Habal-habal: the Two-Wheeler “Public” Transport in the Philippines

 (lifted from Top Gear Philippines website – (https://www.topgear.com.ph/tags/habal-habal)

This is a series of articles i wrote about the “habal-habal,”  motorcycles which are used “for hire” in the Philippines.  While it is considered illegal, it has proliferated in the last 3 decades, especially in the rural and other inaccessible areas, in the absence of other alternatives.  And the Philippine Government has reluctantly ignored its continued operations because of the service it provides, especially to the poorer and less fortunate citizens.  But it’s recent incursion into the major metropolitan centers of the country has thrown the government into a major “rethink” on what to do with it.  The following articles are my personal observations and opinions, as one who is familiar with both the urban and rural settings in the Philippines.
Habal-habal (Part 1 – Is it needed?)
Published in The Freeman (Philippine Star), November 7, 2017
My first “habal-habal” ride was back in 1997.  While doing the master plan of Kapalong, (Davao del Norte), and we needed to visit every barangay for consultations.  Gupitan was a special challenge because it is the biggest barangay (of the province, too).  Half of it was virgin forest, and most places were inhabited by lumads.  It is so big it is bigger than the entire province of Siqujor!  And much of it is inaccessible.
It had taken two trips up to the barangay center in the mountainous forest – the longer one, was by habal-habal; the rest we walked and climbed, the entire journey taking up most of the day.  There was a makeshift, but orderly, habal-habal terminal at the Poblacion (Maniki).  Spending the first night in Gupitan was a first, very refreshing, … the moon and the skies shimmering in the open black skies due to the absence of electricity.
But this is not about Gupitan, this is about the habal-habal.  The naked truth is, it would have taken us 2-3 days to reach the place if not for habal-habal, by walking all the way.  Imagine the people there who depended on their living through commerce with Maniki.  If habal-habal was not there, they will perish.  Good they learned how to catch fish by electrification.  And that’s the very reason why the Local Government of Kapalong tolerated, … no, even supported, the terminal.  Habal-habal was simply indispensable for the lives of the people in Gupitan.  For all the other barangays as well if I’m not mistaken.  And probably for most of the barangays in most of the towns and cities in the country.  We can ask around the country and check if this is not true.
Here is where we can’t hide the truth.  Two-wheelers, whether private or public, play a very important role in the lifeline of any LGU.  We all know about the objections, especially on the safety issues (and we will discuss those later), but it does not erase the fact that we need them today.  Dr. Marie Danielle V. Guillen, in her academic study in 2003 said, “Interviews conducted with local officials also indicated that “habal-habal” are not causing any problem in the city and are actually solving mobility issues by being able to service those areas that are not passable to ordinary motor vehicles.”  Her study area was Davao City at that time.
A big chunk of the country’s trips is served by the habal-habal.  If we stop them now, I dare say the country would be paralyzed.  It does not matter whether it is a rural need or an urban need (do we now discriminate Filipinos?).  Government exist to provide services to its people (especially LGUs), and the market responds to those needs.  Unless government provides the “alternative modes” we have to accept habal-habal to stay.  Regulate them we should, but to simply kill the service, especially when tainted with discrimination, is something we have to think very, very, carefully.
Habal-habal  (Part 2 – the need for two-wheelers)
Published in The Freeman (Philippine Star), January 9, 2018
Last month, when the issue on Angkas first surfaced, we wrote about the need for the habalhabal.  Not just in Cebu but for almost all LGUs in the country. Some may want to distinguish the habal-habal from Angkas, but technically speaking, there’s not much difference – Angkas is habal-habal, with a mobile/internet based “hailing service.” And along with the App are a number of improved services which made it “better” and more popular than the old, basic, habal-habal service. With safety and convenience add-ons, too. But it’s still habal-habal.
Or, as what transportation science calls it – two-wheeled public transportation.  Others may just call it “paratransit” or informal urban transport because it definitely is not a mass transport system.  But it is public nonetheless, which separates them privately-owned motorcycles.  Habal-habal may seem like a local issue, but actually it’s not – it is common to many regions and countries, but particularly in developing ones.  They are called by many names in different places in Asia, Africa, and South America.
Zemidjans” first appeared in Benin (in Africa), and later in Nigeria (called “okada” there) and Togo (“kabou-kabou”).  “Boda bodas” are used in Uganda and Kenya.  “Bend-skin” or “bensikin” are very popular in Douala, Cameroon.  Two-wheelers are called “Ojek” in Indonesia, “motor-sai rap chang” in Thailand and “xe ôm” in Vietnam.  In South America, they are simply called “moto-taxis.”  Lately, Uber introduced app-based services in Vietnam, Thailand and South America, calling the service “Uber-moto.”  In some countries, they’re legal, while in others, they’re not.  But they persistently exist, and will continue to exist.
In Cebu City, there are at least 77 areas which are not accessible with public transportation, hence, habal-habal are the only means of access there.  Cutting them off, as what some people would seem to suggest, will cut off access of the people living there.  Maybe, they want our fellow Cebuanos to just walk for miles.  Five of these areas have public schools, whose teachers commute to, daily, or on Mondays and Fridays, by habal-habal, of course.  If we cut these off, no teacher would volunteer to walk for miles to teach in these areas.  Is this really what we want?
At the end of the day, two-wheeled public transportation, legal or not, provide a necessary service which contribute to development.  The issues are the same, worldwide, and countries are racing towards the direction of providing the necessary regulatory framework for them, while tolerating their operations since decades past.  It’s one of these “wicked problems” in planning – “difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize,” which we have to face, and which a dogmatic stand won’t work.  It’s often exacerbated by a national government failing to recognize the issue which is local in nature and more efficiently managed locally.
India seems to be on the right (or better) track – allowing individual cities to address two-wheelers.  And if technology offers ways to improve the situation, why punish it if it makes life better for our people.  Angkas is habal-habal, but it makes habal-habal, better.  Hopefully, the national government can see the light and help our people.
Habal-habal (Part 3 – The issue of safety)
Published in The Freeman (Philippine Star), January 16, 2018
A lot of objections on the formal legalization of habal-habal dwell on the issue of safety. I say “formal legalization” because that is what is needed for it to become an officially accepted denomination of public transport. It can hardly be illegal because it continues to exist all over the country for the last three decades. If it’s illegal, then how come government authorities today do not apprehend people who operate or use the service?
Go to any LGU anywhere in the country. You will find habal-habal operations, informal or formal, even a few with terminal structures. And you will see police authorities nearby who do not apprehend them. Some of them will even patronize the service. Ask local government authorities if they make overt moves of removing habal-habal operations. They won’t! Else, you will have a substantial chunk of your population without transport to their barangays, especially those in the uplands. Yes, they’re illegal but not regarded as such.
The main objections carried by authorities and experts always hinge on safety issues. Sure, having two wheels seems more unstable than having four -a small child learning to ride a bike knows that. But from the time bicycles and motorcycles became mainstream, people and society accepted two-wheelers as one of the modes of transport, and their sale and use is 100% legal. You attach a sidecar to one and you have a tricycle, which can be legally registered by the LGU. But without the sidecar, putting up one for hire becomes “illegal.”
There is no question as to the existence of the safety issues and concerns with motorcycles. We can enumerate statistics involving motorcycle accidents anywhere and it shows that indeed there is a risk toward the high side. I sometimes question the practice why if a collision involves a car and a motorcycle it’s considered a motorcycle accident. Isn’t the car to blame too, which qualifies it as a car accident also? But there is no information that shows accidents involving habal-habal are higher than those of private motorcycles.
The fact of the matter is, we have an issue on unfair labeling. Private motorcycles tend to have the same higher frequencies of accidents as habal-habal. And yet we excuse the former, register them with LTO, issue driver’s licenses which even include restrictions for motorcycles. For all intents and purposes, society, and government, accepts motorcycles as a mode of transport. But only if these are driven without pay. The moment it’s for hire, it supposedly becomes “unsafe?”
And here comes TNVS which train drivers for two weeks on safety and security, ensures that they wear helmets and safety vests, train them on customer, manage them so that they conform to and follow traffic laws, rules and regulations -all the things ordinary habal-habal drivers seldom do. And the government cracks down on TNVS, while allowing habal-habal use to continue? Something is skewed somewhere when government cuts a service it allowed for three decades.
Habal-habal (Part 4 – Breaking the impasse)
Published in The Freeman (Philippine Star), January 30, 2018
At the end of the day, the singular determinant on the habal-habal issue is legal in nature, and government is left with no recourse but to address it squarely. That the operations of these two-wheelers-for-hire is illegal is not up for debate -there is no existing legal framework for them. Can we stop their operations all over the country? My personal opinion is no, unless we want to render huge swathes of areas virtually inaccessible and remove the livelihood of millions of Filipinos. Modus vivendi.
The current debate, absent in previous years, is a result of the perennial urban-rural dichotomy. Habal-habal is illegal but we can’t stop its operations because in many rural areas in the country, it is the only viable mode of transportation, both for people, their produce, and means of living. But the “accessibility” reasoning for its continued existence has already transcended to the urban areas where traffic congestion has made certain “areas” or “routes” inaccessible. Note that inaccessibility can be physical, economic, or time-based, or any combination of the three. Even when certain areas are physically connected and economically viable for other modes of transport, excessive congestion has made travel time untenable -travelling five hours to work and back daily is simply unacceptable, and I might say, “inhumane.”
Thus, government has no recourse but to allow its operations and impose stringent regulations. During the 10th Regional Environmentally Sustainable Transportation Forum in Asia, in Vientiane, Lao PDR last year, the forum passed the Vientiane Declaration on Sustainable Rural Transport towards Achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This also recognized the important contribution of two-wheelers in national development. While this focused on rural transport, we cannot divorce its contribution to urban transport and the need to regulate the same. This is where the proposed legislation in Congress is of paramount importance, cause it is not simply a matter of legalization, there is also the need to modernize the system to keep up with the times and make it not only safe, but easy, efficient, and user-friendly.
Beyond that, we ought to start discussing the role of two-wheelers in the first-mile/last-mile connectivity in cities, considering the Filipino’s penchant for door-to-door service. It might take decades for us to remove this cultural difficulty, and two-wheelers are one of the good options to connect the residence to the mass transport system. We always wail about mass transport nowadays, forgetting the fact that it actually does not bring us to our doorstep. It would be some time before mass transport service will saturate our cities, and last-leg transport is currently provided by tricycles and trisikads. Rain is a major factor, of course, but we should welcome as many options as possible. And traffic managers should always consider the different contributions to congestion all the options have.
The next arena for discussion will probably be the propulsion mechanisms. Do we upgrade fuel type regulations? Do encourage electric motorcycles? What are the emissions effects of motorcycles? How do we prevent lead contamination from engine batteries? These are the next battlegrounds.

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