Mobility priority


I am not sure if a recent move by the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) is a step in the right direction for decongesting Metro Manila roads. Offhand, while the MMDA order promotes the use of more environment-friendly transportation, its unintended consequences have dire implications particularly on many who are already mobility-challenged.

In a memorandum dated Oct. 5, the MMDA exempted electric vehicles (EVs) from the number coding scheme. The memorandum is not without basis, as Section 31 of the Implementing Rules and Regulations of Republic Act 11697 or the Electric Vehicle Industry Development Act provided for the exemption for eight years.

The MMDA memorandum noted that RA 11697’s IRR specifically provided for EVs “exemption from the mandatory unified vehicular volume reduction program (UVVRP), number-coding scheme, or other similar schemes implemented by the [MMDA], other similar agencies, and LGUs with due consideration on the impact of such exemption on the volume of vehicles.”

It noted that the number coding exemption is among the “non-fiscal incentives” that EV users could “enjoy” under RA 11697 for eight years from the effectivity of the law. And in line with the MMDA memorandum, MMDA traffic enforcers were “directed to refrain from apprehending and issuing UVVRP citations to electric vehicles.”

On one hand, this particular non-fiscal incentive may be seen as a cost-effective effort to push car buyers towards environment-friendly alternatives like EVs. If the shift gains traction, then perhaps we can expect relatively cleaner air in the metropolis in the future. Not to mention the inevitable shift away from imported and costly fossil fuels for internal combustion engines.

However, in terms of improving mobility and decongesting Metro Manila roads, the MMDA order might have the opposite effect. Worse, the order may be seen as a type of selective statute that benefits only a particular segment — the wealthy — to the possible detriment of almost everybody else. This is given the poor state of public transportation infrastructure.

EVs to date, given their prices, can be considered generally only for the wealthy — the same demographic that is most likely to have more than one vehicle in the garage. And if the wealthy can buy additional vehicles just to skirt “coding” days, then they can just as easily buy EVs for the exemption. In this line, the MMDA order gives them the option to put more vehicles on the road at any given time.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that 20% of vehicles in Metro Manila convert to EVs within the next three years, then that’s 20% more vehicles on the road not covered by UVVRP. How will this impact traffic flow? At what point does the MMDA pull the plug on the exemption? How does the MMDA go about counting how many EVs are on the road?

At this point, one of the unintended consequences of the EV exemption is that those who are already mobility challenged to date are going to have an even more difficult time. This is considering that previous exemptions given to Seniors and Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) were withdrawn just a couple of months ago. If that move was intended to address congestion, then the exemption for EVs does the opposite. In this line, one cannot help but wonder if the EV exemption is at the expense of the elderly and PWDs.

Everybody knows how difficult it is to take public transportation in Metro Manila. If it is hard enough for able-bodied workers, what more for the elderly, especially those with ailments, and PWDs who need to earn a living. But some of the elderly and PWDs have been lucky enough to own cars, making trips to the doctor — or to work, in the case of many PWDs — a little easier. However, their coding exemptions have been taken away.

On the other hand, a relatively young, able-bodied individual lucky enough to afford an EV has unlimited, unrestricted driving privileges around the metropolis. Even for frivolous and unnecessary trips. And while it may be that there is only a small pool of elderly and PWDs in need of mobility that are disadvantaged by the withdrawal of coding exemption, the fact remains that their mobility options are severely limited.

Many of our middle-income retirees rely mostly on their pension for subsistence. Some of them, prior to retiring, were lucky enough to afford a small car. They are no longer in a financial position to buy another. And while coding affects that car only for one day a week, what do we do with seniors who have daily rehabilitation therapy, regular dialysis or chemotherapy, or whose doctors come in only once a week?

Or, take the case of a PWD who needs to travel to Makati from Quezon City daily for work? His or her parents are lucky enough to own a car to drive him or her. However, by withdrawing the exemption for PWDs, that small perk is lost, and the daily grind becomes even more difficult for the PWD. Grab cars and taxis are not affordable options for many working PWDs, while motorcycle taxis are not practical alternatives particularly for those with crutches or are using wheelchairs.

The coding exemption for EVs is set in law, and there is nothing that the MMDA can do but provide for it. However, it should not be at the expense of sectors that are in desperate need of mobility. Simply put, if we are prepared to exempt EVs from coding, regardless of who they service or the urgency of then need, then more so that we should retain the exemptions for the elderly and PWDs, or those with a more urgent need for mobility.

Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council