President Rodrigo Duterte has put reducing the congestion and improving the Philippines’ public transportation system as among his administration’s priorities.
Getting on the Fast Track
In a nutshell, the plan is to seek temporary emergency powers to consolidate traffic authority over urban Manila under a single entity and to bypass bureaucratic processes to push through various infrastructure and transportation projects faster, mainly railway infrastructure.
More Cars, More Congestion, More Pollution
It is a problem of crisis proportions. There are simply too many private vehicles on Manila’s roads, with an estimated 125 motorists occupying space designed for 100. More are coming: Philippine car sales soared 24.6% in 2016 to 359,572 units and various manufacturers are ramping up production this year.
This is before taking into account the health impact — the Philippines rank third in Asean in air pollution-related health issues, which cost the nation about 7% of its annual gross domestic product (GDP). Some 80% of air pollution across Asian cities come from transportation.
The Solution is on the Rails
Duterte’s answer to the problem seem to be railway projects, specifically his $8.4 billion Mass Transit System Loop. While the Philippines boast the first light railway transit (LRT) system in ASEAN in 1984, it has not built much more in the years since.
Among others, Duterte’s administration and Japan are expected to ink a deal this year for a $4.55 billion, 25km subway system connecting Quezon City to Taguig. When completed in 2024, it is expected to serve 350,000 people in the first year.
Other railway lines are also being planned. Among them are a 2,000km Mindanao Railway, which is expected to begin construction next year with a $9 billion price tag. The first phase between Tagum to Davao City and Digos is slated for completion in 2022.
The government is also planning to extend the Philippine National Railway (PNR) to northern and southern regions. The PNR North Railway will connect Manila and Clark with an estimated travel time of under an hour when completed in 2021.
Meantime PNR South Railway will connect Manila to Laguna and Bicol via two separate lines. The Manila-Laguna line is projected to have a daily ridership of 330,000 when operational in 2021 while the Manila-Bicol is expected to serve 400,000 riders daily when finished in 2022.
The Philippines is also looking at widening roads and implementing a bus rapid transit (BRT) system to help tackle congestion in the heart of Manila. Its BRT Line 1 is targeted to serve 291,500 passengers daily when operational in 2019, while road projects slated to complete by 2020 is expected to cut travel time in major road arteries by as much as three-quarters.
The emerging strategy is a mainly railway-based plan to shift commuters from on-road vehicles onto public transportation. It is also expensive — the nation is expected to spend 5.3% of its GDP this year to finance the transportation infrastructure push.
This percentage is expected to hit 7.1% by 2022, nearly triple the average 2.6% of GDP spent annually by previous presidents over the past 50 years on public transport infrastructure.
What About the Jeepneys?
Apart from mass transit, the government is also embarking on a mass upgrade program for the nation’s iconic jeepneys, which is a vital component to serve out-of-reach areas and complement the railway push by providing first-mile and last-mile connectivity.
For perspective, the ubiquitous jeepneys make up 36% of travel in Metro Manila alone in 2015. A 2009 paper by the University of Philippines researchers estimates that there are over 616,000 jeepneys nationwide, of which about a quarter are in the national capital region alone.
The plan is to phase out jeepneys older than 15 years and replace them with electrified, environmentally friendly versions. In early May, it rolled out a financing program to help jeepney owners buy e-jeepneys worth between US$28,100 and US$35,119 at 6% interest rate p.a.
“We will try to replace 220,000 ageing and inefficient jeepneys (passenger jeeps) nationwide with new vehicles,” said Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III.
The objective aligns with that of the Electric Vehicle Association of the Philippines (EVAP), who is pushing for gradual electrification of 350,00 diesel-fueled jeepneys and 1.2 million gas-powered tricycles nationwide.
Driving Sustainable Urban Mobility
Accomplishing this mission will be a significant milestone for EVAP. Consider that reducing soot emissions from 500,000 jeepneys by 80% is equivalent to reducing 25 million tons of CO2 emission.
“For comparison, this (25 million tons of CO2) represents nearly 17 percent of the current Kyoto Greenhouse Gas Inventory for the Philippines of 150 million metric tons,” said Climate Change Commissioner Heherson Alvarez.
This will only add on to potential health benefits coming from taking fossil fuel-powered vehicles off the roads via President Duterte’s railway push.
The Philippines’ electric vehicle (EV) initiative is the first among its ASEAN counterparts, in its combination of strict phase-out policy with financing aid to replace ageing, polluting jeepneys with electrified alternatives.
The next step may be to promote further awareness of sustainable, green mobility among the public, which is what EVAP is advocating. Its experience thus far will be in full showcase as the nation prepares to host the inaugural Asean EV Summit in Manila on June 29-30.