Aug 24, 2007

The Design IQ of MRT

The lowest design IQ in the universe must be concentrated in the management offices of MRT (aka, LRT-3 or the EDSA light rail). A visit to MRT especially in rush hour is a lesson on how Bad Design can cause you more stress:
  • Trains break down, forcing huge human traffic jams.
  • Long queues at the ticket booths, winding all the way down the stairs and spill out into EDSA. People here can wait as long as 30 minutes or more.
  • And after the long ticket lines -- you have to line up for bag inspection, causing another 30 minute wait.
  • More time lost inside the station as you wait for a train to arrive.
  • All this time, no one is announcing if a train will be coming or what time.
  • And when the train finally arrives, there's no room to squeeze in, which makes you wonder why the train bothered to stop.

What Works

In other train stations (like in Bangkok, Australia, Europe and even in our own LRT-2 -- note, I include LRT-2, or the Aurora line), riding the train is a smooth and stress-free experience. We list things that work in these stations.

Ticket Machines

The good stations use automated vending machines to dispense tickets. There is often a window with a human, but only to give out change, special tickets, or information.

Wide Passageways and Cars

The other train stations have very wide passageways so human traffic flows more freely and crowds do not accumulate. The cars also have wider bodies, designed for lots of commuters to move around in. Not so in MRT, where cars are small and cramped. This is why people in MRT are always packed like a Brother Mike service.

Lots of Information and Maps for Passengers

Station names are prominent and announced clearly by a recorded message. If you're on the street and you don't know anything about the area, you will see prominent signs indicating a train station. Schedules are published on video screens and even announced through a PA system so people don't wander about, wondering whether a train will ever come. Plus, they have maps showing the train stations and the vicinity. If there are different train lines, the map gives useful info on how to get to the other lines. (Instead of bombarding us with too many ads, why won't MRT ask these advertisers to sponsor maps of the MRT?)

Special Passes

Special passes help decongest human traffic in the ticket booths and give a more convenient option for customers. In the countries described above, you could purchase special tickets or "passes" -- a day-long pass allows you to ride all day long. A weekly pass lets you use your ticket for 7 days, and so on. Like prepaid cards, you can easily recharge these special tickets.

What Ails the MRT?

I used to wonder why problems plague the MRT. After some years of observing, I have figured out some design flaws in their system(s).
The main stations and terminals (North EDSA, Quezon Ave, Makati, Taft) have bad real estate designs:
  • Narrow passageways and waiting areas. At North EDSA station, which receives almost all of people from the North, there is only one narrow stairway, a slow and hot elevator and 2-4 ticket windows. Same is true with Quezon Ave. Since there is too much human traffic in the first two northern stations of MRT, people often try to go as far as the GMA-Kamuning station or do a "round trip". All these are symptoms of the trouble that MRT is experiencing, and still, nothing is being done to alleviate the bottlenecks!
  • Slow ticket dispensing. All tickets in MRT are dispensed by humans, and most of the time they fumble as they count change. Why not activate those vending machines that I saw rotting in the corners of the station?
  • MRT has stored value cards -- the closest we can get to special passes from other countries. But such is the ineptitude of MRT management that they still run out of stored value cards! I suspect that MRT "runs out" only because... they are waiting for those silly Samsung ads to be printed on them!
  • Useless and slow bag security checks. In Ayala, there are many turnstiles to accommodate traffic, but inept management introduced a choke point -- a baggage check with two guards intercepting everyone entering the turnstiles. Imagine how many office workers are pouring into the station, only to be choked by two guards. I believe that baggage checks are useless deterrents to terrorist attacks (any sufficiently motivated criminal or terrorist will think of a way to outsmart these inattentive guards, anyway. What if they instead let everyone enter the waiting area, and then the guards could conduct random checks in the train waiting area?
  • Several times, I have been stuck inside the Shaw station's waiting area (longest was for one hour), waiting for a train that never arrived. I felt helpless and duped, since they could have advised us in the first place that there was a problem. No one told us what was happening. To top it all the place was hot, because the architects never paid attention to ventilation design. People were about to riot. In contrast, Bangkok's SkyTrain stations are all open to let the breeze cool the area naturally.

When we are voiceless and misinformed (most of us Pinoys are), we tend to be more tolerant of bad service design. Thanks to the LRT-2 (the Aurora line) we are given a taste of a better alternative. You should try getting a ride at the LRT-2

It's been how many years now since we started encountering these MRT problems? Things do not seem to be improving. The only innovation I have seen so far was the introduction of a cordoned area for women, children and senior citizens. But this is not a solution to the root problems. This is merely cosmetic. Things will worsen if MRT management does not examine more closely what's happening.

I don't think the solutions will be difficult to find. If someone like me who knows nothing about crowd control and train systems can make these observations, what more these experts at MRT? Or do they really know what they're doing over there?

  • MRT described in Urban Rail:
  • Wikipedia entry:


Anonymous said...

from a friend --

hi benc,

tks for this piece. totally agree! on some really bad mornings, the north
station causes traffic, as in the people already occupy 2 lanes of edsa
bec. they can't get in.

i don't think the cordoned area for women & children is working either. the
car is too packed thus women act like caged animals. twice na akong
nakakita ng 2 babaeng nagsapakan dahil may isang hindi makalabas tapos yung
isa eh nagpupumilit pumasok. hah! how's that for being a lady kuno...

anyway, during rush hour (5-7pm), i take the bus from ayala to megamall. i
discovered it's faster and by the time the bus is in guadalupe, there are
available seats. it's when i have to go to north edsa that i brave the mrt.

nanette =)

Anonymous said...

What about those times the trains stop in the middle of a trip and passengers are asked to alight - ONTO THE TRACKS! They're made to find their way back to the station.

I don't understand how awful the EDSA Line turned out to be! An office mate told me the tracks actually don't fit snugly into the grooves of the wheels. This is why the cars shake violently when they're full and going at maximum speed.

I add these to the long list of mismanagement issues against the MRT. If they can't get it into their heads, they should try waiting in line at the Ayala station at 8.30 pm on a weekday. They'll see that a good half hour of their lives will be lost forever JUST waiting for their turn at the baggage check table. WTF??!! It's ridiculous!


Urbano dela Cruz said...


ditto on design (more importantly, management) failures of the MRT.

There is an even more basic design flaw in the MRT: the siting of stations.

They made real estate decisions when they chose where to put the stations. Rather than choosing the best nodes for transfer points to other modes -they chose sites conducive to building overhead malls -or where they could leverage existing commercial investments.

C.f. - why the santolan station is a good 400 meters away from the actual intersection where you would likely catch or get off a jeep. That's a ten minute walk! How convenient is that?

same with the Kamuning station which is a half-kilometer away from the actual Kamuning/Edsa intersection -where the heavier pedestrian traffic was/is (not to mention, NEPA Q).

And why didn't locate the MRT's Pasay station right next to LRT's EDSA station to make transfers convenient? You have to walk more than a hundred meters -through a mall (there's the logic again) -to make the transfer.

Even worse, why doesn't the LRT connect to the airport?

(btw, great blog. Have you read Donald Norman's Design of Everyday Things"?)

-UDC a.k.a. Benjie DLP

ben c. said...

@urbano aka benjie,

ello there comrade :)

buti napadaan ka. you're right on siting and couldn't agree more. i know one of the engineers who was later on tasked to tackle the mess of MRT and he pointed out the things you said (eg, they planned to build shops, hence the bigger foundations that ate up a lot of space in EDSA).

LRT-2 (the Aurora line) really takes all the good marks for good design.

and yes, The Design of Everyday Things is one of my favorite books. I read it for interface design but its content is universal. bought it at P50 sa isang NBS sale, lent it to one of our graphic designers, and lost track of it from there. gotta get me a copy of it one day.

pls drop by ulit and give us more of your urbano disenyo genius :)

Robby Villabona said...

The issues you point out about EDSA MRT is rooted in the fact that it's running beyond capacity.

I believe part of the reason is that the current financial structure of the operation doesn't easily justify adding more trains (borrowing costs to build MRT then was 16-18% interest, and gov't subsidizes the operation to keep fares low).

From what I've heard, the gov't has agreed to buy out the consortium since the state of world finances favors an early buy out (interest rates are single-digit, and peso is stronger). This should eventually translate to easier justification to add trains (as well as finally connect it to Monumento).

But on the subject of stations -- yes, many are terribly located. I can't help but think that Ortigas station was placed there just to please ADB employees.

Many, many years ago, my friend was in a dinner that included German Moreno and the subject of extending the LRT to the airport was discussed over casual conversation. German Moreno's comment was, "Naku delikado iyan. Baka tamaan ng eroplano yung mga tren."


Thank you for visiting my blog, SUPERPASYAL. The Aurora line is LRT 2, not MRT 2. :-)

LRT is wholly government owned, while MRT is a BOT project. The government, however, is already in the process of buying the MRT 3 (EDSA line).

ben c. said...

@superpasyal. Salamat sa corrections. Hilo na siguro ako nung sinusulat ko hehehe.