<The following is also featured in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) website>

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we move. Starting with lockdowns and an initial halt on public transport, the Philippine government through its many instrumentalities adopted other measures to adapt to the situation. These include promotion of alternative modes of transport, dedicating lanes for PUVs and bikes and light mobility vehicles, consolidating transport industries, subsidizing operations through service contracting.

 With the advent of these new initiatives, the government is spending more for sustainable mobility than ever in recent history. Aside from budget insertions in the Bayanihan Recover as One Act in 2020, sustainable mobility has found its way through the annual fiscal budget of the Philippine government, with discussions on the inclusion of the budget for programs such as bike lane infrastructure, bike sharing program, and PUV modernization. Data from the following agencies show the extent of the budget for sustainable mobility for Fiscal Year 2021:

However, the crusade towards shifting to sustainable mobility is only starting. The bigger challenge lies ahead – how do we ensure that sustainable mobility will be sustained in the long run? In other words, how do we make sure that the gains of sustainable mobility won’t be written off as just a transport fad by history books.

Budget for Sustainable Mobility

ntly, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) provided some interesting statistics relating to cycling. Data from the Customs Bureau indicated that bicycle imports in 2020 have surged 112 percent to 2.1 million units in 2020. While this is encouraging, new vehicles continue to flow into the Philippine streets in the same time period, despite the economic limitations posed by the lockdown and the pandemic. LTO Data on Number of Registered Motor Vehicles as of 2020 was at 11.8 million vehicles, of which 2.3 million are new vehicle registrations. Moreover, Metro Manila is not yet at full capacity when it comes to public transport. As we’re already experiencing a return of heavy traffic amidst the lockdowns, the scenario remains grim.

 Institutionally speaking, allotment of budgets for government programs and policy pronouncements provide signals to the general public, as well as key stakeholders, of the direction the government is taking. However, securing a budget does not necessarily lead to sustained efforts on the ground. Consider the likely possibility that only a fraction of the population did make a shift towards sustainable mobility – if the greater majority would still think of travelling like the old normal (i.e. Private cars, avoid public transport when able), the policy needle would just end up right where it was in the long run.

For sustainable mobility to be sustained, it is imperative to start investing in behavioral change activities that will cause more commuters of all types to shift towards sustainable mobility. There is a growing interest in active mobility, as a recent survey by SWS reveals that there is strong support for public and alternative forms of transportation. Infrastructure and information cascades alone will not be able to get more people to bike, much less to take public transport. With this, three prescriptions come to mind:

Government Policies. First, the government needs to send a clear signal that sustainable mobility will be the way forward. While pronouncements on the same can resonate, policies in the form of laws should be put in place as they have a stronger impact, and are more difficult to reverse. Among the policies that can be taken into consideration are the following: (1) policies in the form of standards, regulations, and laws promoting low carbon modes of transport; (2) regular budget appropriations to expand and improve mobility initiatives; (3) policies establishing and promoting commuters rights and welfare; and (4) policies prioritizing development and promotion of industries supporting sustainable mobility.

 Think of these policies as commitment devices by the government to promote and uphold sustainable mobility. These “commitments” should also have equivalent counterpart actions at the local government level for it to be grounded with the realities in the community. Likewise, continuous monitoring and enforcement of these policies must be an imperative for the government to realize the gains from sustainable mobility.

Boost for Champions. Another is to leverage on the ongoing momentum, by continuing to support the needs advocated by early adopters. Early adopters, as well as those who have opted to use these modes before and during the lockdown, in this case, could mean promoters of sustainable mobility policies. It is important to note that beyond the hardline advocates and enthusiasts, there are those that are interested to participate. With this, the government should provide the necessary support for those who have taken interest to shift by making it easy for them to adopt alternative modes of transport by addressing the friction points shying away from it and building confidence on the road through other support programs. Understand the context, their decisions, and address the concerns associated with making a change. London’s Healthy Streets Approach provides a good example of how to do it. 

Normalize Efforts as a Sustained Phenomena. Finally, governments can formulate and implement programs that harness social proof and social pressure to encourage the rest of the public to adopt sustainable mobility practices. Social proof, done by making the growing shift towards sustainable mobility observable to the wider audience, can get people to let go of negative notions about it. Normalizing sustainable mobility will get more people to adopt it. Social pressure, on the other hand, focuses on making sustainable mobility the norm not the exception. With this it is important to look into the cultural environment and social dynamics that led to preference against sustainable mobility. There’s also a need to tie interventions to specific periods where individuals can be easier to decide to shift, such as first-time vehicle buyers, or those recently moving into new homes.

A fleet of electric jeepneys operating in General Santos City, Southern Philippines.
Photo Credit: Public Transport Alliance of GenSan (PTAG)

At present, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is working on a joint initiative with the Philippines’ Department of Transportation (DOTr) through the Promotion of Low Carbon Urban Transport Systems in the Philippines (LCT) Project. Under the leadership of Secretary Arthur P. Tugade, the LCT project works with various national and local government, private sector, and civil society stakeholders to create an enabling environment for low carbon modes of transportation in the Philippines through policy development, institutional capacity building, and facilitating private sector participation. The Project utilizes both “green” and “behavioral” lenses to ensure sustainability in its efforts towards improving public transport and shifting towards active mobility.

On a concluding note, it is important to highlight that the traditional measures utilized to make a change, such as incentives, laws, and information cascades have limited effects, especially if done without consideration on the behavioral lens to the problem. Learnings from applied behavioral science studies can be looked into, but keep in mind to undertake rigorous testing on the ground in order to design policies that suit the context and environment where one makes decisions.

 The promise of sustainability in mobility is already felt in some areas of the country. It is necessary to ensure that the gains out of these endeavors will last longer – beyond COVID-19 pandemic, to say the least.

 —–

Miko Nacino, EnP is the Policy Support Component Lead of the Promotion of Low Carbon Urban Transport Systems in the Philippines (LCT) Project, a joint initiative of the United Nations Development Programme, the Department of Transportation, and the Global Environment Facility.