October 6, 2016 7:35 pm JST
Commentary

Greg Lindsay -- Future may lie in 'intelligent' informal transport

Jeepney passengers disembark in Manila's central business district of Makati. (Photo by Greg Lindsay)

Weaving between cars, taxis, motorcycles and buses are thousands of "jeepneys" -- aged, gaudily decorated passenger jeeps each seating 20 people. Festooned with chrome and painted with names such as "Soldier of Fortune," jeepneys spew black exhaust fumes, block highways with frequent stops, and race each other for passengers.

They are filthy, inefficient, and unsafe. Fortunately, most are also slated for extinction thanks to an imminent ban on vehicles 15 years old or older. (Production of new ones has slowed to a trickle.) But the passing of the jeepney will probably make Filipinos' commutes worse.

Metro Manila's 45,000 jeepneys account for 44% of journeys by the city's 24 million inhabitants -- more than double the 18% share of buses and trains. The jeepneys' share is changing rapidly, however, thanks to an explosion in private vehicles -- new car sales have doubled since 2013. The logic is undeniable: Why breathe smoke when you can drive in air conditioning?

As a result, the megacity's traffic is among the world's worst, according to users of Waze, a navigation and information app for drivers. Congestion costs $57 million a day in lost productivity, according to the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which predicts the figure may nearly triple by 2030.

This vicious circle is common in south and southeast Asian cities where public transport is scarce or non-existent, whether the vehicles in question are auto-rickshaws (Mumbai), motorcycle ojeks (Jakarta), or songthaew minibuses (Bangkok).

These forms of so-called informal transport are poorly remunerated, barely regulated and clearly inferior to rail and bus rapid transit, but carry millions of passengers daily, providing transport capacity that, although dangerous and polluting, acts as a check on private car congestion.

Not even ride-sharing services such as Uber or Grab can claim that. In fact, former Metro Manila traffic director Yves Gonzalez estimates that both companies have added between 10,000 and 15,000 cars to the megacity's roads as entrepreneurs buy fleets of vehicles and hire drivers.

That may be about to change, however, as shared electric autonomous vehicles creep into view. "With the advent of autonomy, it will probably make sense to shrink the size of buses," Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk wrote in a blog post this summer, describing a vehicle that sounds a lot like a self-driving jeepney.

What would it take to make informal transport the solution to gridlock, rather than part of the problem? Three things: clean electric vehicles; streamlined routes; and -- ultimately -- on-demand, computer guided vehicles, whether autonomous or not.

In the Philippines, at least two groups are working on the first element. Electric jeepneys, known as ejeepneys, were introduced nearly a decade ago by the Electric Vehicle Association of the Philippines. They never caught on, partly because of costs but also because of the short range and low energy density of their lead-acid batteries.

More recently, however, former Filipine congressman Sigfrido "Freddie" Tinga launched a startup company marketing an electric jeepney named the Comet. Tinga's plan is to sell them to owners of traditional jeepneys for $35,000 to $40,000 each. In exchange, he will hire drivers, collect fares, sell ads, and share the profits.

Like Musk, he firmly believes the future belongs to the jeepney's successor. "The world will best be served by these 20-seat electric vehicles in a fleet-managed system," Tinga said.

Route chaos

Once you have quiet, air-conditioned vehicles, the question becomes where should they go? In Manila, as in many cities, there were until recently no maps of informal transport services and no way to know how many routes overlapped. This meant that transportation planners were flying blind when it came to deciding where to put new metro lines or bus routes.

In 2012, government officials set out to map the informal system, aided by the World Bank and inspired by the success of a pioneering effort in Nairobi, Kenya, to map that city's matatus -- informal minibuses ferrying a third of commuters. A team of researchers from New York's Columbia University and the University of Nairobi used smartphones and hand-held GPS units to document each of the city's 130 matatu routes, translating this data into information for traffic apps such as Ma3Route.

In Manila's case, the conclusions of the mapping project were surprising. There were more than 900 jeepney routes -- twice as many as the government had expected. The World Bank estimated that using the data to rewrite jeepney and bus routes in a more efficient way would reduce the number of routes by nearly 90%, with a 23% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions -- the equivalent of removing 105,000 cars from Manila's roads.

It remains to be seen whether this plan will ever be put into motion --jeepney drivers typically oppose change, and they are a poor but vocal voting bloc. But in a city where Waze is ubiquitous and Uber and Grab are both wildly popular, it may be wrong to assume that the future belongs to fixed-route trains and buses.

If Musk is correct, commuters across the global south can look forward to riding electric passenger vehicles that never trace the same route twice. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, for example, has outlined a feature named "Perpetual Trip" -- essentially a never-ending shared ride as passengers come and go in the company's ride pooling vehicles.

The Israeli founders of a ride-sharing app named Via were inspired by sherut -- Tel Aviv's answer to the jeepney. "One way to use our technology is to allow cities with large informal systems to centralize their ... services and gain insight on how they're performing," said Zachary Wasserman, Via's vice president of strategy. "We're talking to people in South America and have had conversations in Africa about how our technology could upgrade [matatus] and optimize them."

Given the mounting costs of congestion in cities such as Manila, "intelligent" jeepneys could perhaps provide a short-term solution more easily than traditional mass rapid transport systems (which have proven difficult to plan and build) and autonomous cars, which in the end are still just cars.

Just as many emerging markets leapfrogged over fixed telephony to widespread mobile phones, they might be better off leapfrogging trains and buses by using technology to make informal transport more efficient. The Philippines' love-hate affair with jeepneys -- often called the "kings of the road" -- may have life in it yet.

Greg Lindsay is a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation in New York, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next.

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