The crucial role of public transport


Author’s note: This is Section 1 of “The People’s Transport Roadmap”, which in turn is Part IV of a draft framework paper on Philippine mass transport (version 4.2) that I’ve been writing with the help of representatives of certain sectoral organizations. I’ll post other sections and parts of the paper as these take more or less final shape.

1.1. What is public or mass transport?

As generally understood, public transport refers to various modes of transportation that have the following common attributes: (a) they are readily available to the general public; (b) they usually (but not always) run along fixed routes with defined stops, with passenger fares set accordingly; and (c) they usually (but not always) run based on a scheduled timetable.

Attribute A is crucial. Attributes B and C reflect economies of scale, which maximize efficiency at high volumes but also allow for flexibility in certain small-scale transport systems that need to adapt to small or intermittent passenger volumes.

Public transport is typically equated with mass transport, not just in the sense of its being available to the general public, but also in the sense of its preference for large passenger capacities (per vehicle or per system) precisely to attain high levels of efficiency and economies of scale. Nevertheless, bias for large passenger capacities must always be relative to concrete conditions on the ground. Thus, for example, in many Philippine communities, the tricycle mode plays a big role in localized public transport even as its “mass transport” quality is doubtful despite heroic efforts to maximize the load for every trip.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica: “The essential feature of mass transportation is that many people are carried in the same vehicle (e.g., buses) or collection of attached vehicles (trains). This makes it possible to move people in the same travel corridor with greater efficiency, which can lead to lower costs to carry each person or—because the costs are shared by many people—the opportunity to spend more money to provide better service, or both.”

In the Philippine setting, and in this paper, we include in the category of “mass transport” the following modes: trains (PNR) and light rail transits (LRT-MRT); provincial and city buses; and most public-utility jeepneys and Utility Van Express (UVE) vehicles.

In such a setting, public or mass transport is not necessarily state-owned or publicly owned. Although state-owned or publicly owned transport systems have clear advantages (as this paper aims to prove), ownership is an issue that’s distinct from public usage. When we refer to public transport, we mean public-usage transport, not publicly owned transport.

In contrast to public transport, private passenger transport is represented mainly by private cars and vans, and increasingly by motorcycles. These, as a rule, do not carry paying passengers and are limited to a low maximum number of passengers. Typically, passengers are most often composed of the vehicle owner’s family and others personally known to them, or those authorized to use them (as in the case of most company service vehicles and cargo vehicles). Almost by definition, private transport is privately owned.

Necessarily, there are gray areas between public and private transport. There are those which we can call secondary public utilities—secondary because their services are specialized, such as door-to-door or point-to-point routes (tricycles, taxicabs, and systematic ride-sharing systems or TVNs such as Grab and Uber), or availed only by a specialized class of passengers (shuttle services for employees and school children, chartered vehicles), or specialize in transporting goods (e.g. for-hire freight trucks).

1.2. Why is public mass transport a crucial social service?

Transport is a fundamental need for our people—as a nation, as communities, and as individuals. Increasingly in many urban and town centers, it is becoming a basic and regular (daily or weekly) need as more and more people need to ride to their place of work or study, and come to depend on basic goods and services produced elsewhere.

Public transport is a basic social service. Easy access of the masses to public transport is an absolute must, because it is simply impossible for the majority of 100 million Filipinos—20.2 million households as of 2010—to each have their own private cars as promised by the NEDA’s cloud-cuckoo-land “AmBisyon Natin 2040”. We must forcefully assert that, in the main, transport must be a common service or utility shared among members of the community or by the general public—in much the same way that the people’s needs for power, water, education, health, and (to some extent) housing and communication are vested with an inherently social character.

Given the country’s geographic configuration, demographic distribution, present level of socioeconomic development, and socially oriented vision for the future, public mass transport offers strategic advantages over private car-based transport in terms of overall efficiency (issues of economic cost), affordability (public accessibility issues), sustainability (ecological issues), and manageability (governance issues).

In such context, an adequate, efficient, affordable, sustainable and manageable public mass transport system is crucial for our country’s human and material resources to be fully mobilized in order to further develop and sustain the countless daily activities of nation-building. This is particularly true within and around the country’s urban and urbanizing areas and along its inter-urban and inter-island corridors.

1.3. Why pose the issue as a public vs. private conflict?

This paper gives a high contrast between the advantages of public transport over private transport, not because the two basic modes cannot coexist—they have obviously coexisted here and in most other countries for many years—but because the Philippine government and big business have grossly neglected and under-prioritized (to some extent, even persecuted and strangled) public transport in the past half-century or more, while pampering private transport with all sorts of incentives.

This asymmetry has become most severe and most obvious in the NCR and other urban areas, creating the many problems of traffic congestion etc. described in Part III. Clearly, to solve the said problems, the asymmetry must be reversed and a new balance achieved overwhelmingly in favor of public mass transport. The nation’s resources are simply too limited to allow equal priority for both public and private transport.

The government must put the highest, across-the-board, and consistent priority to public transport. It must urge private interests, such as private transport service providers, the automotive industry, and urban land developers, to do likewise. What this means is that government must steadily shift its support away from mainly private-transport concerns and firmly urge the public to expand their use of public transport while limiting their use of private cars if not doing away with private cars altogether.

What we definitely don’t need is more people buying private cars, and then having to demand more road space, garage space and parking lots for these endless stream of new cars. As civil engineer and sustainability advocate Charles Marohn so eloquently put it, “Trying to solve congestion by making roadways wider is like trying to solve obesity by buying bigger pants.” #


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