When market preference rejects a state mandate

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IN the entirety of the pandemic period, people who have been commuting between Metro Manila and areas in Central Luzon and Northern Luzon, which for all intents and purposes represent the market, have unilaterally rejected a government-mandate, which was to use the North Luzon Express Terminal (NLET) private exchange in Bocaue, Bulacan as boarding and disembarkation point, the last stop of their trips from the provinces. Which would require them to take double or triple trips to their final destination in Metro Manila proper.

And they take the same torturous path on their return to their provinces.

The result of this rejection is predictable. Provincial buses forced to use the NLET because of a mandatory undertaking to use it as an end point for their Metro Manila trips have found their NLET trips an exercise in futility. There is a Tagalog term that aptly describes the result of their NLET usage: nilalangaw. Trips all for nothing, except to waste diesel and desperation on the part of the bus crew.

The market, even with the limited options on mobility, refused to patronize the state-mandated terminal. This is a case where the government has no or zero leverage on the choice of the market.

The government’s pitch that the use of the NLET is a safer and convenient way to travel has failed to wash. The commuters don’t want the double or triple rides to their city destinations, the waiting time for connecting trips, the additional fares, the feeling that the government has no right to dump them in terminals in the middle of nowhere. To the commuting public, the collective sense is that the NLET is a burdensome, unnecessary imposition from the government. In the pandemic times at that, a time when the government should be a source of aid, not burdensome impositions.

Commuters, the market, have been steadfast in their verdict, unequivocal refusal to use the NLET. To move to the city, they ride colorum (vehicles without franchise) vans that take them to the city proper despite the higher costs. Some of these vans offer “door-to-door ” trips. Or wait for the very few buses that have managed to get special permits to operate before the Land Transportation Regulatory and Franchising Board ordered them to sign a certificate of undertaking that they can only run if they use the NLET as end point for their Central Luzon and Northern Luzon trips. Or wait also for the few provincial point-to-point, or P2P, buses, which run terminal-to-terminal.

The rejection of the state-mandated directive to use the NLET has led to the proliferation of colorum vans, which are beyond the monitoring capacities of transport law enforcement units. Private cars also operate on the sly to transport commuters to their final destinations in Metro Manila. Even the whole apparatuses of the LTFRB, Land Transportation Office and Highway Patrol Group are inadequate to check on these colorum operations.

The market (the commuters) made a full public display of its rejection of the NLET during the busy Yuletide season. Starting on December 23, provincial commuters started the wait for buses at the Quezon City-based private terminals of the bus companies operating in Central Luzon and Northern Luzon, patiently waiting for rides, even with the full knowledge that, under the LTFRB ruling, they should get their rides at the Bocaue-based NLET. The long lines, at times, stretched to 200 meters long. The optics of a mass of humanity crowding all the terminals was bad for the government, a manifest sign of cruelty in the season of hope and joy and kindness. That forced the LTFRB, the most vocal proponent of the NLET use, to issue an order that allowed all the provincial bus operators to run their pre-pandemic routes for three days (December 23, 24 and 25 ). The sense of liberation on the part of the Central Luzon and Northern Luzon commuters was palpable, as was the sense of relief from not being forced to go to Bocaue to get rides to their provinces at the NLET terminal.

Today, it is back to square one for commuters. They take the colorum vans, private cars and the very few buses that are slowed to bypass the NLET edict for their rides to the city proper. They would rather take these transport options than use the NLET.

The kerfuffle resulting from the market’s rejection of the government-mandated NLET stop is a classic case of a government mandate — the use of the halfway terminal as the end point for provincial bus commuters from most areas of Central Luzon and Northern Luzon–clashing with the preference of the market, which in this case are the people moving from the two regions to Metro Manila on a regular basis and collectively want to bypass the NLET.

Something has got to give to end the standoff, and in this case it is the government that should factor in the preference of the market even with the over-the-top support for the NLET. Even an all-powerful government cannot legislate, cannot dictate, land transport choices of commuters over which the government has zero leverage. From the point of view of the market, the NLET mandate is a wrong burdensome policy that forces them to take double or triple rides to their final destinations in Metro Manila.

It is not even safe from a Covid-19 protection perspective. How can multiple bus companies that hypothetically converge at a single terminal, the NLET, be safer than passengers disembarking at the private terminals of the bus companies in the city proper where triages and monitoring points can be properly set up — and where the Inter-Agency Task Force can pinpoint responsibility and accountability?

The state mandate on the NLET use, in the final analysis, is a drag on mobility and a drag on mobility is a drag on growth. At this point, the economic team of Mr. Duterte should carry out a welcome intervention and point out that transport and mobility choices of the vast commuting public cannot be set by state decrees. Central Luzon turns out 17 percent to 19 percent of yearly national output, and the NCR (National Capital Region or Metro Manila) and Southern Luzon contribute around 70 percent of GDP.

The market has spoken and the state mandate has proven, eminently, its uselessness. The mandate of the market should now have primacy in the setting of transport and mobility policies. The whole point of government here is to help the NLET owners. It can do that through some other creative ways, not through burdening a defiant market.