Transportation As If People Mattered

by B.J. Stolbov 

When I was in the United States, commuting every day by bus to work in the Financial District of San Francisco, I took the #2 Clement Street bus. Since I lived near the beginning of the line, there were always plenty of empty seats to choose from, if I got to the bus stop at 7:38 a.m.  If I got there at 7:39, the bus was gone, and I would be late for work. If I got there at 7:38:01, the bus would be pulling out, its engine revving, exhaust fumes spewing, as I ran as fast as I could, and shouted as loudly as I could, and pounded as hard as I could on the side of the bus. Sometimes, the bus would stop; most of time, it wouldn’t. 

When I first got on a bus, actually a small van, in my province in the Philippines, I was on time; in fact, I was early. I had the whole van to myself and I had my choice of seats. I was so excited! This was great! And then, we waited and waited. We did not go anywhere, as passengers, one by one, or two or three, climbed into the van, and we waited until the 12 seats were filled, and, if the driver wanted, we waited until 13 or 14 passengers were crammed into the van, and, maybe one or two old people sat on the front seat beside the driver, and perhaps one or two young men climbed up onto the roof, and we waited, maybe 45 minutes to an hour, until the driver decided that the van was full. 

Then, with the conductor, a thin young man with paper pesos – 20’s, 50’s, 100’s – folded between his fingers, with coins clasped in the palm of his hand, and with his other hand gripping precariously by his fingertips to the sill of the open side door, the van, groaning under our weight, pulled out.

There was no schedule.  Much to my surprise, dismay, annoyance, frustration, as a first-time passenger, the van left only when the van was full. The van was for the convenience of the passengers, and not for the convenience of some schedule. Since the driver was paid by the passengers, the van left when the driver decided it was full.

In the U.S., the bus driver is paid to be on schedule, and receives a paycheck whether the bus is full or empty.  A bus that is late is a bad bus, even if it is full; while a bus that is on schedule is a good bus, even if it is empty.  In San Francisco, a bus driver can be reprimanded, and ultimately fired, if the bus is late, but not for driving a bus with no passengers.  (The Metropolitan Transportation Commission determines the fares, schedules, and routes.)  In the Philippines, the bus driver cannot be reprimanded, or ultimately fired, for being late.  (The Provincial Transportation Commission determines the fares, but not the schedule, and the route, at the discretion of the driver, is somewhat flexible.)  But, the driver, who is paid by the passengers, will definitely NOT drive without passengers.

Recently, while waiting in a van (a van is a great place for reading and people watching – two of my favorite activities), I was reading, Small is Beautiful by the economist and ecologist, E. F. Schumacher. He writes about an economic system, that, however “inefficient” it may seem to be, values people more than time and productivity. “What is at stake is not economics but culture; not the standard of living but the quality of life. . . .  We need a gentle approach, a non-violent spirit, and small is beautiful.”  The subtitle of the book is A Study of Economics as if People Mattered.

People can get into or out of a van, wherever and whenever they want. A passenger inside the van calls out “Para dito” (Stop here), and the van stops, in a town, in a village, at a side road or mountain path, or somewhere in a seemingly vast nowhere, and the passenger gets out, pays the driver or the conductor, and walks away.  The conductor hops up to the open door, the driver drives, the van pulls out, and the conductor calls out its destinations, “’della” (Madella), “’roguis” (Cabarroguis), “’tiago” (Santiago), as he sees a potential passenger standing beside the road. Wherever someone waves a hand or nods knowingly, the van stops and another passenger gets in.

Yesterday, the van stopped for a very old woman, walking slowly slowly, on a narrow dirt road, toward the van.  She did not hurry. The van did not pull out.  The driver did not honk his horn. The conductor did not wave for her to rush. The passengers did not rage or complain.  We waited. The van was, after all, for her convenience and because, here, in this rural province in the Philippines, she mattered.



B.J. Stolbov is a writer, poet, essayist, novelist, short story writer, travel writer, technical writer/editor, and improving photographer.  He lives and works in the Philippines, and travels and explores throughout Southeast Asia.  B.J. teaches writing and English, and is available for writing and teaching positions.  Please feel free to contact him at

[photography credits: lead image by m_dougherty via Flickr CCL; all others courtesy the author.]

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