Alls well that ends well. The recent social media misunderstanding between UBER fans and LTFRB regarding the new premium taxi category has not only made matters clear but also showed a rare sliver of fresh thinking among the legal minds of the LTFRB. Whether they are fans of UBER and GRABcar/GRABtaxi or not, they show an untypical understanding and appreciation of the latest communication technology to make the lives of taxi riders safer and more convenient.
TNC and TNSV
During the social media exchange, we commented that both UBER and GRABcar were, technically, not taxi companies but network providers with taxi locating functions/options/apps., so they may fall under the Communications regulatory side of the DoTC and not the LTFRB. It turns out that their private car partner part-time taxis needed to be attached to a taxi franchise and so LTFRB concocted the new category called TNC – Transport Network Company – for UBER and GRABcar, and TNSV – Transport Network Service Vehicle – for the private car partner part-time taxi. It is quite a welcome sight to see government agency to be liberal in expanding taxi categories to as many as the market demands.
Lincoln town cars and London Cabs
As for the Premium taxi category, we assumed that the inspiration were the big black Lincoln Town Car hire limousines one finds in JFK airport and Park Avenue, Manhattan sporting “Livery” plates as opposed to the yellow cab Ford Escape, Nissan NV200, Honda Odyssey and the soon to retire Ford Crown Victoria. Well, for local tastes, the bare minimum for premium taxis mean 2.0 liter Toyota Altis, Nissan Sylphy, Kia Carens or the turbo diesel Peugeot 508. This provides an opportunity for the introduction of Geely's Englon TX4, the latest China made version of the world famous London TX4 black cab. However, SUVs and PPV's [pick up platform-based vehicles] like AUVs and MPVs need not apply.
Back in the Cory days
If only this kind of fresh thinking was intrinsic in the DoTC of the Cory era, we would have a totally different traffic picture than the current and common EDSA standstill photos that media always never fails to publicize and characterize as intrinsic to the socio-political deadlocks plaguing the country by way of government ineptitude.
More taxi and bus categories
The recent introduction of the Bus Rapid Transit System, NAIA premium buses, DoST's Road Train, MRT Buses and Express Connect Bus signal a sincerity and hyperactivity that desires a traffic solution really fast. It also hints veering away from the remote laissez faire regulatory government into a more omnipotent direct hand. We've got the government tenaciously holding on to and heavily subsidizing the MRT-3, it would seem, at all cost. It continuously controls LRT-1 and LRT-2 although it is trying to transfer O&M to the private sector via the PPP, but is not ruling out direct government appropriation, as in the LRT-2 extension to Masinag. Worried about corruption in this day of “Daang Matuwid” [the straight path]? Only if you believe “D'-Matuwid” [not the straight path] is the graft infested reality.
The upcoming Mobility Law
It is not only the Executive branch that is immersed in today's transport problem. The Legislature has been mulling a comprehensive Mobility Law that can encompass a new government owned public transport company envisioned to be like TfL [Transport for London] empowered to do network planning, route planning, carrier allocation, etc – presumably coordinated with the LTFRB. Hence, it will be like the state owned regulating oligopolies like the PNCC, PNR, MWSS and NAPOCOR-PSALM, who supervise, regulate and inspect their franchisees and manage contracts of such private sector providers. It won't be another government owned and operated bus company so sorry to disappoint those who pine for Mdme. Imelda Marcos's Metro Manila Transit Love Bus of a pre-EDSA past.
Public transport company as watchdog
How we all wish this public transport company/entity becomes an eagle-eyed watchdog for consumer safety, convenience and satisfaction, doubled with environmental conformity and traffic/energy efficiency. Just like its peers abroad. This opens up the opportunity to try new systems and apply age old systems that the piratical cut-throat PUV franchisees refuse to adopt; like -the regular salary and law mandated benefits for drivers, including overtime and night differential, no more commission basis. Everything from people interface, intermodal efficiency, hardware, collection systems, etc. is up for grabs.
Ideally, we can get the ball rolling by having this public transport company adopt the roll out of a high capital outlay BRT [Bus Rapid Transit] which costs much more to start-up than any mere provincial bus fleet and terminal system. Actually, our country already had PHILTRAK, the original base concept of what is internationally known as the grammatically challenged BRT. Saddled in the Eighties with a poor credit rating and short of foreign exchange, our post Marcos economy could not afford to continue with expanding the LRT system. The BOT [build operate and transfer] concept was new then and it was the only way government can get the private sector to build infrastructure that it can't afford. With the MRT project going through a roller coaster of fits and starts, PHILTRAK came up with their concept of using locally made big capacity articulated buses [today's bendy bus] built on Volvo or Mercedes Benz chassis, powered by either diesel engines or tram-like overhead catenary electric system. As early as then, it already proposed Micrologics electronic payment systems.
The EDSA Freedom Way
PHILTRAK, dubbed "The EDSA Freedom Way" where the MRT-3 now stands, had the support of then DoTC Sec. Rainero Reyes as highlighted by the UP Transport Training Center. It had a system capacity of 1,056,000 passengers a day, average speed of 48km/h inclusive of acceleration and deceleration with a top speed of 60km/h, 96 units of rolling stock, 19 stations, average dwell time of 20 seconds per station halt, average headway between trains at 15 seconds and economic savings of PHP 3.2 billion/year if locally financed.
Hide bound, head in the sand
Alas, the change in leadership of the DoTC in 1989 was more focused on the “chocolate boys” enforced yellow lane and didn't think much of PHILTRAK. Perhaps, since BOT [Build Operate and Transfer] was still a twinkle in forward thinking economists' eye, PHILTRAK didn't stand a chance save for being filed in DoTC's “crackpot ideas” oblivion folder. At least the resource poor but pro-active FVR administration gave it a go, but instead of EDSA, PHILTRAK was to operate on the newest circumferential road, C-5. By the time ERAP took over, PHILTRAK's financing was to be badly hit by the Asian Financial Crisis and locally available development financing via the DBP [Development Bank of the Philippines] was not development friendly at all. Dismissed as a pie-in-the-sky idea, DoTC's snub at PHILTRAK left it unaware that municipal transport authorities in Curitiba, Brazil and Bogota, Colombia and later Mexico and Washington state USA, were taking to the PHILTRAK concept, now re-christened as BRT, like ducks to water. Later PHILTRAK was to propose its BRT concept for our Manila Bay urban reclamation area. Ironically, as PHILTRAK languishes in administrative limbo, the government has gone full steam ahead in borrowing billions for Cebu's BRT, the country's first.
TfL' Oyster card and MTR's Octopus
If the intention is to imitate London's TfL [Transport for London], the government can divvy up PPP transport BRT projects into a transport component and a fare collection component. This mirrors the current LRT network set up where the transport network is run by either a PPP bidder or by the DoTC, while the collection is the responsibility of another franchisee, like the current AFCS [Automatic Fare collection system] “beep” card fare collection contractor of the LRT.
The transport component
The transport component franchisee provides the passenger vehicles and their drivers. The government pays the transport company to run the BRT on a set route, in exchange for prompt arrival and departure at designated stops, set deployment of bendy [articulated single decker] buses and double decker buses, dispatch adjusted for peak and off-peak travel. The private sector bus operations franchisee is obligated to serve all stops and ensure that in-bus temperatures stay between 23 to 25 degrees Cº, necessitating air conditioning for all units anywhere in the Philippines. If the temp rises to 29 degrees C, then fare refunds are triggered. The buses should never be crowded beyond stated capacity. Drivers are duty-bound to follow the dispatch schedule and keep his customers/fares comfortable and safe at all times. Like a tram on pneumatic tires, the BRT can run on electricity by overhead catenary system. The power system should be run ideally by a power utility who then charges the BRT a flat rate per vehicle used.
The fare collection component
For ease of administration, the fare collection contract should be bidden out to a private company. Criteria is ease of collection without long waits. Government will set the fares – so it can determine the cost of subsidizing fares if it wants too, without any pressure to make a profit - while the collector franchisee does the collection for a set paid contract amount per day. Ideally, the BRT should run on a single fare basis and there should be zonal charging as one leaves the Metro to go out into suburbia. For example: BRT runs from MOA to Harbor Centre via R-1, C-3, EDSA. Fare, end to end is 30PHP total, whether the fare gets on at Harbor Centre and gets off at Monumento. But if he continues his journey later on the day up to Buendia, he will be considered paid. Even all the way to MOA, he is considered paid. It is when he changes direction, like Monumento back to Harbor Center must he pay another 30PHP fare. The object is to keep the short distance commuter's fare similar to the short distance motorist's costs. Short distances provides the worst fuel consumption as he/she pays a premium/penalty for opting not to walk [unpleasant weather] or is in a hurry to get to destinations nearby. Then a zonal fare system will apply for routes that go beyond the Metro. For instance, if the commuter wants to go further south from MOA to Cavite which is serviced by the same BRT line, then a new single flat fare needs to be paid. For flat rate fares, a RFID [radio frequency identification] tag may work. But for multiple destination, variable distance and zone pricing, DSRC [dedicated short range communication] is the better solution. Alternatively, interoperability with the MRT-LRT automatic fare collection system or “beep” tap and go card opens up greater flexibility, although transacting through a card reader would take longer than a simple walk through with DSRC tag.
Cashless payment only
Needless to say, all transactions will be cashless. No one can board the BRT without an DSRC tag, which can be purchased all over like SIM Cards and reloading stations for mobile phones. This DSRC tag, similar to easytrip or E-PASS, can be loaded or topped up by ATM, mobile phone cash transfer, electronic banking by wi-fi internet and transfers from DSRC's like easytrip and E-PASS. Upon entering the bus by the door in front, the mini turnstile withdraws the barrier, allows entry to the commuter and the DSRC tag deducted. This also signals the conductor's monitoring device, that a fare has entered and paid the correct fare. Also exiting passengers through the rear door will use the DSRC tags to open the barrier and door. Collections would be monitored by conductors who will have hand held electronic modules like you see used by rental car agencies and FedEx delivery persons. These hand held devices can identify accredited DSRC debit/credit devices, while the actual passenger count and collection is done by the bus's computer uploaded to the iCloud and downloaded to the conductor's module. With such a system, the BRT will still be able to allow the traditional cash based commuter to opt for the competing multi-stop PUV set-up existing.
Rubber or steel? Right hand drive or left hand drive?
This early, the authorities should decide if the BRT is to run on all pneumatic tires or steel wheels on rail tramways. Also, should we copy the dedicated high curb bus stops of Latin America to prevent regular buses from using BRT platforms? Should the BRT route go counterflow to regular traffic where passenger pick up is always curbside? Hence the need for right hand drive buses with passenger entry and exit doors on the off side of RHD. Also the BRT can allow more than one contracted bus provider on the same route, though such bus providers should meet minimum paid in capital requirements, minimum fleet size, BRT approved livery and vehicle, BRT compatible propulsion, etc.
Why not PHILTRAK?
One then wonders why our government hardly paid attention to out home grown PHILTRAK system. With PHILTRAK still in limbo, the government now wants to open up C-5 to a PPP bus system, not necessarily a BRT. We appreciate the priority government gives to the bus system but it should take a look at coordinating what has already been proposed 30 years ago as the original PHILTRAK proposal was to be a BRT for C-5 from Day 1.
Other investor barriers to entry
Barring any glitches in the overall mobility law master plan, a Philippine version of TfL as a franchise owner/regulator [like the PNCC for toll expressways before] for BRT and other PUVs is welcome news. But it will have to face 2 hurdles: One: the tendency of government public utility regulatory agencies – TRB, LTFRB, MWSS– to refuse to abide by contracts regarding fare/toll/rate adjustments which is a major disincentive and hurdle for both foreign and domestic private sector investors. Two: the current impasse in compensation for public transport employees and the resultant cut-throat competition. Government has to genuinely encourage private sector investment in public transport utilities so that we can finally appreciate how safe it is to ride sanely driven public buses and what BRT a.k.a. PHILTRAK, as invented here in the 1980s, can do for safe and fast people moving. If only the DoTC of 1989 welcomed fresh thinking the way DoTC welcomed UBER today.