BACK in 2018, ride-sharing company Grab picked up all of Uber’s assets in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. While the Philippine Competition Commission and the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) at the time reviewed the deal’s “review” moves, Grab was able to establish what amounted to a sanctioned monopoly by the government.
Until recently, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for consumers around Metro Manila (Grab doesn’t operate much beyond the greater metro area), company currently included. In the interest of full disclosure, I personally spend an average of 3,000-4,000 pesos per month through Grab, for transportation, food and package delivery, cell phone charging, and occasional purchases in my local convenience store when I’m too lazy to walk the extra half block to get cash from the ATM.
Not only is Grab useful and convenient, but it’s also been widely respected as a corporate citizen, unlike some of its competitors. At the height of the pandemic, the company stood out for supporting its workforce; no Grab driver or delivery person we spoke to during this time expressed anything but gratitude for the company’s efforts to ensure their financial and physical well-being and that of their families.
Unfortunately, as things returned to “normal”, Grab’s diligence in meeting the challenges of the moment faded away. Amid the worst public transport crisis in recent memory, its ride-sharing service – which is, again, the only such alternative allowed by its captured regulators – has become completely inaccessible to most customers. Before the pandemic, it was not at all unusual to have difficulty booking rides during peak hours, but now the problem occurs at any time of the day or night. With the sharp reduction in the number of taxis in service, which is a consequence of both the existence of Grab and the economic difficulties caused by the pandemic, and other public transport options also being reduced, at best, to a a time-consuming and virtually unworkable mess, Grab’s absence only compounds the mobility crisis.
As for what Grab has to say for himself, the answer is “not much.” Borrowing a maddening page from the Globe customer service playbook, Grab has removed all real human interaction from its customer communication tools. Instead, any complaint or question about an unavailable service receives an automated boilerplate response (with appropriate friendly emojis) that goes back to “Sorry, you’re having trouble, but the only solution is to wait for the situation to clear up.” ‘improved”.
Admittedly, complaints about Grab’s service, or lack thereof, are inevitably a bit elitist, as not everyone can afford it. If, however, there was a network of other fast, reliable and convenient public transport options, no one would need to afford it. As things stand, the government has found the worst possible way to create equality, by letting transport become equally terrible for everyone.
The solution to all this will take time, and the lack of attention given to the issue by either of the two contenders to replace outgoing President Duterte does not bode well for an improvement in the situation of so early. That being the case, we might hope that Grab and the operators of taxis and other forms of road transport will understand that there is a high unmet demand and find ways to meet it. This would provide some short-term relief, but is far from a real solution; of all the different public transport options available, low-volume motor vehicles are the least efficient and least environmentally sustainable. Still, in the absence of better options, it’s better than nothing.
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While we’re on the subject of vehicles, it may be worth paying some attention to Republic Act 11697, the law intended to regulate and promote the development of electric vehicles (EVs) in the Philippines. The measure was signed (or allowed to lapse, depending on who asks) by President Duterte on April 15.
As is typical of the lazy manner in which Congress creates most laws, RA 11697 is short on specifics and long on “we’ll find out later with a ‘roadmap’ and ‘implementation’. rules and regulations “”. The new law, however, is that it will set a quota for parking areas (apparently those with 20 or more slots) to establish dedicated EV slots and charging stations.
Electric vehicles are a problematic idea for many reasons; the two most important being their reliance on exotic materials, which cannot be mined and processed in a way that even remotely resembles an environmentally sustainable way, and the fact that in most countries electricity necessary to feed them is still largely generated by fossil fuels. This is certainly the case in the Philippines, and will be for a few more years. But electric vehicles are still a step in the right direction for this country, given its total dependence on imported fuel; anything that tends to reduce this economic vulnerability — as well as the greenhouse gas emissions directly generated by motor vehicles — is a good thing.
The aforementioned mandate in the new law to create electric vehicle charging infrastructure provides an answer to what has been one of the biggest handicaps to greater adoption of electric vehicles in the Philippines, and so perhaps we could view RA 11697 with cautious optimism. If well managed by the new administration, it could bring significant benefits to the country.