OPINION: Is habal-habal the solution to Manila’s traffic problem?

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In Metro Manila, even before Angkas, habal-habal has been present, lurking in non-descript areas near train stations and other transport hubs.

Editor’s Note: Zaxx Abraham is an urban planner working on community development and governance, with a focus on the cross-cutting issues of space, culture, gender, and transportation. She finished her MSc in Social Development Practice at the UCL Bartlett School of Planning as a Chevening scholar. The opinions expressed in this piece are the author's.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Habal-habal has been around for some time now, and is the most popular informal transport in many parts of the country. A 2004 paper established that “the lack of common or traditional forms of a public transport network and infrastructure such as mass public transportation is usually substituted with other innovative modes of public transportation.”

In North Cotabato, as is similar in other provinces around the Philippines, it is the primary and sometimes only option of transportation used by residents of remote barangays that are not accessible by jeepneys and buses. Its necessity is unparalleled, so much so that it has been retrofitted not just as public transport but even as an ambulance in Surigao. In more urban areas, it complements the existing public transportation as a feeder system connecting commuters to neighborhoods. In Metro Manila, even before Angkas, habal-habal has been present, lurking non-descript near train stations and other transport hubs.

Angkas responded to market demands by being entrepreneurial and offered convenience on our fingertips. To this, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) and LTFRB (Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board) responded by cracking down on them last Dec. 5, 2018 citing a Supreme Court (SC) Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) on the grounds of the R.A. 4136, enacted in 1964. Under section 7, motor vehicles registered under a private classification cannot be used to transport passengers for pay. The press release also cited motorcycle accidents, albeit confusingly, as the stats included did not show Angkas accidents in Metro Manila data but overall accidents in the Philippines. We get the point though, there are safety issues involved. “The rule of law must always prevail,” DOTr sec. Tugade further says.

"I am a reluctant supporter of the habal-habal. It serves all classes, especially the poor, allowing the disadvantaged to go to school, earn a living, and access services."

Both DOTr and LTFRB argue based on what the law states, but missing from their stand is the acknowledgement that is also a public health issue. Two-cylinder motorcycles emit more CO2 per mile than a passenger car. It is also a top contributor of noise pollution. Another thing to consider is the reality of how pedestrians sometimes have to compete with the motorcycles as they have unabashedly taken use of the very limited designated walking space.

Studies in neighboring South East Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand have also highlighted how the presence of motorcycle-based transportation hugely affected the modal shift to buses, trains, and other forms of mass public transportation. In Chiang Mai, Thailand, a study on its space saving potential on the roads and in parking spaces found out that it wasn’t a sustainable choice as it affects the overall transport system.

It is hard to support DOTr and LTFRB on this because of the many conflicting signals about public transport. If it is a safety issue, then the current overloading of MRT and buses should be addressed as well. Better and safer infrastructure for pedestrians and other non-motorized transport should be prioritized. More TNVS slots for ride sharing have been announced, adding to the everyday congestion. Habal-habal contributes heavily to air pollution, violating the Clean Air Act, but so do the jeepneys and smoke-belching buses, and the seemingly unabated car culture in Metro Manila. We recognize the power of the Angkas SC TRO, but the law also states dignity of life that the current public transport does not afford to the people. What about mobility justice?

That said, I am a reluctant supporter of the habal-habal. It serves all classes, especially the poor, allowing the disadvantaged to go to school, earn a living, and access services. It is an integral part of the distribution network, ferrying goods across the metro — some so comical as refrigerators and live cattle. It has unequivocal access to the narrowest alleyways of barangays. The sector is also a solid source of employment for many, most of whom have families to feed.

A common misconception about the habal-habal sector is that they are unregulated and informal. Checking out the drivers’ Facebook group would prove otherwise. There is internal self-regulation, oversight and coordination happening. Most of the drivers are aware of the safety issues thrown at them, and the groups are filled with dos and don’ts as well as reminders for safe driving and alertness at all times for the blind spots of cars and trucks. Just like the FX/ AUVs, they have developed their own language of warnings against places to avoid because of MMDA presence or roads that are dangerous.

Unfortunately, they are not represented in our democracy, so much so that very few have spoken out against the gendered laws of Mandaluyong City’s Ordinance 595 prohibiting male back riders who are not within the first degree of consanguinity of the driver. Their increasing popularity gives them recognition. Recently, a mass motorcade and prayer rally in Metro Manila and Cebu have been well attended and supported online.

"Rather than banning, the government should seek ways of regulating the habal-habal and make it a safer and sustainable option for the commuting public, the riders, and other road users."

 

In 2015, a similar issue happening in Indonesia became viral. “The requirements of public transportation are [that the vehicles] have at least three wheels, have legal standing and possess a public transportation business permit,” Indonesia Transport Minister Jonan said. “Whatever the name, the operations similar to Go-Jek, Go-Box, GrabBike, GrabCar, Blue Jek, Lady Jek are all prohibited.” Then, on the same day, it was reversed. Motorcycle transport is a huge part of Indonesian life that even then President Joko Widodo intervened, starting by tweeting about it and then releasing a statement through his communications team: “Regulations should not curb innovation … that comes from our own young, creative people. We need to manage the innovation, while accelerating improvements in public transport. The most important thing is to embrace, to govern, and to manage – not prohibit.”

In 2016, UberMoto and GrabBike were suspended in Bangkok. Amidst social media clamor, the policies were reviewed as well. Today, GrabBike has partnered with one of the most popular providers, Win, using legally registered drivers and motorcycles.

We are all suffering from Metro Manila’s mobility problem, of which traffic is a symptom. To the government’s credit, there are several public transportation projects and infrastructure in varying degrees of completion. Realistically, given the nature of these projects and how government processes work, we will only be able to experience their positive effects in the next five years at the very least.

The times call for urgency in innovations and review of public policy. There is critical need to amend the laws that govern public transportation, one of which is the often cited 54-year-old RA 4136. Without the option for more efficient and affordable modes to get around the city, prohibiting habal-habal is counterproductive. Rather than banning, the government should seek ways of regulating the habal-habal and make it a safer and sustainable option for the commuting public, the riders, and other road users.