By Engr. Ray Adrian C. Macalalag
Commuters today are not like the commuters yesterday. For nearly three months since the intense lockdown in March of 2020, jeepneys were out of service throughout the country including Iloilo City. Companies and offices which were still up and running had to provide service vehicles for their workers to ensure they limit contacts and they are coming to work. For errands, a person without a personal transport mode would have to walk. Lucky are those who could find tricycles taking risks for earning miniscule but very essential income, they can have a safe and hassle-free travel as long as they do not get caught by the police or the military making rounds.
After a few months, the economy was already crippling. The government had to change the game plan at some point to employ a dynamic strategy of keeping the public safe from the pandemic and keeping the economy afloat. Community quarantines were revised and then came into being the four quarantine classifications: enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ), general community quarantine (GCQ) and modified general community quarantine (MGCQ). These four are arranged from the most stringent to the least stringent. The last two allowed for public transportation with strict observance of minimum health standards.
According to the only available set of instructions in the omnibus guidelines on the implementation of community quarantine in the Philippines set by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases, public utility jeepneys may operate “at reduced operational and vehicle capacity in accordance with the guidelines of the Department of Transportation (DOTr) provided that, a strict one-meter distance between passengers will be observed and appropriate engineering controls shall be put in place.”
The DOTr also campaigned for pandemic-resilient public transports with commuters, drivers and operators observing the “Seven Commandments” which are as follows: (1) always wear face mask and face shield, (2) do not talk or entertain calls, (3) do not eat, (4) maintain properly ventilated and orderly vehicles, (5) disinfect often, (6) prohibit persons exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 to ride, and (7) follow proper physical distancing.
Loosely allowed and supported by officials of DOTr in press interviews but not backed in black and white, plastic barriers became the alternative in lieu of the required physical distancing. It started with jeepneys increasing their capacity to 50 percent and at present almost 100 percent with the front seat still accommodating only one passenger instead of two. The only problem with this is that the barriers are not properly maintained and disinfected and commuters would attest to that. It is a bit amusing to see all those barriers to maximize the seating capacity and yet some jeepneys of the same route become full and some are barely having passengers.
Competition has become more apparent as each driver aim to get as many to cope with the operational expenses of jeeps which reach more or less PHP1,200.00 per day. It is a matter of economic survival for them.
With strict policies in mind, a typical jeepney will significantly reduce its passenger capacity to only about 35 percent. This will allow them to only accommodate seven passengers at a time if they have a normal operating capacity of 20. Synonymously, this will significantly reduce the income of drivers. To solve this, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) employed a fare adjustment from the usual PHP8.50 to PHP9.00 translating to a 50-centavo increase.
This, however, is not true in the sense. Drivers would rather opt to receive PHP10.00 in exact than make an effort to pass on change of PHP1.00. Commuters also do not want or avoid receiving change for safety reasons and convenience. It sounds like drivers at least get more and they could survive the fees they pay such as boundary (that is being paid to the operator), association fees and dues, fuel and other incidentals like terminal fees on a daily basis.
It is a pity for drivers to have a hard time making ends meet but it can be a violation of Republic Act No. 10909 or the No Shortchanging Act of 2016. For some, PHP1.00 is a tolerable pill; but for minimum wage earners who typically are the lifeblood of the business sector, it can be difficult. Competition among drivers is also another factor with the number of commuters reduced due to the shift of learning into online and modular means, the implementation of work from home arrangements and closure of some establishments which are either classified non-essential or have literally closed for good.
Based on the current reduced demand, there is a need for cooperation among drivers and operators to ensure a more equal share in transport demand to distribute their incomes fairly better among themselves. It is also very much possible to space up the gaps between plastic barriers to reduce its wear and tear occurrence. There is no need to put up as many plastic barriers to increase seating areas as demand will not really get jeepneys full in one trip.
Public transport is really an important component for a prosperous city. The COVID-19 pandemic has tested our already obsolete boundary system of public utility jeepneys which only foster to some extent unfair competition revealed by the shortage of demand at present. It is indeed a good idea to expedite the jeepney modernization program which would also standardize the wages of drivers and shift it from a demand-driven venture to a service- and quality-driven public transport system.
The reduced demand at present is an opportunity to observe proper physical distancing. And standardizing capacity of vehicles can possibly deter or properly manage competition among drivers. It is a win-win as long as nobody gets greedy.
The LTFRB and its parent DOTr should be clearer on their policy directions and support the statements they release to the press with concrete memorandum circulars and orders. It will not only reduce confusion in the local government units but also provide better interpretation for operators and protection of the drivers and the commuting public.
Do we really need to max out capacity of the jeepneys to ensure stable income for drivers? The answer could be a no because there is definitely a reduced demand. The main reason some drivers suffer is because of some drivers who hoard passengers who end up sitting elbow to elbow with a thin sheet of plastic separating them. If capacities are reduced optimally to even out the transport supply and demand, then drivers may only suffer a small reduction of income but will definitely not leave the other drivers suffering.
They should not leave others behind as they should also recover as one.
The author is a Filipino licensed civil engineer who specializes in highway safety and planning. He worked for the Department of Public Works and Highways before moving to National Economic and Development Authority as a senior policy and planning specialist. Follow him at https://ilonggoengineer.com