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Fixing Cebu’s traffic: What do you reward?

07:05 AM August 03, 2013

A LOT can be said about Metro Cebu traffic. It was bad years ago, and has progressively gotten worse. There are more vehicles, and there are the same roads, except for some not-so-new flyovers. After a little rain, you can get stuck for hours as some places become unpassable. The traffic jam creates a domino effect. There are almost no sidewalks. Blame can be put on underinvestment in public infrastructure.

Numerous solutions have been proposed, including number coding and truck bans at certain hours. We need electric rail transits, and we need bigger buses. The Bus Rapid Transit (or BRT) would help. But so far, it’s all talk, and no budget has been put on the table.

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Definitely the jeepney, a carry over of using surplus war jeeps for public transportation can stand improvement. We certainly have some very colorful ones, and some with loud blaring music, but it’s probably one of the, if not the most, uncomfortable public ride you can get in most countries.

If we had bigger buses with twice the load, then we would need only half of them plying our streets to service the same number of passengers. But it is not only the volume of jeepneys that creates the traffic. A lot of the problems are caused by vehicles blatantly stopping at any point (sometimes for several minutes) just to pick up passengers.

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One way I believe can help solve the problem is not only having bigger buses, but in changing the dynamics of certain relationships. In management, there is a dictum that regardless of your pronouncements, you will get the behavior that you reward.

I believe that is precisely the problem. I once read that some drivers had accumulated over 100 citation tickets for stopping in the middle of the road or other unauthorized space to pick up passengers.

Why would they do that? It’s simple – they pay rent to jeepney owners, and have to buy their own fuel regardless of how much payload they carry. The economics is simple. If you don’t pick up passengers, then you will not earn and your family goes hungry. So jeepney drivers will use any means to pick up more passengers to ensure a better income. Therefore any restrictions you impose that will potentially lessen that income will continuously be ignored or violated. Worse, if one jeepney driver starts to do that, all have to follow or else they won’t have their share of passengers.

Witness what other countries are doing. Many routes are plied by government buses or by franchises who pay their drivers a daily wage. As a return, they are mandated to follow traffic rules, and ply their routes even at low demand hours to serve the public. The drivers are rated based on how clean the buses are, how punctual they are with the schedule, how well they drive, their courtesy and compliance with traffic rules. So these drivers will not wait at one stop to pick up passengers. They will get going as soon as passengers safely disembark and others get on board. They are careful not to overload the bus, refusing additional passengers if they reach their capacity. They will not open their doors or allow you to embark if you are not in the bus stop or not in line. Why would they? Doing so may risk a penalty for them or the loss of their license, and would not benefit them financially at all. Anyway, the next bus would pass by and it is the same matter to the operator whether you ride in the first, second, or the 99th bus that plies the route.

Passengers pay with prepaid tickets, or electronic cards. In some instances, coins are accepted, and placed in a transparent box. All money goes to the bus company and no change is given.

This is a simple remedy, but it does strike at the root of the problem. It addresses the simple issue that the driver or commuter should not benefit by violating rules. If he does benefit, the rules will perpetually be bypassed.

Can we do it? It does mean radical change on operators’ franchises, and how the land transportation board operates. But it addresses a fundamental issue – you have to come up with a system that rewards the behavior that you want to happen, and penalizes that which you don’t want.

Wilson Ng is founder and president of Ng Khai Development Corporation, a systems integration company in Cebu.

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