Commuting Under the “New Normal”

Earlier this week, I decided to take my chances and go to the mall.  I needed to pay a long overdue bill that I can only pay in-store.  I was prepared for a very long walk, but I got lucky that a bus was heading my direction.

As of the second week of June, most public transportation is still suspended and those that are running have significantly reduced capacity to enforce social distancing.  Trains are now running as well as buses, but the latter’s routes were cut significantly short—many routes now terminate on a train station.  Because of this, what used to take a single, long ride now takes multiple rides.  You’re lucky if your route is serviced by buses—otherwise you’ll have to take a taxi, or worse just walk.  It’s no surprise why bikes are in such huge demand!

View of Quezon Memorial Monument from EDSA corner Quezon Ave.

I was going to Trinoma from Commonwealth.  I used to take a single jeepney ride to get there.  I didn’t know what to expect when I got out on the road and I was prepared for a long walk, when a bus appeared from a distance heading my way.  As the routes have been totally revamped, buses don’t have proper signage to indicate where they’re heading (most buses in Metro Manila as of the year 2020 still use painted cardboard to tell where they’re heading) and so I have to wait until it came close enough for me to read their sign written on plain white paper with markers.  GMA–Quezon Ave.  That won’t take me exactly where I wanted to, but it’s good enough to bring me close—significantly better than walking all the way!

It was an ordinary (non-air conditioned) bus.  I had to think fast if I’m ready to ride public transportation in the midst of a pandemic.  On one end, I was very anxious to ride with strangers, anyone of which may carry COVID-19.  On the other, I need to get to the mall as quick (and least tiring) as possible.  Obviously, I decided to take the bus.  I was thinking that the risk may be negligible as the air is continuously being replaced being non-air conditioned, everyone is wearing a mask, and everyone is seated at least one seat apart.  Imagine my anxiety as I took the plunge.  Imagine more if I had to do this everyday just to earn.  I’m fortunate that I only have to do these occasionally so I really salute everyone that commutes and reports to work daily.

Aside from the much lesser number passengers, another big change is the fare.  What used to be less than ₱20 in jeepneys or ordinary buses for the same distance (around 8K) is now ₱25.  That doesn’t sound much but it’s an added burden for those simply earning minimum wage, especially if they’ll be coming from much further.

I honestly would not bother to go to the mall if it’s possible for me to pay my bill online.  I had accumulated four months of unpaid internet bills and it adds to my anxiety that I may get disconnected if I don’t pay soon.  For an internet provider in the year 2020, it’s really absurd that I can only pay my bill in only a few in-store branches, and even there they don’t have the ability to accept debit cards (my credit card was hacked just before the quarantine and I still haven’t received the replacement until now).  Now, more than ever, internet connection is essential if you’re to work from home.  It’s not like mobile internet in the Philippines is reliable.

The new southbound bus route from SM Fairview (and further north) now terminates in EDSA.  You may opt to alight at MRT GMA-Kamuning or Quezon Ave. Station.  From here, buses resumes their trip northwards for those returning back.

If all sidewalks are this pleasant, I wouldn’t mind walking more!

Trinoma isn’t that far for walking from Quezon Ave.  The sidewalks in front of Vertis North is actually quite pleasant as it’s very wide and shaded well with trees.  There were still quite some spots where this is not the case, but overall it’s not bad.  Not before long, I finally reached the mall.

While there are sections that are busy, most of the mall is practically dead—stores closed, lights turned off, and people just passing through.  There’s a bit of a post-apocalyptic vibe into it if you ask me.  And as for my payment, it took me around two hours just to get it done.  By the time I’m done, the queue to the supermarket had been unbelievably long that I just decided to head back to Quezon Ave. to go home.  Fortunately, there’s a supermarket there as well with no queue.  I miss the time when going to the supermarket wasn’t such a chore and we have a lot of options.  These days, it’s mostly settling for what’s available.

It was a little late when I finally got out of the supermarket (checkout was horrendous!).  As such, I felt a sense of urgency to return home.  And as much as I wanted to ride an ordinary bus, the next one being dispatched was air conditioned—I don’t want to wait long when the next ordinary bus arrives—I hesitantly took the bus.

At that point, it became a bit clearer to me as to how the passengers are supposed to be seated under the “new normal.” There were numbers in seats where the passengers are supposed to sit which also doubles as the count of how many passengers the bus already has.  The two-seater on the right side will seat only one, ideally alternating between the window and aisle seats but passengers don’t seem to realize that.  The three-seater on the left side (behind the driver) will have rows that alternate between one or two passengers, making something like a checkerboard pattern.  Ideally, it would mean that no person is directly behind you.  I “luckily” got seated on a row on the left side meant to sit a single person.  But as new passengers boarded as the bus went along, it wasn’t obvious to them and I actually looked like I was out of place, hoarding the entire row! I felt really bad despite actually complying, and the bus conductor don’t seem to be keen in enforcing that to add capacity.  I have a bunch of huge bags of groceries with me so I don’t really have the liberty to move further to accommodate another passenger in my row that would still enforce social distancing.  I feel a bit bad because I felt blamed by ignorance of other passengers, and I don’t really want to go through a lengthy clarification (keeping distance)—good thing we’re all wearing masks so there’s anonymity on my end if ever they thought I was a prick.  Anyway, the fare was expectedly much higher than the “old normal” (₱29 this time) and again that’s understandable due to the limited capacity.  I’m actually fine even if it’s higher because of the extra legroom, but then again we should also consider those who need to commute daily that aren’t anything more than they used to.

The new “rationalized bus transit map” of Metro Manila.
Source: pna.gov.ph

The crazy thing about that trip back was the traffic.  Sure it was “rush hour,” but it was as if we were in the pre-pandemic era.  Considering that buses are very few.  Do we still need to argue what’s causing the traffic?

Going out and commuting as of now is still quite a challenge (and anxiety-inducing if you think of the possibility of getting infected).  If you don’t have to, I still recommend staying home, even if you have your own ride.  There’s really not much to do outside anyway as many businesses are still closed.  The virus is still out there and your home is most likely the safest place to avoid it.  Let’s maximize the limited public transport seats to those that need to report physically for work and minimize traffic by staying at home.

I salute all the people that continue to work in the midst of this pandemic.  May you all stay safe and may your source of income continue unimpeded.

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