When the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program (PUVMP) was launched in 2017, the goal was to make the Philippines’ public transportation system more efficient and environmentally friendly by 2020. However, the program has hit more than a few issues—including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic—that have kept it from reaching its initial goals.
What these issues are and what can be done to address them were tackled during the October 25 edition of #PILIpiLUNAS2022: Pagbangon at Pagsulong Tungo sa Magandang Buhay at Bukas webinar series. A project of the University of the Philippines Diliman Office of the Chancellor, #PILIpiLUNAS2022 consists of a series of round-table discussions on key policy issues—such as the public utility vehicle modernization—that looks to leverage UP’s multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving. It does this by having researchers from the university’s different units talking with representatives from government, industry, and civil society.
Beyond this, the series is striving to create a one-day dialogue with national candidates early next year, wherein the Task Force on a Blueprint for Building the Nation set up by the Office of the Chancellor to organize the webinars will present a matrix of policy recommendations taken from the webinars to national candidates in early 2022.
For its October 25 edition, #PILIpiLUNAS2022 focused on the Department of Transportation’s (DOTr) PUVMP program. Speakers at the webinar included researchers who’ve conducted studies on the PUV modernization in the country, as well as representatives from both the government and industry stakeholders who talked about the hurdles they face with the PUVMP program as well as how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected it.
Starting off the presentations was Dr. Crecensio “Dayo” Montalbo Jr., a professor at the UP School of Urban and Regional Planning (SURP) and a fellow at the National Center for Transportation Studies (NCTS), who outlined the issues and challenges facing public transport in the Philippines.
Montalbo noted that congestion cost mega Manila around Php 3.5 billion a day in 2017—when the PUVMP program was first announced—and could cost the capital region Php 5.4 billion by 2035.
He emphasizes the importance of improving public transportation, over simply building more roads. In particular, he brings up the concept of latent demand, which states that after the supply of a good increases, the more it is consumed. In this case, studies show that building more roads simply leads to an increased demand for private cars, which eventually leads to more congestion.
“Expanding roadways to accommodate traffic is a bit like combatting obesity by buying larger pants,” Montalbo states in his presentation.
That said, he admits that roadway projects and the like are more attractive as they’re easier to notice. However, he points out that what is essential to make transportation more efficient is “invisible to the naked eye.” These “soft” components include public transport integration, better operating arrangements, better financing, and more streamlined governance.
Montalbo stated that PUVMP represents an opportunity to address the above issues, not just modernizing the vehicles, but the “soft” components of our public transport system as well.
Saving public transport
The presentations following Montalbo’s focused on studies into ways to modernize public transport. Dr. Noriel Christopher Tiglao, Associate Professor at the National College of Public Administration and Governance (NCPAG) in UP Diliman, presented a study on the use of crowdsourcing as a way of addressing the many issues PUVMP faces. Meanwhile, Dr. Lew Andrew R. Tria, Associate Professor at the UP Solar Photovoltaic Laboratory, presented a real-world study on various alternative fuels for public utility vehicles PUVs.
In his presentation, Tiglao echoes Montalbo’s sentiments about there being too much emphasis on things that are easier to see. But in this case, Tiglao is referring to vehicle replacement. Instead, he proposes that more focus should be put on regulatory reform, pointing out that there is a need to identify policy gaps.
Tiglao states that the reason for the latter is the lack of data, which is something that can be rectified with crowdsourcing—tapping the power of the “crowd,” which includes the various stakeholders in PUV modernization, including commuters, to compile the data needed for decision making.
In addition, Tiglao also talked about the benefits of digital co-production, which allows for direct interaction with the crowd. He also pointed to pilot programs in General Santos City, Pasig City and the UP campus in Diliman using the NCPAG’s app, SafeTravelPH.
Tria, on the other hand, presented data on a test on various alternative fuels for local PUVs. The study involved testing different PUVs running different alternative fuels—including one electric vehicle running on lithium-ion batteries—on the SM North-Litex route.
Based on the test, Tiglao and his team found that the electric PUV had the highest mileage compared to diesel and auto-LPG in both laboratory and real-world conditions. However, electric also had the shortest range and the longest downtime, as the vehicle needed to spend time charging its batteries. According to the report, this underlined the need to establish a fast-charging infrastructure for electric vehicles in the country.
Tiglao further reiterates the need for further electric mobility research in the country, without which it risks being left behind. Should this happen, then the transport sector could face a situation where it’s unable to get a supply of new internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles and components for those vehicles and end up being a dumping ground of older equipment and technology. To this end, he commended current test and commercial deployments of charging stations and technologies in Tuguegarao City, Ayala Alabang and UP Diliman.
Also presenting at the webinar was Joemier Pontawe, a Project Manager for the DOTr. A licensed Environmental Planner in the Philippines, Pontawe received his Doctorate in Philosophy for Urban Planning from the University of Auckland in New Zealand.
Pontawe’s presentation reiterated the key objectives of the PUVMP—including modernizing the PUV fleet and consolidating the industry. He also acknowledged the issues faced by the program, including those brought about by the pandemic.
He admitted that the PUVMP has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The quarantine measures necessitated by the latter have brought reduced passenger capacity, which in turn has led to reduced financial viability.
This is compounded by limited loan options for operators looking to comply and upgrade their systems and vehicles.
In addition, Pontawe also explained that the current political environment has slowed the program’s implementation. Not only is there a lack of legislation, but many stakeholders are having second thoughts about the PUVMP due to the impending elections and resulting change of administration.
That said, implementing the PUVMP is still possible, as shown by the next presented, Engt. Riza Marie Paches from General Santos City. Patches showcased the progress that the city had made in its efforts to modernize its tricycle fleet.
Patches reported that, since the city approved its Local Public Transport Route Plan (LPTRP) in 2018, they now have six tricycle cooperatives operating electric tricycles, or e-trikes, in 11 out of 14 routes. This was accomplished thanks to extensive support by the local government in terms of fleet management training, cooperative strengthening, and financial management. In addition, cooperatives were also given financial assistance to help achieve their goals.
According to Paches, General Santos City’s experiences show that, for the PUVMP to succeed, local government units (LGU) need to actively champion it. This includes establishing a permanent office in the LGU for transportation planning, engineering, management, and enforcement. This is on top of providing financial assistance to operators.
Transport sector clarifies challenges
One of the most important voices at the #PILIpiLUNAS2022 PUVMP webinar are those of the transport operators whose business is directly affected by it. Representing this sector were Juliet de Jesus of the Mega Manila Consortium and Yuri Sarmiento of the eJeepney Transport Corporation.
Representing the bus sector, de Jesus explained that the modernization of the country’s buses had started as far back as 2013. This was when bus operators were prohibited from refleeting with second-hand vehicles.
However, one big hurdle to modernizing the bus fleet is cost. Bus operators must continually take on loans to fund modernization. This is made worse by the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has, as mentioned above, resulted in the reduction of both passengers and bus routes. With these reductions, the operators are now unable to pay the loans that they’ve taken on.
De Jesus made a few suggestions that could ease the burden that bus operators are facing. These include an extension of the moratorium on phasing out older buses as well as exempting transport from the excise tax.
That said, de Jesus said that bus operators did see the benefits of modernizing public transport. In particular, she said that electronic fare collection has been a tremendous help, especially in preventing theft, and should be made mandatory moving forward.
Sarmiento, who represented the jeepney sector in the webinar, echoed de Jesus’ sentiments regarding the challenges public transport is facing due to the pandemic. He stated that COVID-19 represented the “biggest disruption in the transport industry” due to how it has reduced the number of passengers.
As with the bus sector, the jeepney sector has also not recovered its passenger revenues. In addition, the various health control equipment now required by the government has also added extra strain on jeepney operators’ finances. This is on top of the costs associated with the consolidated fleet management model enforced by the PUVMP. As a result, thousands of jeepney drivers have now been “forced off the roads.”
On top of these are a slew of other issues that are slowing down the modernization of the jeepney sector. Chief among these is how hard it is for operators to get financing, with loans taking a year from application to release.
According to Sarmiento, one of the reasons for the long wait time is that operators can only apply for loans related to the PUVMP from government banks. He suggested that private banks should be involved in the process as well.
Finally, Sarmiento also pointed out that jeepney operators have had issues with the technology that they’ve had to integrate. Specifically, the Automatic Fare Collection System (AFCS) often does not work when put into their vehicles. Beyond that, operators and drivers are given no training on how to properly deal with any issues they may encounter when using the AFCS.
On top of this, Sarmiento also lamented the transaction fees associated with the AFCS. The prohibitive cost of these fees means that operators are making even less at a time when their revenue has already been severely affected.
With all these in mind, Sarmiento made several suggestions for how to make the PUVMP more feasible for jeepney operators. These include having the government provide the vehicles, acquiring them through a bidding process to drive down prices. These can then be leased by the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP) and LandBank to the operators. In addition, he also suggested that revenue collected from such a scheme be then put to funding the operating expenses of future vehicle acquisitions.
Finally, he recommended that the government establish safety nets for displaced transport workers. This is important as he believes that the pandemic has changed the way people travel, and that work-from-home arrangements and online classes are here to stay, reducing the number of people taking public transport.
The long haul
The final speaker at the webinar was the Asian Development Bank’s Dr. Robert Siy presented a position paper on the PUVMP authored by the Move As One Coalition.
The paper states that improving the quality of the nation’s public transport is crucial. Any such effort should aim to make public transport the preferred choice for commuters, even if they own private vehicles.
To this end, the paper makes many recommendations, most of which mirror those made by the other presenters in the webinar. These include Sarmiento’s calls for private banks to be involved. The paper points out that LandBank and the DBP do not have the resources to serve the entire industry.
On this, it also recommends larger subsidies of at least Php 500,000 and to allow equity subsidies spread over five years.
The paper also reiterates the point made by Engr. Paches that LGUs need to be more involved in public transport modernization. Specifically, the paper says that LGUs need to be part of the provision of public transport.
Finally, the position paper noted that, with the coming elections, there needs to be some assurance of succession to the current PUVMP program. A long-term plan needs to be put in place that ensures that the PUVMP continues regardless of changes in administration. DZUP