Private cars, paratransits and public transport

Published in The Freeman (Philippine Star), July 12, 2012

One of the peculiarities of urban transport which makes it difficult for the layman to understand is that we tend to lump all the types altogether. It’s basically the same as medicine – not only are doctor’s prescriptions difficult to read (maybe they have a course in pharmacy which deals only on how to read them), but patients, or at least, most of us, don’t want to listen to all those complicated medical terms for as long as we get well and stay healthy. Traffic is traffic and traffic jams are traffic jams. For most of us, it’s the same thing even if many of the transport vehicles and systems have different characteristics.

I attended an RDC meeting once, in Tagbilaran, hitching a plane ride, together with Ricky Dakay, with former mayor Tomas Osmeña. After the meeting, Tommy asked Toting Perdices, former mayor of Dumaguete, where he was going, and the latter said he’s going back to Negros by fastferry. Tommy offered, “Just fly with us, I’ll drop you off in Dumaguete airport.” To which Ricky commented, “Ah! Mura man og taxi!” (Wow, just like a taxi!). Ha ha, precisely! But what I’d like to point out here is – we compared it to a taxi service? What exactly is a taxi service and how different is it from the other kinds of urban transportation?

In the article we wrote in March 8, we mentioned about the evolution of private transportation, and sometime later, the emergence of public transportation – buses at first, then trains (rail-based) later. What is the distinctive difference between the two? Easy, the former serves its owner so he can go wherever he/she wants, the latter serves many, so it cannot serve equally all its “passengers” as to where they want to go, … they might have different origins and different destinations. When public transport started to develop, it brought along with it, the concept of regular routes, schedule, and fare system, something private cars do not have.

Cars are usually owned by its owners and are not cheap. Eventually, public transport expanded because majority can’t afford to own cars. But public transport, while cheaper, is also inflexible as to time and route. In some provincial areas a few decades ago, such as our home town in Negros, only two buses pass by the house each day, one in the morning and afternoon, each. As countries and cities developed, “paratransits” came into the picture. These are “public” transport in nature, but with no fixed route, or no fixed schedule, or both.

Examples in this part of the world are taxis and jeepneys. The former are more flexible, no fixed schedules or routes. Just like private planes, so you can drop off a friend in Dumaguete and return to Cebu. Jeepneys have no fixed schedules but have fixed routes. Other examples of the paratransits are the “songtiao” and “tuk-tuk” of Bangkok, and the “Angkot, Bemo, and Mikrolet” of Jakarta. In the Philippines we also have the V-hires, the F/X and Megataxi in Manila, and the GT Express, all characterized by either no fixed route, schedule, or both.

So when we start talking of implementing either a bus-based Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), or a rail-based LRT or MRT, it’s much more than replacing kinds of vehicles on the road – it’s really upgrading urban transport systems, migrating from the paratransit type to real public transport systems.  Migrating or upgrading is the better word to describe it, not replacing. Note that paratransits may never disappear – they have a function to serve. But the bigger and more complex a city develops, the more formal and efficient systems it requires.

The problem is, while they have different characteristics, problems, and contributions to traffic, we lump all of them together and blame all for traffic congestion. This is where most of the arguments start, because most of the complaints come from car-owners, not the commuters. (To be continued)