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MMDA marvels at Seoul traffic reform program

/ 02:15 AM March 06, 2011

SEOUL—If authorities want to solve the burgeoning traffic problem in Metro Manila, they could take a leaf from the acclaimed traffic reform program initiated by the South Korean capital’s municipal government overhauling its system about seven years ago.

Seoul’s bus system reform project not only heaped praise internationally, it also restored its citizens’ faith in public transport, weaned them away from private vehicle use, thereby reducing traffic congestion and pollution in one of the busiest metropolis in the world.

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Widely credited for the success of the system was the cooperation of both government and private sector, according to a leading expert on traffic from Seoul National University whom the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) got acquainted with in the course of its exposure trip in South Korea last week.

(Incidentally, the Aquino administration has been harping on a similar policy—public-private partnership—since it assumed office in July last year.)

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Auto fare collection

MMDA Chair Francis Tolentino expressed admiration for the system, which he experienced first-hand, but acknowledged not every element in the program could be implemented immediately. He indicated to the Inquirer in an interview, though, that the government could adopt initially an automated fare collection method seen in Seoul’s experience.

In Seoul’s case, its municipal government decided to overhaul its public transport system when citizens flooded offices with complaints and traffic menacing the city’s way of life, said Kang Seung-pil, a professor at the university’s department of civil and environmental engineering.

With these in mind, a committee was formed by then Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak (the incumbent president) to formulate a reform program and ease the traffic in the capital.

Bus routes changed

“[We] restructure[d] whole bus routes, bus operating routes, bus lines completely. We changed 600 bus routes. Some got canceled, some redesigned, some shortened,” recalled Kang, who headed the committee.

Buses were divided into four categories separating those going to the provinces and motoring around the city, among other uses, the professor continued. Routes were also designed to complement the subway system.

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The municipal government also encouraged operators to adopt the Smartcard system to collect fares. A Smartcard contains a microchip which users could load electronic cash and use to pay fares for the subway, bus, taxi, or even grab a snack at a local convenience store.

Although not new in Manila, a similar technology had been introduced in the Metro Rail Transit some years back, but the use of the card appeared not to have taken flight as expected.

“With this system, there’s no way to take the cash out of the passenger revenue because there’s no cash,” Kang said on the problem of operators making their drivers declare daily earnings faithfully.

“You can eliminate those inefficiencies with this kind of system.”

Asked how to implement such a system in a reality where operators could put their foot down and threaten to paralyze public transport, Kang suggested that government flex its muscle and revoke franchises it issued to owners.

For Seoul bus operators, it did not end that way, because when government intervened in their operations seven years ago, it assured the business they would still earn, Kang continued.

“That means government subsidized much more in 2004 in order to guarantee satisfactory transportation service to the citizens,” the professor said. “More subsidy means more intervention and more supervision, so I say it’s a mixture with private and public.”

Buses have to ply their routes following a schedule and these public vehicles must leave each station at a precise minute so that it could reach its destination on time, regardless if it’s filled with passengers to the brim or not.

Dedicated lanes

The municipal government also gave buses dedicated lanes that other vehicles may not use.

“To guarantee th[at] high level of service, they should sacrifice the cost,” he said. “Losses in turn are guaranteed by the central government or the local municipal government,” in the form of subsidies.

Government, whether central or local, should set standards in order for private entities to comply with it, and should operating costs hamper their business, subsidies would be provided to keep it afloat, Kang explained.

Before 2004, about three of five commuters in Seoul (60 percent) complained about bus operations. With the program in place, complaints dipped to around 15 percent, he said.

Ridership on the other hand increased 30 to 40 percent, and operating speeds doubled so much so that people began ditching their cars for buses and subway rides.

Discounted fares

Fares also went down due to discounts provided to commuters. Transfers from one bus to another are, while shifting from bus to subway and vice versa entails a discounted fare.

Asked about the iconic jeepney which is the unique mode of public transport in the Philippines, Kang found it to be “efficient,” but it would be better if these shuttled commuters in suburban areas, rather in cities.

“The bus can transport 60, 70 passengers while jeepneys can carry less than 20,” said Kang, who lived in Manila for a year in the 1990s working for an international organization there.

No need for jeepneys?

“I think if you concentrate on buses and trains, you won’t need to use jeepneys because [trains] and buses are much more efficient than jeepneys,” he noted, adding jeepneys pose an environment threat in terms of pollution. “Eventually within 10, 20 years, jeepneys should disappear.”

Tolentino, in a separate interview, said it would do a lot of good in Metro Manila if a similar program could be adopted. But he added that since it would require big investments, he indicated the agency could adopt the Smartcard collection system for public transport.

Doable option

“That’s one doable option. I think it could be implemented in one and a half years,” he said. “Conductors would not be displaced because they can act as assistant drivers or mechanics.”

“There’s also a need to downgrade our bus design in such a way that it’s not just the comfort of our riding public that should be taken into consideration,” he stressed, adding “The number of passengers that could be carried by a coach should be looked into.”

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