Thursday, April 22, 2010

Transport Econ 2: Small-Scale Monopolies

(Note: this is my article for "People's Brigada News", last week of March 2010)

When we talk of monopolies and oligopolies, people often think of the large ones, like power and energy monopoly, airline and shipping monopoly, telecommunications and water monopoly, and so on. People seldom talk, even "forgive", small-scale monopolies. Like jeepneys, tricycles, and pedicabs or "trisikad".

It is true that there is no single jeepney (or tricycle and trisikad) operator that monopolizes the industry. But they as a group monopolize a particular route. That is, jeepneys from various owners/operators and drivers monopolize a particular route, buses and vans are banned there. Tricycles from various owners/operators and drivers also monopolize a particular route (usually from village gates to the main road), jeepneys, vans and buses are banned in that route.

When a route is granted by the government to be monopolized by buses or jeepneys or tricycles (ie, only one of them can take that route, all other public transportation except taxis are banned), commuters have no other choice except to bring their own cars, or take the cab. Both options are expensive considering the high prices of fuel products, traffic congestions, high parking fees, and dangers of carnapping or towing by some local governments, if one brings his/her own car.

The monopolists almost always do not strive to improve their vehicles anymore. Even if their units are old and dilapidated, smelly and mutilated, they often do not care. They know that non-rich riders and commuters have no other option but take their dilapidated and/or over-loaded vehicles, so why bother and spend money to improve their vehicles? Better use the money to bribe government officials so they will keep the route monopoly and keep away competition from more modern, more comfortable public transpo like air-con vans, new and more modern bus lines.

Take the Ayala-Washington route in Makati, for instance. Ayala Avenue is the country's prime financial district. While there are buses and air-con vans from the northern part of the metropolis that pass this road, there are none coming from the southern part. So passengers from the south get off from the MRT Ayala station and take the jeepneys that ply the Ayala-Washington route. There are no alternative air-con vans, only taxis and the often rickety and smoke-belching jeepeneys.

So you can see in the country's prime and famous financial district, sometimes dilapidated side by wide with new model and expensive cars, competing for road space. What is worse is that jeepney drivers overload their vehicles. A jeepney that can comfortably seat 8 passengers on one side is being packed with 9 passengers, otherwise the driver will not move the vehicle. Again, jeepney owners and drivers do not bother if their jeepneys are smelly and ugly, they are aware that passengers who have no cars and cannot afford to take taxis, have no other alternative but ride their jeepneys.

Some people propose that government should phase out jeepneys and tricycles in many areas of Metro Manila. I do not agree with this proposal because this will involve coercion and charges of government “favoritism”. A better option is that the government will (a) not grant or create monopoly franchises to jeepneys and tricycles in particular routes, (b) allow various options of public transpo, the air-con vans and buses in particular, to compete with jeepneys and tricycles, and (c) deregulate fares. This way, it will not be the government that will phase out -- or at least force the improvement -- of those jeepneys and tricycles, but the passengers themselves. When many people will not ride jeepneys and tricycles, the latter will be forced to either improve their units, or bring down their fares to attract passengers, or abandon the route and bring their jeepneys and tricycles to areas and routes where the vans and buses are either absent or have weak presence yet.

Many countries with big population do not have jeepneys and tricycles, only buses and trains. Even for rich countries with small population, like Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia, they do not have small-passenger public transpo like jeepneys and tricycles. They only have buses and trains.

The Philippines need not jump into the extensive and expensive train system. The government needs only to step back a little and de-monopolize certain routes to allow the entry of more comfortable vehicles to serve passengers who do not have cars and are poor enough to take the taxi everyday. Competition among various public transpo providers will empower passengers.

* See also Transport Econ 1: Public Transpo Regulation, December 19, 2007

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