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Fight transportation inflation with active transportation

HIGH inflation is impoverishing millions of Filipinos and one of its main sources is transportation. Rising oil prices as well as the severe shortage of public transport are driving up transportation costs for most households.

Transportation costs increased by 15% from May 2020 to May 2021, well above headline inflation of 5.4%. In urban areas, many Filipinos already spend nearly 20% of their income on transportation and this problem will worsen unless decisive action is taken.

The Move As One Coalition has formulated a 10-point program to tackle transport inflation. The proposed solution has several components: allowing people to switch to walking or cycling, reducing the demand for travel, expanding the supply of public transport and ensuring its financial sustainability. In today’s column, I develop the first element.

We need to facilitate the transition to walking and/or cycling, especially for short journeys. These two modes of transport are not only inexpensive and climate-friendly, but they also offer considerable health benefits. People who walk or cycle are likely to be happier simply because they have more control over commute times. They therefore have more regular and meaningful interactions with friends and family and more time to manage their personal needs.

There is also the financial benefit of spending less. If a family can rely more on walking or cycling instead of using a private vehicle or taking public transport, they can save around P100 per day or more, which translates to more food on the table and savings to cover medical and health needs. Therefore, spending on better sidewalks and safer bike lanes can be seen as a way to alleviate poverty and an indirect subsidy for basic needs like health care and food.

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It makes sense to prioritize active transportation infrastructure because it has broad impact, offers good value for money, matches many national sectoral goals, is highly replicable, and can be delivered in a relatively short timeframe. A car bridge or highway will primarily serve the small minority (about 5% of Filipino households) who own a four-wheeled motor vehicle; the vast majority will benefit from better active transportation infrastructure (we are all pedestrians and about 24% of Filipino households have access to a bicycle). Better sidewalks and protected cycle lanes can be built in every urban barangay (village), with immediate and tangible benefits for those residing in the neighborhood. A sidewalk or cycle path improvement project can be easily formulated, tendered and completed within 12 to 18 months, thus falling within the current mandates of local authorities.

Sidewalks can be widened, smoothed, cleared of obstacles and illegally parked vehicles, and made fully accessible (with appropriate ramps for strollers and wheelchairs). It’s time to make our streets compliant with long-standing accessibility laws so people with disabilities and seniors can have the mobility they are legally entitled to. Trees can be planted on every street to provide shade and lower temperatures (trees are the best way to combat the “urban heat island” effect in cities). Street lighting can improve safety and security in every neighborhood.

Many of the earlier bike lanes are substandard or deficient, having been created on a “pop-up” basis with only paint and applying only the minimum width. These need to be modernized to provide maximum safety, comfort and convenience for users. The goal should be to get as many Filipinos to cycle for daily commuting, rather than just meeting existing demand.

Existing cycle paths should be widened so that cyclists are not cramped in narrow spaces. Pavements should be made smooth and safe, eliminating dangerous features like potholes, protruding metal plates and drains wide enough to swallow a tire. Protection for cyclists needs to be enhanced by introducing durable physical separation from motor vehicles, something more than just ‘pop-up’ plastic bollards and paint. Bike lanes should be woven into city-wide networks so that cyclists can travel seamlessly on a safe bike path from residences to common destinations.

To date, building active transportation infrastructure has not constituted a large portion of public spending, either by national agencies or local government units (LGUs). It needs to get a larger share of the budget, become a major component of infrastructure development, and be included in programs like Build, Build, Build. The good news is that within the 2022 National Budget or General Appropriation Act (GAA), there are several ready sources of funding that national and local governments can tap into.

The 2022 GAA includes an appropriation in the Ministry of Transport budget of 2.0 billion pesos to fund active transport infrastructure. In addition, the GAA has a Local Government Support Fund of 10.6 billion pesos for LGUs to invest in protected bike lanes, better pedestrian infrastructure, open spaces and public parks. Barangays, municipalities, cities and provinces can obtain up to 5 million pesos, 10 million pesos, 20 million pesos and 30 million pesos, respectively, with an application deadline of June 30, 2022. (See DBM Local Budget Circular 142, s. 2022.) The DPWH (Department of Public Works and Highways) also has a credit of 264 billion pesos for the construction of roads and bridges, with an explicit requirement that these Projects include active transportation facilities such as wider and more accessible sidewalks, protected bike lanes and at-grade pedestrian crossings.

A key message of Budget 2022 is that roads and bridges must be designed or reconfigured to meet the needs of all road users, instead of primarily serving private motor vehicles. On this point, the GAA 2022 includes Special Provision 7, which requires the allocation of “at least 50% of road space for public transport, pedestrians and bicycles/light mobility devices”. This important legislative directive should not be ignored as we grapple with our transport emergency and climate crisis.

We know what it takes to make a meaningful improvement to the active transportation environment. Resources are available to mount an effective response. We must act now.

Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, urban and regional planner, and public transport advocate. He can be reached at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @RobertRsiy.