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News  5, Jul 2013

It will take more than tech to solve traffic problems in Asian cities

Tripid co-founder Michael Ngo Dee says it will take much more than technology to fix “broken” transportation systems, a big cause of Asia’s traffic woes.

Mass transit in the Philippines is not as efficient as in cities like, say, Singapore, New York or Brazil. Just in Manila, for instance, you would usually need to line up for about an hour or so just to ride the jam-packed MRT during rush hour. Taking the bus or jeepney is just as inefficient, as these public utility vehicles would usually bunch up on select areas in their route while competing for passengers, thereby causing traffic jams. Private motorists are not helping at all — you can still see a lot of big cars with only one passenger plying the streets, which is such a waste.

You might recall that in our interview with the Tripid co-founder Michael Ngo Dee late last year, he offered a better way to move around the city, which is through ride-sharing. Mike says this kind of carpooling can help reduce inefficiencies by ensuring a vehicle is not under-utilized, the owner or driver gets paid a nominal amount (to defray the cost of fuel), and passengers get to pay less than they would spend on a cab and still travel in comfort.

A broken transportation system

Interestingly enough, Mike tells e27 that in his work at Tripid and collaboration with various organizations and institutions, he has come to the conclusion that fixing or improving the Philippines’ transportation system will require changes that go beyond adding technology-based solutions. “The problem with the transportation industry is the entire transport system itself. You can’t fix the system by just applying technology on top of it,” he said.

This came from a query whether Tripid views the presence of the numerous taxi-hailing apps as competition or as a benefit in the local market. Mike says that taxi apps fulfill their purpose, and are actually helpful in promoting awareness about apps that can help you get from Point A to Point B. But as for the state of the transportation system, much is still to be desired.

This is actually a sentiment shared by Uber — or at least based on our conversation with the Tripid co-founder. The US-based startup, which recently launched in Singapore and also in Taiwan, may be hinting at a planned expansion to other key cities in the  region — Manila likely to be included. Of course, Uber addresses a different market segment, which is why Tripid is not worried about this possibility, and might even seek to collaborate.

In our discussion, a radical shake-up of the transport industry had been brought up. Do we need to revert to a centralized or one-company bus line system as in the 1970s? Do we need to make cars more expensive, in order to encourage ride sharing? Should we push for demand-based road-usage fees, like in Singapore?

Can technology fix the problem?

In general, “technology only amplifies the current problem,” Mike says. “So if the system is broken, you only create a technology-enhanced broken system.” I chimed in that mindset and discipline might help improve our situation. Mike agreed that the mindset of motorists and commuters are best changed “if processes can modify behavior.” In short, technology-based solutions should offer a big change, rather than just provide incremental fixes.

He offers a rule of thumb in improving the transportation system in the Philippines, and perhaps elsewhere: “less cars, more stops and more tech.” A good part of this, Mike says, can be addressed by tech startups. So technology can either fix or amplify a problem, depending on how it is applied.

I said it’s almost tempting to simply discourage traveling so we can have lighter traffic. After all, driving through the metro areas in the Philippines is a breeze during public holidays and even those rare occasions when Manny Pacquiao has a boxing match. But I argued against the economic costs of simply not traveling — we will need to find the optimum level, in which we still get enough economic activity (deliveries, commerce, people going to work), while not wasting time, energy and fuel stuck in bad traffic. Perhaps this could be an argument for remote-working for a change, but that’s another story.

Tripid working on mobile apps

We left  the argument at that, and focused on development so far. Tripid has passed the hundred trip per day mark, and Mike says this is mostly fueled by partnerships with schools, companies and organizations that encourage their members, students and employees to ride-share. This is a stark difference from when Tripid first launched, during which it only served about a dozen trips per day.

To provide better access to the platform, Tripid is hard at work with its development and planned launch of its mobile apps. And to prove that the system really does work, Mike tells me he never drives anymore, and just uses Tripid to book rides to and from work. “It’s the best way to go around the city,” I recall him saying one time I chanced upon him at a startup event. And when there are no Tripid rides, he hails a cab!

In jest, I asked if Tripid was planning to develop warp drive and teleportation tech, which would surely make traveling easier (yes, even inter-planetary travel). “We already know what Tripid version 5 is supposed to look like,” Mike says. “Maybe version 7!”

Featured image credits: joyfull / Shutterstock.com

J. Angelo Racoma

J. Angelo Racoma

A technology and automotive journalist with an interest in emerging standards, J. Angelo Racoma has written extensively about mobile, social media, enterprise apps and startups. Angelo has been active in online media since the early blogging and social networking days, and is co-founder at WorkSmartr, a small outsourcing platform for freelancers.

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