OPINION: Dear LTFRB, stop holding Metro Manila commuters hostage

Manila traffic. File photo by ABS-CBN News

Martin Delgra, chairman of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB), made a fair point today while defending the body’s recent order that Uber and Grab deactivate 50,000 unaccredited drivers.

“We cannot have one rule regarding colorum [unaccredited public transport] for them and another rule for the rest of the modes of public transport, i.e. bus, UV express, taxi and PUJ,” he said at a press conference.

READ: Starting July 26, LTFRB will impound franchise-less Uber and Grab vehicles

But anyone who commutes on Metro Manila’s streets on a daily basis can also see the problem with this statement. It is that existing LTFRB regulations actually do little to protect the commuting public’s safety.

As far as commuters are concerned, only one thing really matters: getting from Point A to Point B in a comfortable, safe and convenient manner.

If traditional forms of transportation like taxi cabs, jeepneys, trains and buses were actually providing that, then ride-hailing apps wouldn’t be much of a factor.

Metro commuters dream of riding in a cab without worrying about being robbed or swindled, or boarding a comfortable bus that isn’t stopping in unsafe spots along the side of the road or being driven maniacally.

Or how about getting on a train quickly without having to pack in like sardines at 5am so we can get to our offices by 9am?

But the reality is that commuting is probably one of the most inhumane parts of living in Metro Manila. And commuting horror stories are part of daily life in the capital.

That is why more than 100,000 Filipinos have signed the Change.org petition asking the LTFRB to grant accreditation or temporary reprieve for drivers who have now been waiting for over a year for legal status, ever since the regulatory board froze the granting of franchise applications.

If Grab and Uber – both of which have thus far flouted the order – actually follow through with the LTFRB’s dictate, the number of drivers would be reduced to less than 5,000 overnight.

READ: Grab, Uber won’t deactivate unaccredited drivers despite LTFRB order

According to Philippine motoring journalist James Deakin, the 50,000 ride-sharing vehicles we’re at risk of losing reported servicing eight out of 10 requests, while they spent nine out of every 10 minutes of their workday on the road servicing passengers.

It’s not difficult to understand why demand for ride-hailing services remains high, while taxi demand for traditional metered cabs has declined.

The apps made it possible for riders to wait in an air-conditioned room and only come outside under the sweltering Manila sun once they have a confirmed ride. Getting turned down by several cabs for having a destination “too close” or “too far” or in a destination that has “too much traffic” (what part of Metro Manila doesn’t have “too much traffic”?) became less of an issue.

Riders were hopeful when ride the apps were legalized in 2015 and the LTFRB created a new category to regulate the vehicles as Transport Network Vehicle Services’ (TNVS).

But on Friday, the board decided, despite clamor from the public to allow ride-hailing services to operate, that drivers without a franchise license would have to either stop driving or face crushing fines of up to PHP120,000 (about US$2,365) and have their vehicles impounded for up to three months.

While a process had already been laid out for Grab and Uber operators to get their vehicles accredited, the LTFRB chose to sit on them, effectively forcing commuters who patronize these apps on a daily basis to go back to the “regulated” but inhumane forms of public transportation.

Once again, commuters would be at the mercy of dilapidated buses, pack ourselves into the already over-packed MRT trains, and beg for rides from picky cab drivers.

To be fair to the drivers, their operators should also be held responsible for failing to change a system that puts drivers in a situation where they are chasing an impossible PHP1,500 a day, the amount most drivers must pay to the taxi firm before keeping anything for themselves. This is what routinely forces the “choosy” behavior of the cab drivers.

But instead of changing their system by paying their drivers a salary, taxi companies instead whined that Grab and Uber were “causing a decline in profits of regular taxis.”

Gerry Donesa, leader of a taxi driver association in Metro Manila, led a protest against the apps at the LTFRB last March. He also complained that the apps were “adding to congestion in Metro Manila.”
This concern was echoed by the LTFRB board in explaining why they initially suspended the approval of franchises.

One would hope that the complaint of the cab operators plus the data the ride-hailing app provided on demand would give the LTFRB a hint as to which mode of transportation commuters prefer.

And of course there’s that little online petition with almost 100,000 signatures on it.

No one — not the drivers, nor Grab, nor Uber — is protesting the necessity of obtaining accreditation. But they’ve done that, and have waited long enough for them. The question is when will the LTFRB actually give it to them? Next year? In two years?

Uber, Grab and other app-based transportation services are far from perfect. But given the present condition of traditional public transportation in Manila, commuters have made it perfectly clear what they prefer.

One other thing the board should consider: Had the LTFRB exerted this same energy into regulating taxi cabs and buses decades ago, it’s quite possible that the apps would not be as popular as they are today.

What the public cannot understand is why the board chooses to go after ride-hailing with such energy and enthusiasm — board member Aileen Lizada has threatened to go after Grab and Uber “with the full force of the law” — yet vows no similar crusades against erring cabs or dangerous buses.

What exactly are the reasons the board remains so bullheaded in spite of the clear public clamor? By suspending ride-hailing services, whose interests does it actually serve?

It’s time to stop holding the metro hostage, LTFRB. Issue the franchises or grant drivers (and commuters) a little amnesty while you get your house in order.

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