It might be an opportune time to partially revive public and mass transportation – at least for the benefit of health workers and other frontliners, a transport expert said on Wednesday, as Luzon passed the midpoint in the month-long enhanced community quarantine to combat the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Opening public transport for everybody remains a no-go for renowned transport planner and economist Robert Siy, who said this was in keeping with the global norm of social distancing to contain the virus.
“I believe it is possible to reopen public transport in a modified form to serve essential frontline workers. Please note that we are only discussing how to get frontline workers to their jobs,” he told the Inquirer.
The proposal comes as talks of partially reviving the economy, including bringing back transportation, floated among government officials. All public and mass transportation, including the four transit lines traversing the metro, were suspended as of March 17, leaving several frontliners without means to get to work and public utility vehicle drivers virtually jobless.
The government placed the entire Luzon under an enhanced community quarantine from midnight of March 17 to April 12 to contain an outbreak of COVID-19.
The abrupt suspension, however, only highlighted further the fragmented and inflexible nature of the Philippines’ transport system even during times of emergency.
“Our frontline workers are risking their lives for us. We need to help our frontline workers move around safely and efficiently,” Siy noted.
“Sadly, up to now, it seems that the Philippines is the only country where huge numbers of frontline workers have to walk for hours to get to their work,” he also said.
Since March 18, the Department of Transportation and the Armed Forces of the Philippines have been running free shuttle services to transport the health workers going to and from hospitals but Siy said “they are hardly (accessible) enough.”
First-mile, last-mile options – or transit options for when a passenger is further than a “comfortable distance” from their home to the bus stop – remain conspicuously absent.
“For example, one bus route originates from Robinson’s Galleria and goes to the different hospitals in Pasig; still, the passenger needs to have some way of getting to Robinson’s Galleria,” Siy explained. “This part is missing.
“Unless we relieve them from walking hours to get to their hospitals, our health workers will soon be overstressed and our health system will not be able to cope,” he added.
These problems appear to affect the ridership in these bus services, he noted. On March 27 alone, the 106 buses in operation carried only 1,402 workers, or 13 passengers per bus.
So the shuttle services, “although well-intentioned, are not able to serve its target clientele adequately,” Siy said.
So what is the alternative scenario?
At the very minimum, the government must restore services on high-volume routes like Quezon Avenue, Commonwealth Avenue and Ortigas Avenue, and recreate mass transit routes previously served by the three train lines: Light Rail Transit (LRT) 1 and 2, and Metro Rail Transit (MRT) 3.
These trunk routes would not only complement existing emergency bus services but also allow city governments to better organize “feeder” services (e.g., first-mile, last-mile options) to bring people to the trunk line bus stops.
Of course, such feeder services must still abide by the inter-agency task force on emerging infectious diseases’ protocol. This means promoting and facilitating walking and cycling by establishing protected bike networks, among others.
Siy added that the partial restart of mass transport should cover only health workers, and then expand to other front liners once “social distancing and sanitary practices are in place.”
Bus drivers and conductors, and passengers (if possible) must wear masks, while their depots and company offices must apply strict social distancing practices.
Traffic enforcers, meanwhile, would be assigned at each bus stop to ensure, among others, that only essential workers board the buses.
This approach would also require a different business model, Siy said. In this scenario, “bus companies (will be) paid to provide a service (like a charter), instead of earning from fares. This approach is needed so that there is no incentive to overload a bus with passengers, [and] there is no cash handling,” he said.
The Inquirer Foundation supports our healthcare frontliners and is still accepting cash donations to be deposited at Banco de Oro (BDO) current account #007960018860 or donate through PayMaya using this .