COVID-19 and Transportation in the Philippines

Since the appearance of the first case of COVID-19 on Philippine shores, the country has seen a rapid shift in attitudes and cultural norms. The presence of a pandemic has created a need for increased health and safety measures across the country, many of which have changed the fabric of Philippine society completely.

We’ve previously discussed the beginning and impact of COVID-19 in previous articles on this site. We had a brief introduction to the novel coronavirus in our article titled ‘The Worst Pandemics to Ever Hit the Philippines’. As the spread of the virus progressed all over the world, norms around working have changed, as you’ll find in our article ’30 Tips for Professionals Working from Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic’. And finally, post-Enhanced Community Quarantine, we’ve taken a look at COVID-19’s impact on the Philippines’ tourism industry.

We’re only just beginning to understand the breadth of the impact of the virus on our daily lives. On the whole, the Philippines has begun working towards a return to normalcy, but there are some things that have turned out different. In today’s article, we’ll take a look at one of these changes: what COVID-19 has done to the transportation sector in the Philippines.

Transport in Community Quarantine

Not long after local transmission of the virus was confirmed, the Philippine government instituted an Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) to combat the spread. ECQ was first declared for Metro Manila beginning March 15, but was soon extended to the rest of Luzon. Lockdown measures were also implemented to varying degrees in other locations in the archipelago.

The institution of ECQ caused a major shift in business and daily life. All non-essential production and manufacturing was shut down, with malls and businesses following suit. The transportation industry in the Metro also had to take a pause, with mass public transport shut down and private transport restricted to local areas only. For companies that remained open out of necessity, Nikkei Asian Review reports, transport arrangements had to be made for essential employees in order to ensure they could make it to work.

As the lockdown extended and became a Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ), more private establishments and businesses began to open up. However, according to AutoIndustriya, despite the gradual opening up, mass public transportation remained closed.

This again put the burden of transportation on private companies, which according to Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque were required to arrange for private shuttles for their employees. If the shuttle was registered to the company, there would be no need to apply for a permit. However, if the company rented the services of another shuttle or van service, they would have to obtain a permit from the LTFRB in order to continue operations.

Transport Post-Community Quarantine

The Enhanced Community Quarantine eventually came to an end on May 31, 2020. However, this didn’t necessarily mean a return to normalcy. Metro Manila transitioned into General Community Quarantine (GCQ) on June 1, while other areas in the country were placed under GCQ or Modified GCQ (MGCQ) depending on the local situation. The Philippine government declared that public transport would resume in two phases, with new normal protocols including mandatory face mask-wearing and use of cashless payments.

As the transition to GCQ began and more businesses prepared to open up, Rappler reported that the country could soon see an intensification of the public transport crisis. In order to follow social distancing guidelines, transport in Metro Manila would have to be stretched beyond its limits.

The Metro Rail Transit 3 (MRT-3), one of the country’s busiest train lines, was set to operate at only 13% capacity due to new guidelines. Light Trail Transit (LRT) Lines 1 and 2 would only see around 160 passengers per trip. Additionally, the Philippine National Railway (PNR) connecting other areas in Luzon to the Metro would only serve 500 people in its 3 to 4-car trains.

Other modes of transportation saw similar reductions in capacity. Buses, Public Utility Vehicles (PUVs), and Public Utility Jeepneys (PUJs) were instructed to operate at less than 50% capacity. UV Express shuttles were permitted to operate only if they served up to 9 passengers per trip, while jeepneys could only serve around 10 passengers per trip, or half their capacity.

Reporting by CNN Philippines revealed that 90 buses employed for MRT augmentation would only have four pick-up and drop-off points along EDSA, the capital’s major thoroughfare. Taxis and P2P buses were also allowed under certain restrictions, as well as operations such as GrabCar.

However, despite relaxed restrictions the public transport situation in the Metro is far from adequate. Perhaps the most tragic example of this inadequacy is the death of single mother Michelle Silvertino, who passed away after waiting several days for a bus to take her to her home province. While an extreme case, Silvertino’s death is only one of the many consequences of a failing transport system.

Still, Filipinos have been forced to turn to other options for transport. The GCQ has seen an increased use of bicycles, which the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) permits only on secondary roads and not on national highways. In order to accommodate this growing sector, the Department of Transport (DOTr) has begun installing bike racks at major train stations across the Metro.

While the Philippine government has declared a transition to the new normal, this new normal has presented the Filipino transport sector with new dilemmas. Following health and safety protocols has led to a reduced capacity and stranded commuters. As the rest of the world begins moving into a post-COVID-19 era, it remains to be seen whether the transport industry in the Philippines will manage to catch up, or fall behind.