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DAILY STRUGGLE WITH METRO MANILA’S MONSTER TRAFFIC

Commuters find voice in online advocacy groups

MANILA, Philippines — On a stormy Saturday morning, 13 young professionals braved flooded roads to get to Quezon City to discuss how best to assert commuters’ interests in governmental planning that heavily leans toward car owners.

They’re from different fields. One is a lawyer; at least two are licensed urban and transport planners. The others are affiliated with local governments and private organizations.

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But all are seasoned commuters whose daily struggle with the country’s public transportation woes are often left out of high-level discussions.

Among their plans are radical solutions to help ease traffic, most of which extend beyond the roads and tap into urban planning and renewal.

Like most fledgling groups, however, they still need more manpower and money to muscle their way through to the boardrooms.

Banding together online

As such, they’re looking to gain more teeth through the communities they have nurtured online, hoping to organize them into a community the way motorcycle riders and ride-hailing drivers have.

As with most things, this nascent coalition of transport groups—Commuters of the Philippines (CP) and AltMobility PH, among other organizations—were all birthed on Facebook two or four years ago.

Transportation then was undergoing a massive upheaval: the country was bleeding billions a day from traffic, the Metro Rail Transit breaking down nearly twice a day, while more than 11,000 were being killed in road accidents nationwide.

At first, the groups started out as niche advocacy pages where commuters could air their grievances and share their commuting experiences, said Julius Dalay, CP chair and founder.

Now with thousands of members, they have turned into massive online communities that have, at times, helped shape discourse on how public transport should be handled.

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At the center of their advocacy is mobility, said AltMobility PH’s Ira Cruz. It’s putting a premium on moving people instead of cars, and to help ensure that people can plan their lives around a reliable and efficient public transport system.

How to turn things around

“Much of our current traffic policies are (private) vehicle-centric, (like) the proposed provincial bus ban and the yellow lane policy,” Cruz said. “Both seek to make it easier for private cars instead of PUVs to traverse the roads.”

And the challenge, he said, was how to turn things around to put the focus on the commuter instead of the car owner.

According to the groups’ data, commuters make up over 80 percent of road users. But car-centric policies — like widening roads at the expense of sidewalk and bicycle spaces — have relegated them to only 20 percent of the road.

Recently, when the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) enforced its yellow lane policy for buses on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, the groups’ moderators — mostly transport planners or advocates — gave shape to the public anger by releasing infographics and explainers on why the policy was “antipoor” and “anticommuter.”

A video showing hundreds of buses cramped on two outer lanes while a car breezes through the empty space went viral on the internet, particularly on AltMobility PH’s “How’s your byahe bes?” page.

Later, AltMobility PH’s Jedd Ugay was invited to television program together with MMDA traffic czar Bong Nebrija, who was forced to admit that the policy still had flaws.

To the groups, it was a powerful demonstration of how organizing and informing commuters can actually influence enforcement and policymaking.

People’s sentiment

“This showed that they’re hearing the sentiment of the people,” Cruz said. “They’re able to see in a different way how they can address the traffic problem, and even have a different way of framing the question.”

But the groups are now looking at concrete proposals outside their virtual pages. AltMobility, for one, has successfully lobbied for a magna carta bill for commuters, filed in the Senate last month.

Among other things, Cruz said, it would enshrine in legislation commuters’ basic rights, such as affordable and accessible transportation.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan, who sponsored Senate Bill No. 775, said it was the “first of its kind as it [would] ensure and protect the right [of millions of commuters nationwide] to a public transport system that is safe, convenient, reliable and affordable.”

While similar proposals had been filed in the past, most of them were about protecting specific segments of the public—pedestrians, bicycle users
—but never the commuters, he added.

CP’s Dalay is also lobbying for an executive order that would consolidate the managements of Light Rail Transit and MRT under one office to better deal with their problems.

While all are government-owned, they are managed by different offices, with LRT 1 run by a private consortium.

Rapid Rail Transit Act

Dalay said his group would again present the executive order, called the Rapid Rail Transit Act, to the Department of Transportation.

He also has several proposals dealing with refurbishing or relocating old government structures near transport nodes to make them more accessible.

Among these is redeveloping portions of the Old Bilibid in Manila to build an intermodal station terminal between LRT 1 and 2 and a Philippine National Railway line in between.

“Public transport cannot work without urban renewal,” he said. “Just planning along the way will not work.”

At present, the groups spend their own money to push their ideas, but they hope to find organizations that will fund their plans, Cruz said.

That Saturday, they brainstormed ways to find support: tapping the rich network of transport advocates, activating schools, and reaching out to more lawmakers to explain their plans.

The road ahead is long, but they’re confident they can make it.

“This is our future at stake,” Dalay said. “If we don’t do this now, we and the next generation will be taking up the problem.”

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TAGS: Metro Manila commuters, MMDA, online advocacy groups
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