<Note: This article was originally posted on by the author on Linkedin during the COVID-19 community quarantine in the Philippines>
We often find ourselves in awe of better transport systems in other countries. Despite the economic progress we’ve felt in the past few decades, moving from point A to point B in Metro Manila only became worse. A common response from authorities would be to blame the commuting public, as well as private transport operators for the worsening traffic situation. The prevailing mindset remains to be that Filipinos lack discipline.
Too often we hear commentaries pointing to Filipinos’ lack of discipline as the primary reason why there is traffic congestion, which leads to ridiculous travel times, as well as increased road mishaps. Among the most frequent proof points they use are the following: (1) commuters pushing and shoving their way into jam-packed buses, jeepneys, and trains; (2) commuters ‘recklessly’ occupying road lanes just to get a ride, leading to bottlenecks; and (3) pedestrians not making use of sidewalks and pedestrian lanes/crosswalks, leading to accidents.
The very same commentaries likewise normally point to a solution to address traffic: imposing discipline, primarily directed at the commuting public. Oftentimes, the rhetoric includes increasing sanctions and intensifying apprehension efforts.
Is it really the commuters’ lack of discipline the root of our traffic woes? Is discipline the panacea to improve traffic conditions? Or perhaps commentators do not reflect the sentiments of the commuting public, as most likely are not part of the commuting public?
To understand the situation, allow me to try to give a different perspective, from the lens of the behavioral sciences.
Take the case of poverty. What is in the mind of someone who is poor? In their book, “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much” Mullanaithan and Shafir have shown that a poor person’s mindset is different from someone who is not, as they are in effect in a “scarcity” mindset. A scarcity mindset is defined as having a strong automatic orientation towards unfulfilled needs. In the case of someone who is poor, money or food grabs their focus, leaving little left for other cognitive functions, which more or less leads to worse decision-making. In other words, a person who has a scarcity mindset is no longer as rational as one would think, as they have limited cognitive bandwidth to think of other things aside from what they need.
The scarcity mindset applies not only in poverty discourse. A lot of us during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic experienced a need to stockpile on supplies, while some resorted to panic buying. In some developed countries, the scarcity mindset manifested in the panic buying of essential supplies, as well as toilet paper (not exactly an essential need in the Philippines, but you get the point).
The scarcity mindset can also applied to understand what goes in the mind of a daily commuter in Metro Manila. Anyone living in the metro knows that public transportation in Metro Manila, be it trains, buses, or jeepneys, do not follow a set time schedule. Rail systems, such as the LRT Line 1 or the MRT Line 3 may have a definite first and last trip schedule, yet the trip times in between are hard to predict, not to mention the frequent breakdowns which lead to longer and unpredictable waiting times. As for the road-based transport modes like buses and jeepneys, trip schedules are non-existent.
Another point of consideration is that, except for rail systems, bus and jeepney systems barely have any infrastructure that resembles a stop or a station where commuters can form queues to alight or ride. We have seen some improvements in this part, as in the case of integrated terminals and malls, but most areas do not have any, leading passengers to just ride and alight from anywhere – even in the middle of the road.
For a commuter who has to deal with the hardship of daily labor, the anxiety caused by the lack of predictability and scarcity of public transport will inevitably lead him/her to resort to “irrational” behavior such as occupying a road lane to get a ride going home or to work. With the scarcity mindset, his/her irrational actions become part of the daily ordeal, which then becomes a habit.
How then can we deal with the situation at hand?
Credit must be given to the national and local governments of late for at least heeding the call of commuters and mobility advocates to find ways to improve the transportation system, despite some misfires (policies on motorcycle pillion riders) and missed opportunities (experimenting on alternative transport systems that cannot be attempted on a normal day). However, a change in perspective is needed from the authorities themselves in order to address the mobility issue, which was made worse by the pandemic.
Granted that social distancing must be implemented as a rule at this point in time, measures that need to be imposed by government must be rooted from the need to make things more convenient to the commuter, and not to further add burden, anxiety and/or confusion.
In other words, make it easy for the commuter to go from point A to point B, all while enforcing quarantine protocols. As the Nobel prize economist Richard Thaler would say, “if you want people to do something, make it easy for them.” If you think commuters are not following directions, then make it easy for them to follow.
How? As stated earlier, make their commute less burdensome by making it predictable. By ensuring adequate supply of vehicles that can take them to their destinations in a set time schedule, commuters will have no need to worry about how they can get to where they need to go. Establish designated PUV stops where commuters can actually queue, as well as strictly enforcing a closed-door policy in non-PUV stops, add order and predictability.
Given that public transport supply is an issue, why not allow and actively promote other means of transport, aside from private vehicles? How about building and maintaining safe, walkable, and unobstructed walkways and lanes along major and minor thoroughfares? Clear policies on prioritization and protection for cyclists, scooter users, and pedestrians on the road has the potential to lower public transport demand and more importantly, private vehicle use.
Communication is likewise important. It’s easier for people to follow rules if the rules are simple, understandable, and non-contradictory. Choosing the right messenger to convey the message is equally vital. Signage and other signaling implements, particularly for pedestrians and other road users should be continuously updated and kept functioning.
These are just some suggestions on how authorities can address the situation, but the important thing is that a change in mindset from those in government is needed.
Studies have already shown the impact of long and arduous commutes to one’s physical and mental well-being. COVID-19 has also brought upon a great deal of anxiety to everyone, particularly those who have to venture outside their homes just to make a living.
It’s high time that focus must be on making it easy for those who need to travel. Commuters already have more than enough to think about. Commutes need not be a crazy, adventurous, and difficult experience.
Let’s stop with the ‘discipline’ rhetoric. Discipline is not the magic sauce. Better (transportation) systems are.
Miko is a public policy and communications specialist based in Manila, Philippines. He founded the Behavioral Insights Network – PH to gather individuals and groups interested in learning and collaborating in behavioral science applications, particularly to improve public policy outcomes.
Miko is currently working on a sustainable mobility project for a development organization. He was a former Senior Manager for Risk and Reputation for a local communications consultancy, and has held various positions in the Philippine government.