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They’re staying here

Nick V. Quijano Jr.

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“Necessity is the mother of invention” is a common enough proverb. It also readily springs into mind as the underlying theme of the motorcycle taxi issue. In fact, necessity is the unavoidable theme underlying the Duterte government’s shortest policy turnaround on the controversial issue this week.

On Monday, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) suddenly declared motorcycle taxis were illegal and motorcycle taxi riders were to be arrested next week. Scarcely had 24 hours passed, LTFRB reversed its course.

Many reasons were given for the dramatic hasty reversal, from incensed senators calling out transport officials for childishly acting on pique and anger to suspicions it was all a government-instigated publicity stunt.

However, one thing was clear — banning motorcycle taxis implied risky politics. Higher echelons in government probably realized the ban not only affected the livelihood of a few thousand bikers but also millions of poor people who had now depended on the novel transport service.

If the ban was allowed to continue, it risked stoking public anger against government. Public anger is always bad politics.

But why would the public be angry? It should be clear by now the motorcycle taxi for many Filipinos, particularly poor Filipinos in Metro Manila, is practically a necessity — a necessary service for coping with monstrous traffic.

Yet, why did the public eagerly adapt the motorcycle taxi, turning it into a need in spite of obvious safety risks?

Motoring activist James Deakin, testifying at a Senate hearing on motorcycle taxis, framed the motorcycle taxi controversy as a health issue. “Do I think motorcycle taxis are a good idea? Absolutely not. I think it’s an awful idea,” Deakin testified.

But Deakin continued: “If we frame it as a health crisis, we could look at Angkas and the new players as some kind of alternative medicine until we get our act together. Because right now this is filling a need, and is actually alleviating suffering.”

“If you say it’s not safe, well you will also make the same argument about two-minute noodles and sardines. Is that a great diet to have? No, but we’re in a state of calamity and we just fled to an evacuation center. I’ll take that, thank you very much.”

A journalist colleague of mine says Deakin correctly framed the issue as a “want versus need situation.” What this means that while it is normal for anyone to want or desire personal comfort when caught in traffic, it isn’t possible now for many in the lower classes taking public transport.

Necessity, of course, is the constant scourge of the lower classes and they will always grab at any chance to help them cope against traffic’s physical and mental abuse. So much so that risking their lives riding on a two-wheeler is a non-issue.

In the eyes of the government bureaucrat, however, that shouldn’t be the case. By nature the bureaucrat always believes necessity poisons wounds it can’t heal. The festering wound in this case is the bureaucrat who cannot think beyond rules and regulations.

Dysfunction, however, results from the bureaucrat insisting on order and procedure and an impatient public needing quick solutions to pressing transport issues. As in previous transport issues, the public will eventually get its way, forcing the bureaucrat to adapt and adjust.

We don’t even need to make the motorcycle taxi the example. Looking elsewhere at another familiar transport service, the UV service express vans plying Metro Manila streets tell us it is the public who decides, not the bureaucrat.

Years ago, the LTFRB did battle with UV express vans, the hybrid jeepney-taxi transport service. Back then the practice of enterprising taxi drivers turning their commodious van-cum-taxi into jeepney-like transport with strangers willing to share the taxi fare had no legal precedent.

Insisting the innovative UV vans were illegal, the LTFRB proceeded to disenfranchise these. But widespread public indignation forced government to back down and bureaucrats had to come up with new regulations and regulated fares to the satisfaction of all.

Will motorcycle taxis follow how the UV express service vans came to be? More likely, it will.

It will also likely be the case since the motorcycle taxi has been lurking around in the shadows for some time. The motorcycle taxi is the fancy name for the habal-habal, the most popular informal form of transport in many parts of the country, particularly in remote and mountainous barangays in Mindanao and the Visayas.

In North Cotabato, the habal-habal is the primary and even the only option of transportation for residents of remote barangays not accessible by either jeepneys or buses. Its necessity in other Mindanao provinces is unparalleled that some habal-habals were retrofitted as ambulances in Surigao.

In Cebu, habal-habal is a popular service, first for trips up to mountainside barangays then into city streets as traffic started choking the city’s narrow streets. Former city mayor Tomas Osmeña, realizing the necessity of service, backed the habal-habal operations when transport authorities started cracking down.

Nonetheless, are we ready to resign ourselves that the motorcycle taxi is here to stay? In the immediate future we have no choice but to accept the motorcycle taxi.

But the motorcycle taxi faces no guaranteed future if we, as Deaken says, get our act together. And getting our act together means erecting a massive public transport system that is not dependent on streets.

Since I am an advocate of rail, I am of the firm belief it is only an extensive and efficient rail system, whether up in the air or below ground servicing all points in Metro Manila, that will get us out of the traffic mess.

A massive rail system will lessen the use of the private car, the public bus, the jeepney, the motorcycle taxi and the need for more skyways, expressways and widened roads. All will be merely complementary adjuncts to the rail system.

Rails will also finally help us ditch our absurd romance with the car. With all the traffic around, the car is now virtually impractical and it doesn’t even stoke our egos that we are a cut above the rest.

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