Action for Economic Reforms (AER) expresses its deep disappointment over the Inter-Agency Taskforce (IATF)’s handling of our public transportation system as we transition to the General Community Quarantine (GCQ). In the past few days since the relaxing of quarantine rules, we have seen thousands of commuters stranded in the streets with no means to go to work. Some have to compete for the very limited free rides that government offers, with the risk of spreading the virus due to overcrowding. Others are unfortunate not to access transportation and have to walk hours to work and not lose their livelihood. To say that this is inhumane is an understatement.

It is most insensitive on the part of the IATF to reopen some parts of the economy without the adequate, safe, and accessible transportation system that workers need.

The lack of public transport also goes against the very objectives of our COVID-19 response. The woeful inadequacy of public transportation and the poor planning and implementation of the reopening of the economy have resulted in massing up of people to take rides. This can lead to another surge of virus infections. The progress we have achieved in slowing down infection rate will be reversed. Also, our health care workers face another risk. Many of which have opted to ride bicycles to go to health facilities and to return home, but they have to contend with the lack of safe bike lanes.

In the end the lack of a safe public transport system, arising from the incompetence and insensitivity of the authorities, scuttles the very objectives of gradually opening the economy. Economic activities and productivity suffer as workers struggle to get transportation, and their health are endangered because of their unnecessary exposure to crowding.

Adding insult to injury is the callous statement of Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) General Manager Jose Arturo Garcia that blames commuters for the mess saying that the commuters are “focusing on traveling even though the first priority is health and safety”.

The MMDA leader seems ignorant that the pandemic has made it a lot difficult for people to even find means to feed their families. And the lifting of the enhanced community quarantine has allowed workers to go to work. It is MMDA’s negligence – its failure to set up the infra for public transport and provide alternative modes like bicycling and walking that has undermined public health and safety.

To conclude, we call on the IATF and the MMDA to immediately allow mass public transportation that conforms to the highest health and safety standard to operate. Given that safety precautions such as reduction of passenger load per vehicle, social distancing, and sanitation are necessary, government must provide support for the transportation industry to be able to meet these standards. In the short-term, government can contract buses and jeepneys that will strictly follow the health protocols while also ensuring financial viability of the operations. Safe bike lanes must be set up. Routes, frequencies and schedules must be rationalized to have efficient traffic flow. Cashless mode of payment has to be introduced.

These changes in fact serve the longer-term agenda of having a consolidated public transportation system. In this system, cut-throat competition is eliminated, transport workers receive wages and benefits and do not have to work long hours, and commuters get good service through efficient and safe rides.