Effects of COVID-19 in the infrastructure sector

During the stringent lockdowns of last year, it probably made the job of the road (and generally the infrastructure) sector easier given the lower traffic volumes. Road condition inspections would be easier and hazards are kept at the minimum. Construction work can go in full swing for as long as occupational safety and pandemic-responsive measures are in place. It is no wonder that the country’s Build Build Build program, as experts believe, could be the last hope in keeping the Philippine economy afloat.

Mid-March of 2020, the World Road Association (PIARC) has established a COVID-19 Response Team considering the potentials of severe disruption in the road transport sector. This team was primarily aiming to rapidly share knowledge and practice between PIARC members in terms of pandemic impacts, associated economic and social crisis and the relevant responses. The team has summarized their discussions into one report which included key conclusions and recommendations as the pandemic continues into 2021.

The main concern, according to the report, was that road transport systems are crucial considering the strong dependence of low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) like the Philippines which rely on roads for land transport. In the Philippine context, goods travel primarily on roads which are linked by our nautical highway systems. Most transit systems are also concentrated in Metro Manila while the rest of the country’s movement depend on roads.

Common in the discussion of LMICs was that adopting measures employed by High-Income Countries may not be feasible. PIARC cites the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Policy Brief No. 86 that the “COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing global economic crisis are on the course to reverse years of gains in the reduction and alleviation of poverty, thus drastically undermining global efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goal deadline of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030”. The report further highlights that this may not be the case in all as some countries in Southeast Asia are relatively less affected by the pandemic except for Indonesia and the Philippines which have fairly higher fatalities than their peers.

The association also underscores continuity of road works. For countries like Colombia, infrastructure was a “country priority”. Supply chains for the inputs and materials of infrastructure projects are also given priority to keep the projects running for completion. The South American country of Paraguay also decided to continue all public works “as this constitutes the engine of the country’s economy… especially road works [that will] continue to produce and receive resources to continue serving to the rest of the economy”. Under this premise, the Build Build Build program of the government needs to take off and so far, it has accomplished a lot like the Skyway Stage 3 even in the time of the pandemic. Nevertheless, it is still important to also share resources particularly in health.

Despite the will to push for construction and maintenance work of infrastructure, lower work rates due to supply problems, lack of mobility and restrictive health and safety measures were noted. This was apparent in some LMICs like Benin. In Senegal, they also cite similar reasons for the slowdown in infrastructure such as reduced working hours, slow supply of building materials and spare parts to construction sites, blocking of movement of expats and service providers from foreign countries, increasing transport prices, delay in repair and maintenance work on construction equipment and lack of control over manufacturing lead times and deliver of supply and equipment imported from Europe and China.

These may also be true with how infrastructure projects go about in the Philippines. Challenges especially on the physical distancing was the common issue as well as wearing of proper personal protective equipment responsive to curb the transmission of coronavirus. Luckily, the Department of Public Works and Highways was quickly responding to this by issuing Department Order No. 39 series of 2020 released in May in time when most of the country gradually relaxed its quarantine measures. The said order prescribed construction safety guidelines for the implementation of infrastructure projects during the public health crisis.

The approved national budget has continued to show that the government relies mostly on infrastructure to keep the economy going having the second largest piece of the pie (15.4 percent or PhP695.7 Billion) behind education (16.7 percent or PhP751.7 Billion); the latter being highest as mandated by the Constitution. Although the world has seen different effects on the infrastructure sector, it seems that the Philippines has laid in place its infrastructure boom at the right time, at least. But the true indicator of the sector’s success lies on which direction the country would be going after the pandemic.

We just lost billions and it’s not from COVID-19 or PhilHealth

Did you know that, in the last 90 days as of January 18, 2021, the Philippines has about PhP7.78 Billion in economic losses due to road crash? That is about half of the money invested by the people in its state health insurance system that is missing** or an equivalent of COVID-19 vaccines good for at least 15.5 million Filipinos1. Looking at how much that is over a short period of time, it can possible translate to higher losses than what is presented on the news and all over social media.

Road crash is undeniably the least popular issue that has severe economic impacts even before the pandemic wiped out economies, big or small. According to the World Health Organization, about 1.3 million die per year due to road crash and between 20 to 50 million are injured.

Through the Data for Road Incident Visualization, Evaluation and Reporting System or DRIVER System, road crashes in the Philippines have been recorded for increasing awareness and providing relevant primary information for road safety programs investment decision-making. Although the system has been up and running for a long period of time, it can still be possible that not all road crashes are found on the system itself. Looking at it, most if not the majority of road crashes in the system only included that of Metro Manila, Central Luzon and Calabarzon. The same system noted the economic losses so far and based on the premise, the losses could be higher.

In the Philippines, three major factors need to be given attention by various sectors concerned to truly realize the goals of reduced road crash incidents by 2030 as we enter the new decade of action for road safety. These are: resources, people and governance.

It can be seen that the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and the Department of Transportation (DOTr) have been in the forefront of infrastructure development. As the Build, Build, Build program continues, a lot of investment on infrastructure has been noted over the past four years. However, these projects were mostly new projects connecting islands, road widening, upgrading, among others. The agencies lacked documentation of building safer roads or any support for that matter to indicate that roads indeed became safer because of the measures they are introducing.

With the pandemic, policies have been enhanced to promote bike commuting to which the DPWH have recently released guidelines on building bike lanes along national roads. The set of guidelines, however, is not a guarantee that roads will become safe for bike commuters. It requires strong investment support and promotion of a dedicated bike lane over the recommended option of shared use of existing roads with limited space.

It also boils down as to why we cannot simply have what other countries have for road safety, we simply do not have the resources or these resources, if available, were spent on other priorities. It can be understandable that the Philippines has so much in its hands with the pandemic itself in the limelight. Hopefully, when priorities have a vacant seat for funding, road safety will be given space.

On the other hand, people play an important role. The truest support people can give towards advocating for road safety is probably the easiest thing to do – follow rules. There are so many instances where the human factor has caused road crashes. Of the PhP7.78 Billion economic losses mentioned, PhP7.46 Billion or 96 percent was caused by human factor-induced road crashes.

Some rules are non-negotiable such as the traffic code or Republic Act No. 4136. While some are guides to ensuring travelling is safe on the part of the motor vehicle user, pedestrians and passengers alike. Unfortunately, these are sometimes not given emphasis or is simply neglected favoring convenience over safety such as not fastening of seatbelts and checking the condition of the motor vehicle prior to driving on the part of the driver or simply crossing the street in the proper designated areas on the part of the pedestrian. The list will just go on.

Lastly, it would be governance. The fact here is that the traffic code in the Philippine is very obsolete and it needs updating and more consolidation of more recent policies. In addition, road safety is just a supplemental priority on the part of the two lead agencies in Philippine transport. Why not establish a specific road safety agency which could ultimately safeguard priorities in ensuring roads and its users?

Looking over the records in Congress, there are a few of road safety governance-related bills which are just around there covered by dust. One prominent bill is the National Transportation Safety Board Act or Senate Bill No. 1077 filed by Senators Grace Poe, Ramon Revilla Jr. and Sonny Angara. The said bill would provide for a permanent oversight and coordinating agency for transportation safety encompassing road, rail, air and sea. To date, the counterpart bill from the House of Representatives is still pending.

Road safety in the Philippines lacks visible indicators proving that it is a priority. However, the synergy of the three factors mentioned would really expedite the formulation concrete measures in reducing cases of road crash. While other countries have already gotten everything figured out, the Philippines has a long way to go. It is just a matter of which factor would step in first getting support and then followed by the others. But the most definite sequence would probably be governance first, followed by resources and then finally the people. Governance will enable the acquisition of resources and with resources people could have tangible means to follow rules ensuring roads are safe.

For the moment, it is only the people that the country has and probably the best option for now is to make the most of what we can control – our actions, our collective actions – in following rules and prioritizing the safety of ourselves and others. As our economy is crippling to recover, doing our part to ensuring roads are safe for everyone will surely help. Just look at the figures.

1 Referenced from estimated price of Oxford-Astra Zeneca COVID-19 Vaccine

Recent estimations of within 90 days prior January 20, 2021 already reaches PHP7.82 Billion in economic losses.

**A letter dated January 26, 2021 from Philippine Health Insurance Corporation was sent to the writer in relation to the article published January 20, 2021 which made computational references. The writer is grateful for the response and clarification made pertaining the alleged missing funds of the state health insurance provider. The letter said that the fund worth an estimated PhP15 Billion was given to 711 health care facilities that requested to avail of the financial aid to ensure its continuous operations and acceptance of patients affected by the ongoing pandemic. On a very positive note, the letter detailed that more than 90 percent of the fund in question has been liquidated. Thus, it is refreshing to know that it is not missing after all.

With COVID-19, do jeepneys need to max out capacity?

Commuters today are not like the commuters yesterday. For nearly three months since the intense lockdown in March of 2020, jeepneys were out of service throughout the country including Iloilo City. Companies and offices which were still up and running had to provide service vehicles for their workers to ensure they limit contacts and they are coming to work. For errands, a person without a personal transport mode would have to walk. Lucky are those who could find tricycles taking risks for earning miniscule but very essential income, they can have a safe and hassle-free travel as long as they do not get caught by the police or the military making rounds.

After a few months, the economy was already crippling. The government had to change the game plan at some point to employ a dynamic strategy of keeping the public safe from the pandemic and keeping the economy afloat. Community quarantines were revised and then came into being the four quarantine classifications: enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ), general community quarantine (GCQ) and modified general community quarantine (MGCQ). These four are arranged from the most stringent to the least stringent. The last two allowed for public transportation with strict observance of minimum health standards.

According to the only available set of instructions in the omnibus guidelines on the implementation of community quarantine in the Philippines set by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases, public utility jeepneys may operate “at reduced operational and vehicle capacity in accordance with the guidelines of the Department of Transportation (DOTr) provided that, a strict one-meter distance between passengers will be observed and appropriate engineering controls shall be put in place.”

The DOTr also campaigned for pandemic-resilient public transports with commuters, drivers and operators observing the “Seven Commandments” which are as follows: (1) always wear face mask and face shield, (2) do not talk or entertain calls, (3) do not eat, (4) maintain properly ventilated and orderly vehicles, (5) disinfect often, (6) prohibit persons exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 to ride, and (7) follow proper physical distancing.

Loosely allowed and supported by officials of DOTr in press interviews but not backed in black and white, plastic barriers became the alternative in lieu of the required physical distancing. It started with jeepneys increasing their capacity to 50 percent and at present almost 100 percent with the front seat still accommodating only one passenger instead of two. The only problem with this is that the barriers are not properly maintained and disinfected and commuters would attest to that. It is a bit amusing to see all those barriers to maximize the seating capacity and yet some jeepneys of the same route become full and some are barely having passengers.

Plastic barriers became the alternative in jeepneys and other forms of public transport which could not have a minimum of 1.0 meter physical distancing.

Competition has become more apparent as each driver aim to get as many to cope with the operational expenses of jeeps which reach more or less PHP1,200.00 per day. It is a matter of economic survival for them.

With strict policies in mind, a typical jeepney will significantly reduce its passenger capacity to only about 35 percent. This will allow them to only accommodate seven passengers at a time if they have a normal operating capacity of 20. Synonymously, this will significantly reduce the income of drivers. To solve this, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) employed a fare adjustment from the usual PHP8.50 to PHP9.00 translating to a 50-centavo increase.

This, however, is not true in the sense. Drivers would rather opt to receive PHP10.00 in exact than make an effort to pass on change of PHP1.00. Commuters also do not want or avoid receiving change for safety reasons and convenience. It sounds like drivers at least get more and they could survive the fees they pay such as boundary (that is being paid to the operator), association fees and dues, fuel and other incidentals like terminal fees on a daily basis.

It is a pity for drivers to have a hard time making ends meet but it can be a violation of Republic Act No. 10909 or the No Shortchanging Act of 2016. For some, PHP1.00 is a tolerable pill; but for minimum wage earners who typically are the lifeblood of the business sector, it can be difficult. Competition among drivers is also another factor with the number of commuters reduced due to the shift of learning into online and modular means, the implementation of work from home arrangements and closure of some establishments which are either classified non-essential or have literally closed for good.

Based on the current reduced demand, there is a need for cooperation among drivers and operators to ensure a more equal share in transport demand to distribute their incomes fairly better among themselves. It is also very much possible to space up the gaps between plastic barriers to reduce its wear and tear occurrence. There is no need to put up as many plastic barriers to increase seating areas as demand will not really get jeepneys full in one trip.

Public transport is really an important component for a prosperous city. The COVID-19 pandemic has tested our already obsolete boundary system of public utility jeepneys which only foster to some extent unfair competition revealed by the shortage of demand at present. It is indeed a good idea to expedite the jeepney modernization program which would also standardize the wages of drivers and shift it from a demand-driven venture to a service- and quality-driven public transport system.

The reduced demand at present is an opportunity to observe proper physical distancing. And standardizing capacity of vehicles can possibly deter or properly manage competition among drivers. It is a win-win as long as nobody gets greedy.

The LTFRB and its parent DOTr should be clearer on their policy directions and support the statements they release to the press with concrete memorandum circulars and orders. It will not only reduce confusion in the local government units but also provide better interpretation for operators and protection of the drivers and the commuting public.

Do we really need to max out capacity of the jeepneys to ensure stable income for drivers? The answer could be a no because there is definitely a reduced demand. The main reason some drivers suffer is because of some drivers who hoard passengers who end up sitting elbow to elbow with a thin sheet of plastic separating them. If capacities are reduced optimally to even out the transport supply and demand, then drivers may only suffer a small reduction of income but will definitely not leave the other drivers suffering.

They should not leave others behind as they should also recover as one.

Stop blaming “government”

Life is unfair and in the Philippines, it can be worse.

I remember way back in my high school days where we are taught to pursue knowledge, to fight for what is right, to be passionate in our craft, and to love our country. This was further reinforced when I entered and led a university-wide publication where I could bluntly say that a pen is mightier than a sword. At that same period, I could recall meme-worthy disappointments of people who work in the government. From carelessly edited photographs of conducting site inspections along Manila Bay to a senator turned traffic enforcer who looked absolutely clueless of what he was doing. It seemed as if the government was a joke, my younger inexperienced self said. I even vowed not to join the ranks because I did not want to be part of that joke.

The joke is on me.

I am working in the government. This is my first tenured job. And from a shy person of being a government worker, I slowly embraced it when I met great people along the way within the agency where I belong and those whom I met in trainings, conferences and seminars. Some are even fellow campus journalists from other schools who chose to work for the government. I saw a great deal in myself and others becoming catalysts of change in nation-building. This was until I clearly saw the line.

In coming up with the government budget (in a nutshell), each government agency has to prepare what we call the budget proposal to the Department of Budget and Management (DBM). Then with the aid of the competent people of DBM the President and the Cabinet come up with the National Expenditure Program (NEP). The NEP then undergoes deliberation in the Congress – the Lower House scrutinize and see to it only priorities and those authorized are funded until they establish the House General Appropriations Bill (HGAB). The Upper House also get an equal opportunity to inspect each item being funded. This is followed by a bicameral deliberation of the legislature and finally the bill is passed for the President’s approval and enactment into law.

While it is politically correct to say that the government is behind all this suffering, it is more prudent to look for the root-cause – decision-makers.

This gives a very basic but clear picture of who really has a say on what the government’s priorities are. Though people in the government agencies could prioritize what their competent and qualified staff are proposing in terms of programs, projects and activities, what the Filipino people will get is what the legislature, and eventually the President, has sifted.

This comes to a realization on my part, the government has two sets of workers: the leaders (politicians and their political appointees) and the civil servants. I belong to the latter. Civil servants, as definitions suggest, serve all citizens and must be highly skilled individuals who achieve their positions by merit and operate in the interest of the general public.  Meanwhile the other set are those who earn their posts by election and by appointment, respectively, with minimum requirements like age and nationality mandated by the Constitution.

Currently, we are being smashed by one typhoon and then the next. It seemed like the Philippines is the unluckiest for 2020, adding more salt to the open wounds caused by COVID-19. The social media has gone wild and blames the government for all this.

While it is politically correct to say that the government is behind all this suffering, it is more prudent to look for the root-cause – decision-makers. Civil servants can only do so much but at the end of the day, no matter how much empowered we are, the biggest and grandest change can only be done by our leaders. We can only recommend (or rant) but what has to be followed is theirs. They even seldom give credit where it is due when a civil servant is behind their successful programs.

This is not to generalize all of our leaders. While we have some exemplary leaders who have been with the citizenry through thick and thin, who have been faithfully delivering their duty to the Filipino people, we have a handful of those who are otherwise. Besides, quarantine violations can lead you to a higher post, being merely friends yet not really qualified gets you places, and being up there gets you more privileges unimaginable like being able not to share your statement of assets, liabilities and net worth.

Civil servants have had a fair share of the blame of why Filipinos believe their government has failed them just because they belong to the bureaucracy. Sometimes, I just feel guilty because on a personal note, I believe that Filipinos deserve more and we, the young visionaries of the government, are committed to give them just that.

If you are a civil servant, always choose integrity over political reciprocity. Be loyal to the people and their interests. Love your work as if the Filipino people lies in your hands.

So the next time you, the people, are disgruntled of what is happening, think of us. Think of us civil servants who continue to strive in making a better Philippines. Think of us civil servants who studied hard and worked hard to deserve our positions. Think of the minority of great leaders who stand firm with the interest of public service over personal gain.

Hold those who must be accounted for accountable. The government is by the people, of the people most importantly, for the people.

(Photo by George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News)

Some public spaces are boring for a reason

Public art are art pieces which are physically out in public. They can come in various forms like wall murals, sculptures, and even structures to some extent. Wall murals come in vibrant colors which usually attract any person’s attention. Sometimes, the wall murals become more tangible and three dimensional when they interact with the features of the wall they are painted on. Trick arts which are very popular in social media. Sculptures are also laid out in public parks and can come in various forms ranging from life-size statues, and even geometric and reflective figures. Meanwhile, some are at even larger scales wherein people could go inside it, climb up, or sit on it (which is pretty much allowed, unless explicitly prohibited).

While these are of Western origin, Filipino appreciation and the enthusiasm of local artists have resulted to various public art installations in urban areas to put in some color on the grey space. Back then, all we can see on blank and unpainted walls are graffiti that sometimes spell out unpleasant words or ultimately just forms of vandalism which damage private property .

While these are of Western origin, Filipino appreciation and the enthusiasm of local artists have resulted to various public art installations in urban areas to put in some color on the grey space.

Today, we have embraced the emergence of local visual artists for their creative expression in public spaces. The boring grey and white have been painted not just red but a spectrum of colors.  Even roads get a color fix in some countries where pavements are painted altogether to contain beautiful and eye-catching illusions. However, public art especially murals should also consider where they should be. In the first place, not all that is plain and dull can be the next canvas of a beautiful public art piece.

Meanwhile, the Department of Public Works and Highways have set a number of standards for infrastructure to ensure safety, make it more appealing and less imposing, as well as to make maintenance work easier. In fact, over the past 10 years, highway safety standards were formulated including the most recent bridge aesthetics guidelines which are benefitting Jones Bridge in Manila as well as the famous San Juanico Bridge that nears the completion of its aesthetic lighting fix.

The Daily Tribune released images of the lighting makeover of San Juanico Bridge. The said bridge is a figure of Eastern VIsayas and is the longest in the Philippines.
The restoration works and aesthetic lighting of Jones Bridge in Manila revived local tourism as some local visitors never miss a shot of this beautiful bridge. (Huawei Community)

In 2018, DPWH Secretary Mark Villar issued Department Order No. 48 mandating the inclusion of bridge aesthetics in all bridge plans. Among the salient parts of the order was setting up guidelines particularly in making bridges constructed by DPWH more attractive and less dull. Recommendations take into account visual design elements, topography, geology, visual presence, character of the area where the bridge is located, as well as rural and urban setting considerations.

One takeaway is that ornamental railings, lightings, and paint color are considered of high level of aesthetic treatment and should not define the visual statement of the bridge. Rather, its physical features should define it such as pier, deck, superstructure, and abutment. Section 4.1.1 of the guidelines heavily emphasizes that “the application of color or texture treatments is not necessary for the creation of a good-looking bridge”. Among the recommended colors are light ones which are low-maintenance considering it has less sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation. Color combination should be considered for safety reasons especially its interaction with road signs, lights, and railings. Further reference on painting requirements may be found in the DPWH Standard Specification for Highways, Bridges, and Airports, Item 411 on page 318 – 236.

Bridge maintenance is also a very difficult job. The bridge may look very fine when you pass by the carriageway of what is technically referred as superstructure, but it may have several cracks at the substructure where the girders and piers can be found. Heavily painted with intricate details will do more bad than good especially on the job of bridge inspectors. That is the main reason why you do not see much color on bridges.

Piers of a flyover in New Orleans showcase vibrant colors. Notice the wide space below which can be utilized as public space. While this is acceptable, if the bottom of the flyover is being traversed by vehicles and pedestrians, it would be difficult to identify them especially if the cars or the clothes of the pedestrians are yellow or blue in color. (Rethinking the Future)

Flyovers are also considered bridges, technically. These have the same components as bridges. All the more, these structures have been painted with the hazard mark or the black and white diagonal stripes to ensure motorists are familiar of its presence. The substructure is painted with plain colors to ensure that road signs can be easily seen as well as other vehicles. Imposing colors such as putting murals at the bottom creates a camouflage for vehicles and even pedestrians. Erring drivers should have no reason why they cannot see people crossing the street.

The DPWH also issued the Highway Safety Standards Manual Volumes 1 and 2 in 2012. The first volume includes the planning stage of highways as well as specifications of curved geometries to ensure safe maneuvering of vehicles of various sizes. The second volume highlights standard road signs and pavement markings. These standards are strongly recommended and are free to be used by local governments as well as private entities to ensure uniformity of road infrastructure across various settings since vehicles and pedestrians use them.

Nonetheless, on a safety perspective, not all that is dull and boring are blank canvases which can accommodate art.

Pedestrian crossings have also fallen prey to creativity. In fact, you can see crosswalks in a myriad of colors in some countries. Some even turned them three dimensional with trick art. These look pretty admirable and some even claim that this can deter speeding (potholes are still the best, sarcasm aside). However, just like potholes, it can cause vehicles to be confused and tricked altogether resulting to road crashes. There are various instances wherein speeding vehicles (speed kills, duh) make a sharp stop because of unfamiliar surroundings and end up into fatal crashes.

Filipinos love art and public spaces should have these for everyone to appreciate. Urban settings are very dull and lifeless without these pieces of art. These give a certain place an identity. Nonetheless, on a safety perspective, not all that is dull and boring are blank canvases which can accommodate art. It can possibly do more harm than good. Thus, careful planning of where to install public art is needed and should be consulted with public safety professionals. After all, a city offers a lot of canvas not just on roads and transport infrastructure. Alleys, perimeter fences, and walls purposely built for that purpose can serve as spaces for murals. Parks and large indoor setting which are not traversed by vehicles, in particular, can host sculptures and statues where spectators can just sit on the side and appreciate the artistic expression and the beauty of the city.

PH issues landmark guidelines on bike lanes

The Iloilo Diversion Road is considered a Class I or a high-standard bike lane based on the guidelines.

Photo by Sunstarph

The Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and the Department of Transportation (DOTr) has finally convened and formulated a well-coordinated set of guidelines for installation and provision of bike lanes in national roads.

This came after the DPWH released Department Order No. 88 Series of 2020 on September 30 prescribing guidelines on the design of bicycle facilities along national roads. Though the guidelines were drafted by the DPWH Bureau of Design, this was concurred by the transportation department.

Salient points include the classification of the bicycle facilities into three classes: Class I or Shared Use Path or Bike Path, Class II or Separated Bike Lane using either pavement markings or physical separator, and Class III or Shared Roadway. Class I is completely separated from the roadway designated for bicycles and/or pedestrians such as the one in Sen. Benigno S. Aquino Jr. Ave or Diversion Road. Class II is more common in Iloilo City like the ones on the road with green paint on.  Class III can accommodate primarily bicycles but if demand is growing, it can be allotted for vehicular traffic.

This bike lane falls under the Class II or Shared Roadway where the bicycles and vehicles occupy the road and bicycle lanes are provided either separated by green pavement marking as shown here or physical barriers. (Aksyon Radyo Photo)

In Philippine history, this may be a landmark set of guidelines of DPWH telling its stakeholders that it takes its job as the country’s infrastructure arm seriously. The 59-page guidelines prescribe standards for bicycle operating spaces on roads and bridges, conflict areas (including road intersections, driveways and commercial spaces, and transit stops), grade-separated crossings, compliance with accessibility law, road signs and markings, bikeway facility and maintenance, parking facilities and amenities, harmony with existing utilities, and lane width reduction for roads and bridges. In addition, the guidelines take into account best practices from all over the world such as the United States Federal Highway Administration, American Association of State Highways and Transportation Officials and ipv Delft, a consulting company in the Netherlands.

The guidelines will apply mandatory to new road projects or future expansion of off-carriageway works of DPWH. Deviations on the said guidelines according to the Department Order may be subject to evaluation of the Bureau of Design of the DPWH Central Office and approval of the Undersecretary for Technical Services. While better infrastructure will be expected by cycling enthusiasts and bike commuters soon, road sharing policies are still not being issued by the DOTr. However, with new facilities sprouting on the roadside and cycling population constantly on the rise, demands for legislation in the local and national levels to maximize the use of these cycling facilities will become imperative in the next years.

Digital Isolation: When the PH gov’t disagrees with Facebook

The night of September 28, 2020 in the Philippines could be the start of the end.

After the social media giant of 2.70 billion average users Facebook shut down several allegedly fake accounts run by the Philippine police and military, the country’s chief executive finds it no longer useful in the government’s campaigns and advocacies. Ultimately, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte threatens to stop Facebook once and for all in the archipelago.

While issues are still fresh and questions as to whether this can be possible are flowing all over social media, here is a list of some countries where Facebook is banned. We will try to find out the reasons behind such shutdowns and how these grounds could apply in the local context.

People’s Republic of China

Without Facebook, China has its own social media platforms that are regulated by the government.

Would you imagine that the social media giant was shut down in China for almost ten years already? This was primarily triggered during the 2009 Urumqi Riots after activists campaigning for the independence of Xinjiang Province utilized Facebook for communication purposes. While it is still free to use the said social media platform in China’s Special Administrative Regions like Hong Kong and Macau, Facebook is currently working on a censorship project for the red giant, where a third party would be allowed to regulate the platform and of course, control popular stories that come around. Considering the big number of social media users, courting the country that could generate income would seem a very good idea at the cost of censorship.

Iran

Fear of the opposition mainly triggered the ban of Facebook in Iran. After its national election in 2009 swirled up by pre-election violence, communications blocking, alleged vote rigging and coup attempt, it was imperative for the government to close the red curtains for the social media platform. The Iranian government suspected that scheduled protests especially opposition movements were organized in the website.

Israel

While both countries mentioned have quite some down time for Facebook, the social media giant has managed to become close friends with Israel. As the social network was availed freely by its citizens, the freedom became translucent in 2016 when its government worked with Facebook to remove content deemed as incitement. Following this, the country became known to have the most openly cooperative relationship with the platform as its judiciary boasted that it removed most of the latter’s requested content. It came to a point that Facebook and Israel would sit down together to determine which accounts stay and which ones are removed due to incitement.

Come elections in 2018, thousands were banned from Facebook which made critics unhappy as they claim that the privilege was used as a way to block Palestinian civilians, activists, and journalists. They argue that once posts relate to disputes, Israel tags it as encouraging violence.

It is also believed that there is much influence by the government to Facebook given that a former Israeli government worker is Facebook’s head of policy in Israel. This, however, dispelled claims when the said Facebook executive clarified that they do receive requests from the government but are not bound to implement them.

North Korea

Yes, there is Facebook to entertain the most entitled citizens of this closed country. This, however, came to a close in 2016 when the North Korean government began to crack down the social media platform due to concerns of spreading online information. While this country is being secretive of its whereabouts with the world, it cannot simply let its elite spread what is really going on in their land. The North Korean government, though, still offers loose privileges to those who have special permissions. Generally, without the permission, it can mean jail time for who knows how long and how many generations.

Its active practice of branding political opponents as terrorists and communists in social media will come as the government’s Achilles heel.

Could the Philippines be next?

We cannot simply find the reason why the Philippines could not be next. Taking into account that there is several precedence, our clock is ticking while the government finds the right channels to do so.

Without Facebook in the Philippines, the platform also needs to consider what happens to it while it loses nearly 75 million active users. It is also worth mentioning that Facebook has 92.7 percent market share in the social media market in the country. This may also translate to economic losses to those who have their income based on Facebook coming from direct and indirect online selling as well as other informal and unconfirmed means by posting, sharing and liking of various content.

It can be a long way

For the four countries which were discussed, a much common denominator is an external force that propagates activism in various proportions which may come in forms of chat messages, links to other websites, and possibly even fake news which the platform has been very active in cracking down. It can be deemed that the government has not violated any Facebook policy to which the latter has confidence in the legitimacy of the former’s requests.

Ironically, Facebook removed fake accounts linked to the police and military for violating its policy against foreign or government interference which defines it as “coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign or government entity”. The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab pointed out posts as early as 2015 which included “red-tagging” of the critics of the current administration. Its active practice of branding political opponents as terrorists and communists in social media will come as the government’s Achilles heel. With that level of being inauthentic, who would Facebook believe? Either way, the government may choose to block it once and for all. But this decision is very critical not only for those who are against this move but also to those who have been dependent on this social  media platform in one way or another, including the government itself.

Why Western Visayas could host smart cities

If you’ve been to Singapore or Dubai, you’re probably much aware of the technology that is applied in their transport system. It’s no wonder why people who live there generally patronize its public transport. With the on-the-dot departure and arrival times, coupled with state-of-the-art facilities, seamless transfers and intermodality, it seems like a dream come true for Filipinos.

But did you know that the government through the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) has invested for the development of a smart transport system for Region VI?

A screen grab from the ATLAS App
(STARPLAN VI Photo)
A visualization of how the passenger count system works. It detects movement of those coming in and out of the bus. (STARPLAN VI Photo)

The Sustainable Technology-Assisted Route Planning or STARPLAN VI project is a DOST-Philippine Council of Industry, Energy, and Emerging Technology Research and Development (PCIEERD)-funded project implemented by researchers from the Intelligent Systems Laboratory (ISL) and the Sustainable Mobility Laboratory (SML) of De La Salle University in Manila.

The team aims to develop technologies such as the bus passenger counter and its communication system to transmit data, a mobile application for tracking land- and sea-based public transport by commuters, the public utility vehicle (PUV) scheduling tool, and the infrastructure assessment tool are important to support the public transport planning system and management of Western Visayas making it efficient, safe, reliable and sustainable.

As an unpopular opinion, true progress is seen when the upper class of society uses public transport and relies on it without the need of having private cars. Thus, the team finds an urgency to focus more research on how to improve the public transport system of the country in order to attract more people in using it and to eventually shift from the use of private vehicles.

Bus operators and bus companies are seen to benefit from the Advanced Traveler Assistance System (ATLAS) which offers real-time bus tracking, passenger count report generation, data analytics, and fleet management database. With this tool, it can be easy for operators to ensure proper seating of passengers as to bus capacity as well as added benefits on passenger alighting monitoring. The same application has a counterpart for drivers and prospective passengers. Estimated destination arrival can be updated at real time by accessing traffic information from third-party sources.

The team also has developed a scheduling system that will go with the datasets.

One problem with the current bus transport is the counting of passengers going in and out of the bus which is being done manually. Another technology developed under the STARPLAN VI project is the enhanced bus passenger counter which makes use of a smart algorithm capable of real-time person detection and as a result, fully automates the passenger counting process.

Making transport seamless in the islands of Panay, Guimaras, and Negros, the project also includes a Transport Planner using a world-class transport planning software EMME4. Land transport is stitched together with maritime transport to improve decision making in optimizing transport modes in a properly scheduled manner.

A screen capture of EMME-4 showing the Bacolod City Transport Master Plan (STARPLAN VI Photo)

Also added to the string of applications in the project is their economic assessment tool that will assist in the evaluation of proposed infrastructure projects. The tool aims to process data on travel time, vehicle operating costs, environmental effects, road crash, and vehicular flow to model intermodal sectoral effects of changes in the transport sector.

One ingenious application that I personally like in a demo they’ve done is the Catch-All Visual Intelligence which I believe will be beneficial in contactless apprehensions of traffic violators. The technology includes that of recognizing and recording license plates, pedestrian detection, and vehicle type detection. The system can be integrated with the traffic signalization to instantly detect violators.

A footage of Catch-All detecting moving vehicles in an intersection in Manila during its test run. (STARPLAN VI Photo)

Their latest development so far that has a multitude of benefits if deployed for use is their Optimal Locations and Allocations of Personnel or OLAP. It optimizes allocation for health care and security personnel among checkpoints using advanced technology such as spatial and face recognition. It does not record the biometric data but rather simply detects proper wearing of masks and social distancing.

A demonstration of how sensitive the camera’s algorithms are is shown here. Those who are close with each other are highlighted by red boxes. People are also counted and a rating of how social distancing is observed is also reflected. (STARPLAN VI Photo)

Truly, these tech innovations may be a bit behind when competed with the rest of the world. However, this promising feat that fuses engineering fields and information technology can lead the country to better mobility. While the capital seem to be having too much development and struggling to keep up with its transport demands, the Western Visayas with its steady growth has the highest potential in the dynamics of economic growth. Nevertheless, Iloilo City will be the top beneficiary of these innovations should they consider implementing these innovations in the coming years. Being the regional center, it has the initial resources needed for the success of implementing such toward a development of an intelligent transport system. I do personally hope that this pursuit would get much attention from stakeholders and ultimately support from the transport department and local government.

I am a proud product of a school paper

The best part of joining the school paper is having the opportunity to join competitions to see how your publication fares with other schools. It also tells you whether your team has done a good job.

Society has dictated that an engineer with good communication skills is a difficult find.

When I got employed, I became a regular resource person in online journalism of the PIA in their campus journalism seminars.

The skills I developed while I was in the organization gave me quite an edge when I was job-hunting.

Through PIA, I was also able to hold sessions on journalism with various government agencies and local government agencies. In this photo, I am lecturing on mobile photography as a new generation photojournalism with the information officers of the Iloilo Provincial Government.

As an engineer who currently works for the government, I must say that how I developed much of my skills in writing, talking to people, conducting trainings, among others can be much attributed to my days as a campus journalist. Society has dictated that an engineer with good communication skills is a difficult find. I took on that challenge and even ended up with some trade-offs in college, and for me, it was all worth it.

I joined the University of San Agustin Publications during my freshman year. That time, I could barely even write. I just have that certain ability in my mind that told me if the things I wrote had correct grammar or not. However, being a campus journalist (trying to convince myself then), it was beyond just good words and grammar. You have to develop your own style of writing and each type of article has its own structure to make it effective communication materials for the reader. Thankfully, I had awesome seniors who taught me how to develop my own style, how to conduct interviews, and many extras in college like drinking alcohol (it is pretty normal).

It develops your passion

When we joined our first competitions, we weren’t really the best. And somehow, it got me and the rest of the team so obsessed to upgrade our paper. We spent extra time learning computer software in designing the layout of the publications, creating illustrations, and even to some extent, video editing as we continued to adapt to the modern age of journalism. This passion for work (probably) led me to become editor-in-chief during my third year in college. Along the way, I earned opportunities working with editors of other school publications and government agencies especially the Philippine Information Agency during journalism trainings.

However, during that same year, I had to make an unavoidable decision whether or not to choose between academics and being a journo. I tried my very best to manage both until circumstances led me to choosing the latter and leaving my bid to graduate cum laude in my degree. This really hit me hard but eventually I was able to bounce back convincing myself that this loss won’t go to waste. I worked hard together with the rest of my organization to win a lot of titles in journalism competitions in the regional and national levels. It is a matter of compensating but for me that time, it was already fulfilling.

Summing up the college sequel, I still managed to graduate with academic distinction. I remember one professor tell me that I was “sayang” or a pity for losing my cum laude bid but I was confident with my reply that my college life was happy and full of colors.

It develops resilience when things get rough

During my board exam review, however, I had some hints of regrets at first. I felt a bit behind in the preparation. I was confused to the point of already foreseeing myself not becoming an actual engineer. To be honest, I was only ready for the board exam two weeks before it would actually take place despite of the six-month preparation that I had. I studied harder in the few remaining days and tried to really put my mindset to passing the board exams. I simply recalled our journey as a school paper when we put on extra effort to etch our names on the top of the podium as winners. We had that goal and so I wore the same game face to pass the board exams. With a high level of motivation, prayer, and luck, I managed to earn the four letters at first try, Engr.

It is a source of competence in the long run

Joining a school organization especially the paper is really time-consuming. Sometimes, you will reach the point of choosing between your academics and the organization. Putting things straight, academics is important. For me I chose the organization but with the condition that I will still manage to graduate on time and to get that title of engineer. The skills I developed while I was in the organization gave me quite an edge when I was job-hunting. I was able to present myself well during job interviews. I was able to prepare visually appealing and organized resumes for my job applications. I knew how to write application letters. On-the-job, I am already used to pressure. I am innovative in completing projects and beating deadlines. Most importantly, I knew how to take responsibility and accountability of things assigned to me.

Not all organizations in college are created equal and it entirely depends on how you discipline yourself and identify your priorities. For me, joining the USA Publications or any school paper is beneficial in college to prepare you in the real world. You get the competencies that is needed by companies and you develop a mindset of continuous growth when challenges at work are along the way.

The Fading Bike Lanes: Weighing in on weather and demand

Just a few days after the netizens have lauded the initiative of the local government to provide bike lanes through donations of paint, the rainy weather seem to have messed with us. Photos have been spreading around about how the paint of the bike lanes were stripped off by the heavy rains in the past few days.

As a backgrounder, the color green is actually a United States-standard color interim-approved by the Federal Highway Administration of the US Department of Transportation. This has been published in its Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The color was selected after a number of experiments in the US and several countries to select which one could properly communicate that the certain portion of the roadway is for the use of bicyclists. Green and blue were among the top picks with the former being the color that we have in Iloilo City. Additionally, the MUTCD has emphasized the need for consideration of selecting materials that would minimize loss of traction for bicyclists.

For bike lanes to perform its optimal function and durability, cross-linking acrylic polymers or similar thermoplastic materials should be used. If circumstances could provide, the green lanes may also be textured for additional slip resistance during wet pavement conditions as well as added durability.

In the case of Iloilo City, reports say that the local government engineering office stated that latex paint was used for the pavement. Latex is actually an umbrella of paint types and acrylic is one of them. Based on Ennis-Flint America, a roadway paint company, latex paint can be used for both asphalt and concrete pavement. In preparation, the road surface must be clean and free from dust and loose debris. The road surface must be dry for at least 24 hours since measurable and observable rain. After painting, the surface must not be exposed to rain for at least four hours.

It can be observed that for many days, the weather was not favorable. It can be possible that due to the warm-to-cold variable weather conditions, the integrity of the paint material was affected. Rain is the ultimate enemy of any construction project which includes painting. Netizens have suggested that the paint could have been covered. However, the cover would not help. Pavements have a certain cross-sectional grade to ensure water does not pond in the middle of the carriageway. The small incline leads the run-off water to the sides towards the gutter. Thus, if the paint was covered, still the run-off water would seep underneath the cover and still damage the paint.

Come to think of it, the damage could have been prevented if the weather was properly monitored prior to implementation of the project. There are various sources online where we can see the weather in the coming days and that in turn would help us decide when to implement the painting work. The rush may have come from the demands of stakeholders for the facilities to be installed as bike commuters have increased in the wake of the pandemic. Thus, we cannot totally blame the city for wanting to serve us fast. While the local government is keeping up with the demands of the citizenry which all of us appreciate, it is also prudent for its implementers to make sure resources will not go entirely to waste.

Just days ago, these were bright green bike lanes serving the growing bike commuter population in the Philippines’ most bike-friendly city. And after a few rains, the green marks and the confidence of the biking community with Iloilo City’s commitment to providing great infrastructure for them is threatening to fade.

The road surface must be dry for at least 24 hours since measurable and observable rain. After painting, the surface must not be exposed to rain for at least four hours.