Pasig River as alternative transport channel

Every workday, the roads that lead to the Makati, Ortigas or Bonifacio CBDs suffer extremely heavy traffic congestion. The range of hours considered “peak” has been widening, as more commuters leave for work earlier, only to discover hundreds of thousands of others had thought to do the same. Commute from Quezon City to Makati could take 2-3 hours one way, assuming there were no rains.

The National Center for Transportation Studies estimates that PhP 2.4 billion a day is lost from the traffic jams in Metro Manila alone. This includes lost work hours, lost business opportunities due to delays, missed deadlines and wasted fuel. The figure is expected to increase to PhP 6 billion per day by 2030.

New road capacity is in the pipeline, but it will take some time. San Miguel’s Skyway 3 Extension that will run from Makati to Balintawak won’t be done until 2017, and Metro Pacific’s NLEx-SLEx Connector Road another line connecting the highways, but much further west, won’t be ready until 2022.

An out-of-the-box idea is to use the waterways. The Pasig River runs between Manila Bay in the west to Laguna de Bay in the east. It bisects Metro Manila into northern and southern “halves”. ALI has long considered the river as a potential resource for access and transportation, and thought it was high time to give the prospect another look.

There have been previous attempts to offer a ferry service, but the various proponents could not sustain their ventures.

Magsaysay Lines operated the first service in 1990. They closed operations after a year, citing water lilies and garbage clogging the waters and the boats’ propellers, and foul odors and squatter settlements making the ride very unpleasant for riders.

Starcraft Ferry opened the second service 5 years later with more robust ferries. But they could sustain operations for only a year. They attributed their surrender to garbage, lilies, and odors.

Nautical Transport Services, Inc. offered a third service more than a decade later, when there was noticeably better water conditions. Nautical made sure they had modern equipment and air-conditioning. From 2007, they were able to run for almost 4 years. They claimed the passenger demand was not enough to sustain a business.


Photo credit: donsimon /


After years without private interest, the MMDA took it upon itself to set up an operation in 2014, with twelve 35-seater ferries. The Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC) is tasked to operate eleven stations along the route from Plaza Mexico (Intramuros) in the west, to Pinagbuhatan (Pasig) in the east.

The total capacity is 1,000 passengers per day. The fare — PhP 30 minimum to PhP 95 for the entire stretch — the MMDA cites this to be lower than alternative modes of transport for the same route. Despite the capacity and relatively affordable price, patronage remains low at only 300 to 350 daily.

Our consultants from Curiosity Research pointed out that there were demand-side concerns around personal safety, walking to and from the stations, and even aboard the ferry; the limited cover and lack of air-conditioning that opened passengers up to the exhaust fumes, the stench of the river, the heat and the elements; the long, imprecise waiting times; the unkempt ferry and station facilities; the visual discomfort of shanties lining the banks, the garbage and dead animals floating in the opaque water; and even the unprofessionalism of MMDA staff (especially when dealing with female passengers). This list has mostly “fixable” pains. What may be most difficult to resolve would be the inconvenient locations of the stations, and the lack of land-based connectivity like jeepneys or tricycles to transfer to. Potential passengers didn’t appreciate the long walks.

On the supply-side, the ridership levels and associated revenues were far from compelling. Even if we assumed the maximum capacity of 1,000 daily passengers, the monthly operating income would be insufficient to cover the cost to run the ferries and the 11 stations.

Moreover, the operation is confronted with the need for more capital expenditure, for: new boats; an upgrade of existing stations to accommodate simultaneous docking of more than one boat; the relocation of some stations and the building of new ones to address connectivity and safety issues; the complete the overhaul of operating procedures; hiring and train ferry crew and station staff members.

It will also have to deal with continuous rehabilitation of the Pasig river, and its tributaries.

Will using the Pasig River to carry traffic relieve congestion in the Metro’s land routes? The MMDA showed resignation that the impact of this will not move the needle.

MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino admitted that their strategy was to use all options that could add incremental capacity and relief. The ferry venture was not expected to have adequate financial return or significant impact on traffic. The agency just wanted to push on multiple fronts hoping the small efforts would add up.

Given current conditions, an Ayala ferry business would not achieve traffic-relief or financial objectives. Just the same, we would like to hear your thoughts, especially if you live far West in Intramuros / Manila, or far East in Pasig, Marikina, or Cainta.

Given the Pasig River’s immediate proximity to Makati, BGC, the Circuit; the potential for cargo logistics or tourism; the relevance of Manila Water’s filtering and purifying capabilities; this waterway will remain of interest and deserves reconsideration in the future.

Future Cities