending officer attempted to give me a ticket for violation of the UVVRP. My phone, my car, and my watch all indicated past 7:00 PM, so I proceeded to question his judgment. The bottomline, I asked him what time it was on his watch, but I realized he didn't have one, or any other device that displayed the time. Needless to say, he let me go.
That's not all, one MMDA enforcer even apprehended me for “swerving” from EDSA and onto Pioneer street in Mandaluyong. I don't know about you, but slowly turning from one lane into another about 50 meters from the actual street you intend to enter with your turn signals on doesn't constitute “swerving”. It's just a lane change, stupid. That's the problem when it comes to deputizing enforcers who don't or can't actually drive.
Whether it's blatant incompetence, corrupt practices bordering on extortion or just plain ignorance, the MMDA has carved for itself a shady reputation and a terrible perception in the public. Add to that the gaudy pink and light blue implemented during Bayani Fernando's Metro Gwapo days and you can add ridiculous to their repertoire.
A new dawn
2010 was really a new beginning for the MMDA. A new president hell bent on a crusade to revitalize the government and overhaul public accountability and transparency could only spell better things for an agency that deals face to face with the public on a daily basis.
A new president meant a new MMDA Chairman in Atty. Francis Tolentino, and with him came a new team of public administrators, including Atty. Yves Gonzalez who now heads the Traffic Discipline Office of the MMDA.
After a chat with Gonzalez, we set up a day with their agency to get a feel for their day to day operations. Of all days to choose, we ended up with the busiest one of the year: Friday, December 16, 2011. The Christmas shopping rush, the provincial exodus for the holidays and public patience worn down by the incessant traffic all contributed to what was going to be a very, uh, sporty day.
Morning: Anti Colorum Operations
We met up with Atty. Gonzalez towards the end of morning rush hour as they conduct anti-colorum and out-of-line operations.
To this day, I still haven't come across an official definition of "colorum" that fits the context: public utility vehicles, taxis and other public transport that operate without proper documentation or registration. The target involved provincial buses, as they tend to make up their own routes and even use illegal buses and equipment.
"We've received many complaints from legitimate operators regarding these out-of-line buses," comments Atty. Gonzalez. "These out-of-line buses take a good piece of their income by taking a different route than what their papers say."
Gonzalez deploys the MMDA's Task Force Lawin, the agency's "A-Team" when it comes to apprehending these erring buses. Clad in their black Zero Payola (payoff), Kotong (extortion) and Lagay (bribe) shirts, the MMDA officers were deployed along the stretch of Osmena highway (corner Gil Puyat/Buendia/Dela Rosa) to hunt down out-of-line and colorum buses.
It only took 5 minutes for the first bus to be pulled over from Dimple Star Transport. It was clear that this bus was out of line, as a quick look at their papers show that this bus was supposed to ply Sucat Road and onto Roxas Boulevard. Instead the bus driver chose to change his route to pass through the South Luzon Expressway and into the waiting eyes of Task Force Lawin.
The team is meticulous in their methods. No stone goes unturned indeed as every piece of paperwork is checked and every detail is uncovered. They even check the engine's serial number to make sure it has been legally installed and matches with the paperwork... all while it's still hot and running
.It didn't take long for the shoulder to fill up with buses and create a little traffic jam. A quick look revealed the usual suspects in the transport industry. Some didn't have their registration details (plate number, LTFRB number, etc.) painted on the side, some even scored a big fat zero (out of line and colorum) when inspected. Some were let go after their paperwork checked out, but in the end, the victims of colorum operation are the passengers. One passenger was very vocal about why their bus was pulled over, and had a lengthy chat with Atty. Gonzalez.
"It's hard for us to apprehend these buses because of the major inconvenience it causes passengers," comments Gonzalez. "But in the end, it's our job to do this, though we are working on ways to prevent the public from riding colorum and out-of-line bus operators like publishing the repeat offenders list."
After the morning's excitement, the tally was rather high. Several buses were impounded by the MMDA after failing one or more of the stipulations when it comes to transport operations, but all in all, the legitimate transport companies are kept happy and the public has been made safer.
After all, if a bus is out-of-line, it's all the motivation they need to run away after any accident... minor or major.
MetroBase: The Command Center
You've heard the MetroBase moniker before. In my head, I had several images of some high tech command center, communications headsets, the latest in computer equipment and the tech weenies manning them.
It just so happened that it was the MMDA's annual Christmas party that day, and after making our way through the crowds, we finally got a chance to see MMDA's MetroBase Command Center. The image in our heads couldn't be farther from the truth.
Honestly, I've seen village computer shops that had better equipment. It was a two storey building with an atrium. On the ledge were a collection of LCD screens that seem to have been acquired separately. The computers seemed old, and the place has seen much better days.
This seems strange, especially since it's the place where we get our up-to-the-minute traffic updates via the MMDA's official Twitter account (you can tweet your route @MMDA for real time updates) and the MMDA's TNAV graphic traffic information system (http://mmdatraffic.interaksyon.com). There was one guy manning the Twitter account and Tweeting to queries, there was one guy updating the MMDA's Traffic Navigator. There were stations for the different functions like internal communications, the dispatcher and even a manual whiteboard to serve as a backup monitoring system should the main computer-based system go down for any reason.
To say the MMDA's MetroBase needs more and better equipment is an understatement.
"What I need are about 100 CCTV cameras to really expand the capabilities of our department," comments Gonzalez. "Pero for now, we try to do the best we can with the equipment we have."
One stalled vehicle on the Kamuning/Kamias flyover was spotted immediately, responded to within minutes by the nearest MMDA station, and at the same time noted on their TNAV. It's a tough and nerve racking job to do right, but judging by how and how quickly they respond on a daily basis to any event, it seems we have the right people for the job.
After our date with MMDA's MetroBase, we then proceeded to join them that same night.
The Christmas rush sure took its toll on Metro Manila, especially given that it was a Friday night and many families were headed out of town for their respective provinces, clogging up traffic with the increased volume of vehicles.
To help ease EDSA Northbound rush hour traffic, the team moved to EDSA corner Pioneer on the north bound side. As an added measure for public safety, the team was out to enforce the closed door policy and also check for vehicles who do not have their headlights which, as per R.A. 4136 as re-implemented last September 22, 2011, should be on 30 minutes after sunset.
There seems to be no shortness of excitement as they tried to enforce the proper rules of the street. There were a couple of errant buses who were given tickets. One bus driver even tried to sideswipe one of the enforcers and got a reckless driving citation along with his illegal loading and unloading charge
.In a matter of minutes Northbound EDSA traffic coming from Makati eased up making it a smooth drive for motorists.
Of innovation and perception
The guys behind the MMDA now are working to rebuild from the ashes of bad public perception and bad public trust of the past. Today, they're trying to innovate the way they do things by keeping the public informed, cleaning up sidewalks and gradually erase the problem of payola, kotong and corruption.
It won't be an easy job. To say it's an uphill climb is an understatement. Think cliff, rock climbing, freehand. Do the math.
Nevertheless, if they can sustain their efforts to educate their ranks, systematically eliminate corrupt elements, stand up for the rules of the road, minimize or even eradicate the padrino (patron) politics of the past, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority can take their rightful place as the guardians that our streets and our motoring lives have needed for so long.