The Philippines was the first country in Southeast Asia to introduce a metropolitan light rail system for transportation. Yet, its place in the proverbial race to commuter progress since then has never been so low.
A survey by GPS-based navigation app, Waze, in 2015 named Metro Manila, on an urban level, as having the worst traffic on Earth among 32 countries and 167 major city cities. Since 2018, both the MRT and LRT lines have experienced an almost daily bombardment of issues resulting in hours and days of no service running, leaving an average ridership of 750,000 Filipinos scrambling to find other means of commuting. Maintenance and upkeep of current MRT and LRT cars are in such bad conditions that only seven to eight cars a day actually run on the tracks to service commuters—a far cry from the recommended 15 cars minimum based on ridership numbers alone. This has led to an unsurprising decrease of 26 percent in ridership and revenues for the transit companies in the past year.
The dismal state of transportation and commuting in the Philippines has urged the Duterte administration to develop the ambitious golden age of infrastructure with a record of P3.6 trillion to be spent on 5,000 projects across the nation—P69.4 billion of which will be given to the Department of Transportation. Aside from improving current operations and maintenance procedures, this budget is intended for the purchase of newer and better cars to run on the tracks, and for the addition of passenger information systems inside the trains.
Such efforts to solve the problem are commendable but it will not entirely address the root causes of our train woes. Trains have become a measure of social and economic progress in a country. The Philippines’ 2019 budget was 10.1 percent higher than its 2018 cash equivalent, and with an annual change of 6 percent from 2017, it seems that we are progressing by the numbers but not by any looks of it.
For the Philippine light rail transit to ever become efficient, we need to also invest in its facilities, accessibility, capacity and support. By support, I meant that we need to also boost performances of other road vehicles like jeepneys, buses, and tricycles. Of course, too many private vehicles on the road cause more traffic, and if more people will be comfortable and trustworthy of our public transportation systems, there will be fewer of them to share whatever little space there is.
The root of it all, it seems to be, is just the complete and utter decentralization and separation of modes of transportation in the country. Only in the Philippines can you find seven different ways to commute, and each mode is owned by another dozen privatized companies vying for competition of passengers in the road. This distribution helps short-term needs of commuters but in the long run decreases the government funding transportation departments receive that create conditions—old equipment, slower or dismissed service, reduced station safety, fewer employees—that make public transit even more unpalatable.
Perhaps what the country needs to help boost our MRT/LRT efficiency, and lessen traffic in our urban roads, is to make a more unified system of transportation. One that serves the public, and in unison. Cleaner energy jeepneys, bus rapid transit with set loading and unloading zones and defined schedules and routes that connect to the major rails. Either can be achieved in a shorter amount of time and lower cost than focusing just on the MRT/LRT. Whatever steps are taken at this point, we can only really go forward in making public transportation better.
Bermudez is a finance analyst from Henkel Asia Pacific Service Center. She is currently taking her masters degree at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines.