"Grabe naman kasi ang ginagawa nyo sa pasahero" (This is too much for the passengers), she said. She was a short, old lady trying to get to the front of the bus so that she could disembark. But like most city buses in Metro Manila during rush hour, the bus was filled to the brim with people, many of them standing tightly packed in the aisle, holding on to handrails on the bus ceiling or the nearby seats. Her young son, a short boy of maybe 14 years, weaved through the standing bodies packed in the bus's aisle to retrieve a plastic bag they had brought on board.
It took them more than five minutes to disembark, even with the driver getting off to help them with their bags. City buses usually have a conductor to collect fares and assist passengers, but at this stop the conductor was way at the back collecting fares.
It was a Saturday early evening. A couple of hours earlier at around 4pm I had decided to take a bus from the Mall of Asia in Pasay. I was headed home to Tandang Sora in Quezon City, on the opposite side of the urban sprawl that is Metro Manila. I had the option of a short jeepney ride to the MRT station and taking the train, but I was rather sleepy so I decided to board a city bus even though it would probably be a longer ride. "It's Saturday," I said to myself. "Surely there won't be much traffic."
I got on board a Fairview-route bus waiting near the mall. Since this was the first stop for the bus, I was able to get a seat up front near the driver and the bus doors. I paid my fare (P40 apparently) and put my head down on my bag, hoping to catch some zzzs along the way. I assumed the ride would take around an hour and a half.
I managed to get a little sleep, but even when I woke up almost an hour later, the bus had just managed to make it past Buendia. That was only around a third of the trip. Looks like I was in for the long haul.
By this time, the bus was already full. No more seats were to be had and any passengers that boarded would have to stand in the aisle. "Diretso lang po tayo sa likod!" ("Let's move to the back please"), the conductor would urge, to free up space for disembarking passengers near the front. But for some reason or another, Metro Manila commuters always prefer standing around near the bus doors, which means that area is always the most crowded. Pretty soon, new passengers are no longer able to move to the slightly more spacious far end of the bus. Many of the passengers are women, some senior citizens even. I think about getting up from my seat to let someone else sit, but like many times before I come to the conclusion that being a rather large person, it's far more space-efficient for me to be in a seat than blocking the aisle.
"Grabe naman siksikan dito!" ("It's too tight in here!"), one of the male passengers complains. But the conductor is not taking any of their complaints. "Ganyan po talaga pag rush hour! Kung ayaw nyo po ng siksikan magtaxi kayo!" ("That's how it is during rush hour! If you don't like it, you should take a taxi!")
He's not wrong. Almost always during rush hour, city buses passing through the middle parts of Metro Manila's main thoroughfare EDSA are filled to overflowing with people. Many non-airconditioned buses will even have people standing in the open doorway, hanging on to the bus railings for their lives. Pick-up points near the middle of the route, such as Megamall in Mandaluyong, are often battlegrounds where commuters struggle and elbow each other to get into standing room positions on already crowded buses.
Most commuters have little to no alternative. While the MRT was supposed to supplement public transport along EDSA, most of the time it is crowded as well and these days prone to breakdowns. Most of the stations often do not have working escalators so many commuters, especially older people, are hesitant to use it. Most of the poorer city denizens can't afford to take taxis, but even then they are in short supply. Even if you are lucky enough to find a taxi, many drivers are selective and will either ask for exhorbitant ‘tips' or outright deny fares who want to go too far away or through too much traffic. Uber's surge prices get insane during rush hour as well.
A lot of people, especially drivers of private cars, complain about city buses, and justifiably so. Drivers and conductors are paid on a "boundary" basis. To maximize their earnings, they need to get as many passengers as possible during their trips. This means many of them are overzealous and often cause small to large traffic jams in their pursuit of more passengers. They have no concern for overloading laws (which are rarely enforced anyway) and will pick up passengers even if there's no bus stop. At least as long as there are no traffic enforcers around.
Every so often there are suggestions to reduce the number of buses on EDSA. Anyone who's seen how full these buses get during rush hour should realize this is a ridiculous proposition. Despite being undisciplined drivers, EDSA buses are far more space-efficient in terms of the number of commuters they are able to ferry across the metropolis, as compared to the large volume of private cars on the road. What's needed is more professional bus services. Drivers and conductors should be paid a fair salary so that they don't chase after passengers so ruthlessly. But such proposals never gain headway -- the bus franchisees often complain that they are barely making enough money as it is.
I've been a commuter for most of the past two decades, and I've steadily seen the congestion for city buses and EDSA traffic go from bad to worse to much, much worse. These days I try to avoid commuting too far (I'm lucky to have that option). But on days like these when I'm crisscrossing the entire metropolis, I'm reminded of how bad the situation is. The congestion on EDSA is representative of the congestion in Metro Manila itself.
It's almost 6:30pm before I make my stop at the Quezon City Memorial Circle. The bus ride took nearly two and a half hours. The old woman who takes my seat is grateful for the reprieve. A few minutes before me, the man who had been arguing with the conductor disembarked, and they exchanged another set of bitter words.
"Gago, tatandaan kita! Di na ko nagpapasakay ulit ng ganyan!" ("Fool, I'll remember you. I won't let you board next time!"), the conductor shouts after him. He turns to the rest of the passengers and reiterates that they shouldn't complain about the congestion, since that's how it always is. I remarked, as I got ready to get off the bus, that perhaps that man and that old lady weren't regular commuters, and some of the other passengers chuckled.
Sadly, this was the reality that Metro Manila commuters had to live with. It's a reality that can perhaps only be addressed by a concerted effort to decongest the metropolis and to professionalize and modernize the public transport services. There are no quick fixes or solutions coming forth. So for the foreseeable future, this is what we live with.