This photo essay is part of a series produced as part of the Capturing Human Rights Fellowship Program, a collaboration between the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines.
“Commuting” is synonymous with the word “agony” for 13 million people in Metro Manila, the country’s capital region. Traveling to and from the workplace has been a constant source of distress for millions of Filipinos in one of Asia’s most congested metropolitan areas.
Filipinos are no strangers to the apocalyptic scenes of commuters struggling to get around the main arteries of Metro Manila. This includes long hours of queues for public utility vehicles and trains that last until late at night, and exhausting travel time in cramped buses and jeepneys that pass through heavy traffic.
In 2019, a well-known navigation app, Waze, named Metro Manila as one of the cities with the worst traffic in the world. A 2017 study by the Boston Consulting Group, commissioned by the Uber app, found that a metro Manila commuter spent 66 minutes in traffic each day, the third longest in Asia.
Heavy traffic has taken a toll on the physical and mental health of commuters.
Many are used to sacrificing hours of sleep to wake up very early to beat the “carmageddon” rush hour. Others have to travel long distances in dangerous areas to get to work on time or to be safe at home with their families. These are just a few of the typical hardships a regular commuter must endure every day.
The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the daily agony.
Since March 2020, the Philippines has been placed under different levels of community quarantine, making the country’s lockdown the longest in the world. Abrupt restrictions on public transportation have left commuters like headless chickens on the roads. Even healthcare workers, who play an important role in a health crisis and regularly use public transport, have not been spared.
As lockdowns eased in the months that followed, buses, jeepneys, trains and even tricycles were forced to adjust to the so-called ‘new normal’. Drivers were required to regularly disinfect their vehicles and install plastic barriers as part of health and safety measures.
According to AltMobility PH, these measures have increased the cost of public transport.
“Travel is now more expensive in all modes of public transport,” said Jedd Ugay, director of mobility at AltMobility PH. For example, local governments have limited tricycles to one passenger at a time. This means that a passenger has to pay more for a “special trip”.
As new health protocols take into account the well-being of commuters amid the pandemic, constituency public must now choose between safety or savings.
“For most people, public transport is their first choice. No matter what state our transportation system is in today, people still have to take essential trips for essential purposes. It’s inevitable, ”Ugay added.
As Filipinos struggle to avoid the deadly coronavirus, they still face the agony of daily travel, itself a disease that appears to have no cure in sight.
“Commuting around Metro Manila right now doesn’t seem human. Just see the photos of the commuters every day or experience it for yourself. There is no dignity in commuting around Metro Manila, ”Ugay said.
Thousands of commuters pack bus stops and other transport stations, enduring long and exhausting queues in Metro Manila, after the government imposed a 30-day Luzon-wide lockdown or a “ community quarantine ” from March 17, 2020 to contain the rise of Covid-19 infections.
Abrupt lockdown and restrictions on public transportation leave widespread confusion among commuters on March 16, 2020. Metro Manila buses must limit capacity to 25 passengers under “ physical distancing ” protocol , which prevents many passengers from boarding the buses immediately.
Desperate passengers are cramped on a bus, ignoring “ physical distancing ” protocols and passenger limits on March 16, 2020. Thousands of commuters in the city struggle to use the transportation available before midnight March 17, the efficiency of the strict Luzon level improved. community quarantine. Many others find themselves with no choice but to walk several kilometers to reach their destination on time.
Crowded buses and long lines at transport stations are common rush-hour scenarios in Metro Manila even before the pandemic, manifestations of the lack of quality urban transport.
After months of strict lockdowns, authorities are allowing public transport, including jeeps and city buses, to resume limited operations in June 2020 while imposing new health and safety protocols. These protocols include regular disinfection, installation of plastic barriers and limiting passenger capacity to at least 50%. New health guidelines have increased the cost of transportation, forcing commuters to choose between safety and savings.
Call center worker Ervine Calaoagan, 27, leaves her San Jose del Monte Bulacan home before 6 a.m. to reach her office in Ortigas Pasig City on time. Ervine has been using public transport since he started working three years ago. The Covid-19 pandemic poses new challenges for it, including its security and finances.
As a regular commuter, Ervine takes the Metro Rail Transit then takes a bus to Kamuning, Quezon City every day. He used to travel four hours from his home in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan to his office in Ortigas Center, and vice versa. While his travel time has been cut to two hours due to the pandemic, he has to pay higher fares. He used to spend P 90 per day on transportation. Today, he spends almost double that amount.
Ervine takes a regular, non-air-conditioned bus from Kamuning late at night to her home in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan. He considers it best to commute before the pandemic despite heavy traffic and long hours of travel. “Today, in addition to waking up early, the fares are now higher and sometimes you have to walk to the next bus stop or to the EDSA carousel,” he says.
During the first lockdown at the start of the pandemic, Kristy Reyes, 33, a nurse working at a government hospital in Quezon City, had to walk for hours from her home in Cubao to the hospital where she works. “I had to hitchhike on all the passing vehicles. I was even offered a cattle delivery truck and even a hearse, ”she says.
Kristy is afraid to take public transport after coming in close contact with a case of Covid-19 infection while on duty at the hospital last year. She prefers taxis to crowded buses or jeepneys, despite the much higher fare. From P18 daily, it now passes P250.
“They said it was riskier, but for me it’s safer. I just rolled down the windows and sprayed some alcohol. It’s safer than driving a cramped jeepney. I’m just explaining to the taxi driver that we need to have better ventilation and better air exchange inside the taxi. If it is air conditioned, there is a higher tendency to absorb the virus, ”says Kristy.
On the last trip to her house, Kristy walks through a dark neighborhood every night. A health worker, she suffered discrimination, especially in public utility vehicles.
“If you wear an exfoliating suit, you feel like you are being discriminated against. For example, tricycles will not get you rolling. Sometimes some taxis won’t stop for you if you are in a protective suit. So I put on casual clothes before I leave the hospital, ”she explained.
Commuters are struggling to board a bus on Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City after the government reimposed the more stringent, enhanced community quarantine in the metro area of Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Rizal and Laguna on March 29, 2021. The cases of Covid-19 in the country have hit a whole lot. -high time in just a few weeks, with hospitals reaching capacity due to the influx of newly infected patients.
The increased capacity and number of transit vehicles in Metro Manila will benefit commuters and allow physical distancing. Advocacy group AltMobility PH says the government should prioritize commuters over private vehicles. “We should take a people-centered approach in which the priorities should be based on pedestrians, motorcyclists, public transport users and passenger cars,” says Jedd Ugay, Mobility Director of AltMobility PH.