Tricycles: As iconic as jeepneys and just as problematic

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Cheap, but effective motorized tricycles carry passengers and cargo on the busy, polluted streets in the Philippines.

(CNN Philippines) — As of 2012, there were over 658,675 for-hire tricycles and motorcycles operating in the Philippines, accounting for nearly 67.9% of the total for-hire vehicle population.

They outnumber the combined total of for-hire cars, utility vehicles, buses, trucks, and trailers, according to figures from the National Statistical Coordination Board.

And yet, the tricycle is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about Filipino transportation.

Though a major part of the daily commute of many Filipinos nationwide, tricycles are often left playing second fiddle to the much popular jeepney.

Related: PINK jeepneys: Looking good for the rush hours

However, the trikes themselves can speak just as much about the Filipino identity as their four-wheeled counterparts.

Tricycles were legalized in October 1985 — a few months before the People Power Revolution — when then-President Ferdinand Marcos released Letter of Instruction No. 1482, which recognized “that the tricycle plays an important role, in the existing public transportation hierarchy in municipalities, where it is, in most cases, the primary means of transportation.”

Limited regulation

Just like the jeepney, tricycles have become a Filipino cultural icon. Many regard them as an epitome of Filipino ingenuity, because the vehicles are an amalgam of different parts and materials — some aluminum here, some screen wire there, perhaps even an air freshener to boot. There is no standardized design. No two are exactly alike.

However, as is the case with all forms of public transportation, the tricycle draws just as much ire as esteem. The national government bares a limited scope of regulation over the vehicles.

Under the Local Government Code, local governments units (LGUs) are ultimately the ones that grant franchises and supervise operations.

Nevertheless, they are subject to guidelines set by the Department of Transportation and Communications through the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board.

Because of this, LGUs have different guidelines in supervising tricycles. Departments responsible for these aspects differ from one locale to another.

Quezon City, for example, has its Department of Public Order and Safety.

Makati, on the other hand, maintains the Makati Franchising Board.

Mandaluyong supervises tricycles through its Traffic Management and Parking Office.

Would-be tricycle drivers would need to meet a set of conditions and secure several documents before they start carrying passengers. Generally speaking, they need to show their Land Transportation Office (LTO) registration, a barangay clearance for their area of operation, and pay registration fees.

Some LGUs have more requirements.

Mandaluyong, for instance, mandates that all tricycle drivers must be bona fide residents of the city and must maintain accident insurance. It also requires tricycles to carry garbage receptacles and equip silencers to their exhaust pipes.

Tricycle drivers are only allowed to operate within a fixed boundary. These boundaries are divided according to the different Tricycle Operators and Drivers’ Associations (TODAs) of an LGU.

TODAs essentially form the backbone of the tricycle driving sector, given the fact that would-be tricycle drivers must secure a TODA’s permission before operating within a boundary. Tricycles that belong to the same TODA also share the same colors.

Exposed to corruption

Granted that decentralization gives LGU’s direct and greater room for supervision, there are times when the system is exposed to corruption.

Vincent (not his real name), a tricycle driver from Mandaluyong, alleged that he has experienced corruption with the city government.

“May siningil sila na hindi dapat kasama sa bayad (city government fees),  he said.

He was referring to an incident in 2009 when transport unions in Mandaluyong filed a complaint to the Office of the Ombudsman against former Mandaluyong traffic and parking chief Luisito Espinosa for allegedly defrauding the city’s transport operators by collecting illegal fees.

Vincent alleged that in 2008, Espinosa mandated drivers of jeepneys, tricycles and pedicabs that operate in Mandaluyong to secure an annual driver’s ID costing P100 – or else they would have to pay a large fine.

Drivers would have had to obtain the document from the Federation of Mandaluyong Drivers’ Association (FEMANDA), a cooperative, and pay the ID fee.

Incidents like this are not just limited to Metro Manila.

In a privilege speech before his city’s council last year, Vice Mayor Ronnie Dadivas of Capiz City, Roxas accused the city’s Tricycle Franchise Regulatory Unit of illegally selling tricycle franchises.

He noted how in one case, three permits were allegedly issued for a single tricycle number, with three different fees ranging from P8,700 to P35,000 to three respective people.

Sources of pollution and crime

On the other end of the table, tricycle drivers themselves have been accused of breaking the law.

Citing statistics released by the DOTC in 2014, the Land-Based Transport Governance in the Philippines: Focus on Metro Manila report published by the Ateneo de Manila University last year notes that tricycles and motorcycles are responsible for 45% of all volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions.

VOCs are a large group of compounds that include benzene, a known carcinogen, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which destroy the ozone layer. The group also includes carbon dioxide, which significantly contributes to the greenhouse effect, and carbon monoxide, a toxic gas.

According to the Roadmap for Transport and Infrastructure Development for Metro Manila and Its Surrounding Areas by the National Economic Development Authority and the Japan International Cooperation Agency published in 2014, jeepneys, motorcycles, and tricycles are a major source of particulate matter in Metro Manila. Particulate matter are inhalable particles of chemicals and dust. They are the same particles that collect in your typical white air filtration systems, subsequently turning them black.

And of course, there is also the constant issue of illegal terminals, which block the flow of traffic. It’s easy to spot them out. They form when tricycles line up against the flow of traffic and occupy nearly a quarter of the road.

Tricycle terminals operate on a first-in, first-out basis. All vehicles need to line up to get passengers. That can be a big problem if there is a shortage of passengers and an oversupply of tricycles in a fixed boundary — it boils down to the basic economic law of supply and demand. In such cases, tricycle terminals become bottlenecks.

An illegal terminal exists in Vincent’s boundary. He explains that such was born out of a need rather than convenience. “Sa sobrang dami namin, lugi na kami kung isang terminal lang dito.”

Although he does not use the terminal himself, some of his fellow tricycle have been doing so. Nevertheless, it still benefits him — fewer tricycles in the legal terminal equates to a shorter waiting time. He explains that before the illegal terminal, he had to wait nearly two hours in line for his turn to pick up passengers. Now, he says that his waiting time has been reduced to about 30 minutes on a busy day. “Dumami pa 'yung trip ko.”

Safety concerns

There is also an issue with tricycle safety. Because no national design standard exists, the vast majority of tricycles have not been engineered with safety in mind.

“With maximum speeds of 40 kilometers per hour, a tricycle is a ‘fish out of water’ when it enters a highway stream. Because it is small and may be obscured by bigger vehicles or concealed by a driver’s blind spot, a tricycle is more vulnerable to collision than is a passenger car,” says Robert Cervero in his book, Informal Transport in the Developing World.

“Sudden stops can also result in accidents since brakes are fitted only to the motorcycle wheels and not with the sidecar,” Cervero adds.

“The present situation is the result of no policy/no regulation on design and consumer welfare on tricycles,” note the authors of Development of Emission and Engine Testing Procedures and Standard Sidecar Design Prototype for Tricycles — a study published in the Journal of the Eastern Asia Society for Transportation Studies.

“The tricycle sidecar fabrication industry is an informal small business enterprise. There is no available data as to the exact number operating across the country because those that engage in the business are essentially welding shops.”

The study found that a typical tricycle sidecar is undersized and lacks the implementation of proper engineering principles.

“Tricycles are normally overloaded. In many instances, the load consideration is just the passenger while other factors are overlooked – motorcycle weight, sidecar weight, road friction, humps and pavement.

"This is due to the fact that motorcycles are primarily single-unit vehicles not intended for more than two people. But since the three-wheeler concept came into practice it was converted to tricycles. This design is prone to torsion generated by the sidecar during momentum. This is a clear indication of poor engineering concepts, and an explanation this design never prospered as public transport vehicle in other places [out of the Philippines].”

The study believes that tricycle designs should look back to the past for a more efficient design.

“(T)he better format is what can be called as "calesa type" where the driver is seated at the front like old horse-drawn carriages or even the tuk-tuk (the Thai equivalent of the tricycle). This results into a balanced load distribution, rigid structure, better aesthetics and more spacious and convenient.”

Reforms underway

Nevertheless, there are signs of reform.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB), for example, has partnered with the Philippine government in promoting electric tricycles. It launched a pilot project in Mandaluyong in 2011.

Under the ADB’s program, tricycle drivers are given the opportunity to lease or lease-to-own such electric vehicles at a cost of less than P200 a day.

The organization explains that e-trikes allow drivers to have a higher take-home income.

“(A) conventional tricycle needs between five and seven liters of gasoline to travel approximately 100 kilometers (km), costing 250 to 350 pesos. To travel the same 100 km, an e-trike will use between three kilowatt hours (kWh) and 5 kWh of electricity, costing only 30 to 50 pesos. The 200 peso difference in fuel savings will help the driver pay for the cost of the e-trike,” the organization said in a statement.

The ADB and the government hope to see about 100,000 electric tricycles on the road by 2017.

"Replacing 100,000 gas-powered trikes will save the Philippines $110 million a year in avoided fuel imports, while decreasing annual CO2 emissions by 260,000 tons," the statement adds.