Politics

Filipinos brace for ‘Carmageddon’ as students return to school

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Motorists endure heavy traffic along the westbound lane of Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City, July 28. — PHILIPPINE STAR/ MIGUEL DE GUZMAN

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and Alyssa Nicole O. Tan, Reporters

KURTSON ROWEEN C. GAMBOA, 22, doesn’t look forward to more traffic jams in November, when more students are expected to be in school.

The office clerk wakes up before dawn and takes a train and jeepney to get to work in Manila. He spends much of his commute waiting in line.

“Traffic has worsened when physical classes resumed,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “Commuting to work has become as tiring as ever. Going home is the same and I’ve had to rest less because of this.

Millions of Filipino students returned to classrooms for the first time in more than two years in August amid a coronavirus pandemic.

Transport problems are nothing new in the Philippines especially in the capital, which is connected to other cities by poor infrastructure.

Manila is the eighth among cities in the world with the worst traffic, according to GoShorty, a British insurance technology website.

It found that Manila, along with Tel Aviv in Israel and Tokyo in Japan, had a 43% congestion level, and citizens in these cities lose 98 hours to traffic every year.

The government failed to fix the problem during the pandemic, when it had the chance to do so, according to transport experts.

A number of transport operators had to fold up during the pandemic, when most people stayed home, transport economist Robert Y. Siy, Jr. said in a Messenger chat.

“The pandemic lockdowns and physical distancing made many public transport services financially unviable,” he said. “Many operators closed shop or went bankrupt.”

These days, when most restrictions have been eased as coronavirus infections fell, the No. 1 challenge is spiraling fuel prices.

School bus operators were among those severely affected by the pandemic, and their closure has affected the transport supply, Mr. Siy said.

“Many school bus operators have gone out of business. Two years without any income forced some operators to dispose of their vehicles,” he said.

Those who survived have increased their rates, forcing parents to opt out, said Jose Regin F. Regidor, a research fellow at the University of the Philippines’ National Center for Transportation Studies.

“This is to make up for the increase in fuel prices and vehicle maintenance as well,” he said. “The last two years when schools operated online were a backbreaker for many school services.”

Mr. Regidor expects most parents not to use a school bus service due to virus fears.

“The return to face-to-face classes this school year will perhaps help determine if the pandemic will have a long-term effect on the industry or if the trust in school bus services will return in the short term.”

The demise of school bus operations could lead to more private cars on the road, Mr. Siy said.

“Wealthier families will choose to use private motor vehicles to bring their children to school,” he said. “Government and schools should encourage such families to shift to school and shuttle buses so that the roads fronting schools won’t be severely congested during drop-off and pickup times.”

“Families from the same neighborhood can pool their resources to organize school buses/shuttles to serve all students in their community,” he added.

The state could also help school bus operators by waiving penalties for failing to register or renew their franchises during the pandemic, Mr. Siy said.

They should also streamline the process for new operators. “If an incentive or subsidy can be provided to help them restart operations, that would also be a big help.”

The country loses about P3 billion daily due to the traffic congestion in Metro Manila, according to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). This could balloon to P5.4 billion by 2035, it said.

Transport experts expect students and more workers to rely on ride-hailing services to get through traffic.

“The large deficit in public transport supply will mean more demand for ride-hailing services, though the cost could be prohibitive for most students,” Mr. Siy said.

The country needs to boost public transportation capacity to address increased demand, Mr. Regidor said.

‘ESSENTIAL SERVICE’Calls to address the sad state of the country’s public transport system began as early as March, with civic groups pressing the government to set up infrastructure support for commuters. Reclaiming roads from private cars and encouraging more people to cycle or walk would significantly cut traffic congestion, they said.

“All roads leading to schools should have safe pathways in the form of either car-free roads or very low speed limits, with priority given at all times to pedestrians and bicycles,” Mr. Siy said. “Where needed, there should be protected bike lanes and sidewalks, even if some need to be created using traffic cones and plastic bollards.”

Schools should also provide “end-of-trip” facilities for those who walk or cycle such as bicycle parking and shower rooms, he added.

The Philippines should look at best practices in other countries, including “walking school buses” in Norway, which seek to improve students’ health by encouraging walking and to save transportation costs, Mr. Siy said.

“Parents and local governments can organize assembly points for students willing to walk or bike to school; then, with school marshals, groups of students can walk or bike together in a group,” he said. “Cycling in numbers or groups is a very good way to enhance the safety of cyclists.”

Students and teachers should also consider studying and working at a nearby school, Mr. Regidor said.

“Still, mobility is a basic human need and should be given due priority and importance. Because public transport is an essential service, it should not be allowed to deteriorate or disappear.”

He said the government should subsidize transport operators and drivers affected by the pandemic and rising fuel costs.

“If public transport services diminish, many Filipinos will not be able to get to their schools, clinics or other public services,” he said. “The school year is a crucial challenge for our government.”

Xander Xeballos, a student from Manila whose university has yet to enforce face-to-face classes, is worried about his commute next month, when daily physical classes will have been enforced.

“It would be better to limit in-person classes and spare us the hassle of daily commutes,” he said. “Blended learning is still the way to go.”