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With the National Capital Region now under General Community Quarantine, the metropolis is slowly but surely coming back to life. And while workers and employees start to report to work, there is one thing no one looks forward to in his daily grind – the slow and painful misery of everyday traffic.

In sheer numbers alone, private vehicles fill up Epifanio delos Santos Avenue or EDSA, NCR’s main artery. However, many motorists have pointed the finger on undisciplined bus drivers as the main cause of bottlenecks along the 23.8-kilometer thoroughfare.

The government’s COVID-19 response has allowed transportation planners to recalibrate their approach to relieving congestion and are now introducing a new way of utilizing EDSA which will not only change its landscape, but also the capital’s commuting lifestyle.

As NCR slowly moves from its two-month lockdown, and with the conduct of public transportation restricted under health protocols, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) saw the perfect time to introduce a new scheme that aims to raise the standards of quality in public transportation. The Bus Augmentation Service (BAS) begins its run this week to compliment the LRT and MRT lines. With this new scheme, buses have now been moved from curbside to the innermost lane of EDSA and other included avenues. These inner lanes, numbering up to two along certain areas of both north- and southbound EDSA for example, are segregated by concrete blocks or cones from the lanes occupied by private vehicles. EDSA’s outermost lanes, formerly the yellow lanes for buses, will be made open to bicycles.

In theory, moving the buses to the innermost lanes will allow them to drive straight from one station to the next unhampered. This results in faster travel times not only for buses but also for motorists who do not have to contend with swerving buses that slow down and impede the flow of traffic. Four BAS stations that will serve as loading and unloading areas have been identified so far, North Avenue and Quezon Avenue stations up north and Ayala Avenue and Taft Avenue stations down south. More BAS stations are slated to be opened in the weeks to come. For now, only Point-to-Point, or P2P buses, can use the segregated lanes but by June 21st, additional city buses will follow suit in the DOTr’s public transport phasing in plan.

The concept is not entirely new. Having buses make use of the innermost lanes harks back to the idea of the Bus Rapid Transport project, or BRT, of the DOTr. The department’s idea was to make public transportation as the top choice of every commuter for their daily travel. And to shun the comfort of cars and the convenience of motorcycles, the new public transport system must be both, while being cost-effective.

“Yes, the BRT system has been a proven solution for urban public transport in large metropolitan areas,” shares renowned urban designer and Landscape Architect, Paulo Alcazaren, when asked if BRT is a possible solution to the congestion along EDSA. He adds, “The system was pioneered in South American cities, where it has proven successful. The system is less expensive compared to expanding light rail systems and can use the same cars.”

According to the DOTr, a total of 136 cities in 39 major countries area already making use of the BRT system. Three years ago, the department proposed the adoption of BRT to service high-volume commuting lines. Clark Development Corporation already has such a system operational. Cebu is also in line to develop its own BRT service. The plan not only involves moving buses to the innermost lanes, but also requires an overhaul of Public Utility Bus utilization. Lessening the  number of buses on the road from an estimated 4000 down to 600,  adopting a scheduled trip and specified route system, making use of electronic payment cards, making use of lower, access-friendly buses, and the relocation of loading bays to the median of EDSA will be part of the major changes in the way commuters make use of this new mode of transport.

Indeed, it makes sense to move buses to the innermost lanes, so they do not block access to commercial establishments or clog up intersecting roads preventing those exiting EDSA to turn off the highway. It also frees up private vehicles to move straight along their lanes with no long buses blocking them at loading and unloading points along the way. But there are still some caveats that need to be resolved, like how to get people to the median of the highway.

With GCQ currently in effect, the construction of access points to the BRT stations, and the stations themselves, can be done with expedience because of the lesser number of vehicles on the road. Architect Alcazaren adds, “BRT Stations, and access (elevated or tunnel pedestrian access) need to be built that compliment intermodal transfer and that is not in conflict with LRT/MRT stations. Most of these interventions take time but in the current crisis, pedestrian bridges to center islands and even the terminals themselves can be fast tracked if fabricated from steel.” And this is currently happening now as stations for the ongoing BAS trials are being constructed along key points of EDSA making use of existing footbridges and MRT stations that will have steps to access the BAS stops in the median.

Then there is the problem of commuters alighting on the wrong side of the road. According to the Metro Manila Development Authority, along with hard barriers, plans are underway to retrofit existing buses to have their doors moved to the left side of the vehicle. Meanwhile, for the passengers’ safety, they will be guided back to the BAS station to be able to use footbridges and access points to reach the curbside.  Eventually, when the BRT program is in full gear, access to buses are slated to be improved by updating to modern units that have lower floors which would level with the station platforms. Dedicated payment booths will also be installed away from BRT stations to make bus stops mere loading and unloading bays.

Admittedly, the problem of slow traffic along EDSA and NCR’s other major thoroughfares require more in-depth planning and, more coordinated execution. BRT and the ongoing BAS trials may provide some respite, but major changes are needed not only in the road network’s infrastructure, but also the mindset of government, policy planners and the public alike if the daily despair of commuters will be addressed. Architect Alcazaren sums it up quite succinctly, “Traffic is not the problem. It is just a symptom of: 1) Irrational urban planning and inefficient land-use patterns in a metropolis without coordinated transport networks; 2) But mainly – the lack of a comprehensive public transport system that (especially in a post-Covid world) needs to de-emphasize single passenger vehicular transport, and balance all vehicular transport with enhanced pedestrian, bicycle and alternative modes of transport – ferries on the Pasig, and scooters.”

Under the “New Normal”, the needs of public health and safety needs to be balanced with the necessities of the economic stability and growth even more carefully. May this opportunity to effect radical change finally yield the results everybody is hoping for.