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Which Road to Take

The eminent American poet, Robert Frost in his poem, “The Road Not Taken,” depicts the consequences of the choices that we make in this famous line: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —  I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Now as we approach almost two months of Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 virus, our decision-makers will have to determine how we emerge — whether less or more painfully — from this dreadful lockdown brought about by the pandemic.

One such area where their choices will affect the lives of millions is in the field of transportation. Since March 15 when the Luzon-wide lockdown went into effect, Metro Manila’s 12 million residents have basically been kept off the streets with arrests and sometimes, physical violence taking place in some areas for those violating the government-imposed curfew. So there have been some sighs of relief when the Department of Transportation (DOTr) recently announced plans to resume some level of public transportation once restrictions are eased by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF). “Buses and train lines may be soon allowed to operate anew subject to strict regulations, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade said. If allowed to operate, Tugade said buses and train lines — namely the MRT, LRT 1 and 2, and PNR — can only ferry 30 percent of its full capacity as a precautionary measure against the spread of COVID-19.

We can perhaps credit the private sector for goading the national government to look into the resumption of public transportation which have come to a standstill since March. This has resulted in numerous and incessant complaints from people who have been greatly affected especially our health workers and essential services providers such as electric linemen, gasoline station personnel, first aid responders, etc., who have been forced to walk for kilometers from their residence to their place of work or point of assignment and back at the end of each day. According to one published report, “Essential workers still have not forgotten the nightmare that followed the initial declaration of an enhanced community quarantine, after the lack of meticulous planning left workers walking to factories and offices for hours because public transportation was suspended but key businesses were not.”

So it came as a welcome news and a demonstration of corporate citizenship that the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) submitted its transportation plan to the government last April, which essentially suggested that only necessary modes of public transportation should be allowed to operate for now. MAP has recommended that the modes of public transport to be opened should be able to support the daily commute of at least 250,000 workers, which the group estimated to be the workforce strength needed for skeletal manpower of essential businesses in Metro Manila. “The number should increase over time as the government flattens the COVID-19 curve, until eventually the entire Metro Manila workforce, or at least 5.4 million people according to July 2019 labor data, is able to return to work,” according to press reports.

In more specific terms, the MAP recommendations are for a phased and gradual opening of public transportation in our cities. One can see the logic of a “slow and careful” action for putting our PUVs and MRTs on the road like peeling off at the side of a Band-Aid to pry it off gingerly from a wound,  rather than just ripping the whole plaster off in one swoop and crying of pain as a result. The virus still continues to infect a growing number of Filipinos and certain areas in Metro Manila like Navotas and Malabon are still considered as “hot spots” for NCOV 19.

But there is also the need to get some level of our economy going and have people earn a living to meet the barest essentials such as getting food on the table.

Finally, it is also important in any discussion about regaining mobility in our city streets to give special consideration for bikers, which given the transportation paralysis of the last two months have demonstrated their value and importance to urban life. Bikes actually have been the only way many employees, including health workers, have managed to go to work during the lockdown. It is ironic, based on news reports emanating from DOTr on their proposals for reviving the transport system, that the potential of bikes as a form of public transportation may have been ignored in favor of motor vehicles.

Anton Siy, of Pasig City, in one newspaper report said, “Walking and cycling are not just alternatives. COVID-19 crisis has made clear that they are essential modes of transport. We should support walking and cycling with investments in streets that are safe to walk and bike on, and buildings where it’s possible to park your bike in a safe and decent manner,” said Siy who has been riding his bike to work since 2017. A crisis, they say, also brings forward new opportunities. Perhaps it is time that we look ahead at investing more on bicycle lanes and bicycle transport as much as our European counterparts where biking is a way of life.

The author may be reached at peachy_vibal@yahoo.com.

Peachy Vibal – Guioguio

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