Emerging Microeconomies: Carpooling in the Time of COVID

In carpoolers, perhaps the government can help with regulation by registering them as independent contractors.

Carpooling has been around since the time cars became mainstream. In the Philippines, the concept of “ridesharing” primarily originated in subdivisions and gated communities where car owners who work in the city are more prevalent, taking other city workers who live in the same area. This phenomenon exploded in the time of social media when mere strangers could connect virtually and discuss matters like fare, pick-up, and drop-off points, and close deals without ever knowing or meeting each other in person, at least until the time of the transaction itself will take place.

Ridesharing is so convenient that the first-ever official carpooling app, Wunder Carpool, was introduced in 2016. I was a big fan of this app, and I used it religiously. Having worked between BGC and Makati and traveling during rush hour, I only have to spend a bit more on the fare to save both time and energy in carpooling because I can skip the long transport queues. Grab eventually followed suit and introduced a similar GrabShare option in their fleets. Technically, Grab as a TNVS is not carpooling, while carpooling is a type of ridesharing; carpooling is primarily defined in the Filipino context as a group of people entering a commuting agreement towards a common destination.

My Wunder drivers picked me up near my home and dropped me off near my office in BGC or Makati since it is along the way to their destination. The primary understanding here was that unlike TNVS apps like Grab, carpooling is not supposed to be for profit but for the drivers to save money on gas or parking by taking in other passengers. It also protects the environment by decreasing the carbon footprint by having several people share one ride instead of using their cars.

Carpooling back then and even now is generally unregulated. Still, it didn’t stop the government from sinking its teeth on any possible thing they could tax. As such, Wunder exited the Philippines in 2019, ending an era of convenience for many commuters, and still, carpooling persisted one way or another. Regular carpoolers who already maintained relationships with each other just continued their arrangement outside the app. Else, a quick search on Facebook will list you hundreds of carpooling, or colloquially, “Pasabay” groups, wherein virtual strangers can make similar arrangements. The simple economics of it all is that there is a significant need for carpooling, which is why it still exists.

“Colorum”

While the benefits of carpooling seem obvious, we cannot fault the government for trying to regulate it. Carpooling, under current law, is technically illegal, as drivers of unregistered vehicles (derisively known as “colorum”) cannot charge compensation from passengers. In addition, the lack of regulation for carpooling services means that there will be no protection for passengers in case of accidents or other crimes that can transpire. Simply put, there is a more significant safety risk in carpooling arrangements when neither the driver nor the car is registered.

Still, it hasn’t discouraged carpoolers like me to patronize “colorum” arrangements like these. Even after Wunder exited, I continued with my previous carpooler. But then, the pandemic came, and for the most part, I didn’t need to carpool anymore. After all, everyone seemed to have transitioned to a work-from-home arrangement, and barely anyone came to the office in fear of catching the virus. And yet, against all logic, the carpooling practices persisted.

An Emerging Microeconomy

I availed carpooling services again early this year when I rented an apartment in Pampanga, necessitating biweekly trips back and forth to Manila. Knowing I would need regular transport, I joined a Facebook group of carpoolers with around 14,000 members consisting of both riders and drivers. It surprised me because it is specific to Pampanga only (Manila groups quickly reached 100k members). I was able to get a regular carpooler. His name is Mac (real name withheld), and like me, he maintains two residences in Marikina and Pampanga. I asked him why he was carpooling.

“Ito na yung hanapbuhay ko. No’ng mawalan ako ng trabaho sa sales dahil sa COVID, nag-carpool muna ko, pero okay naman pala yung kita so pinagpatuloy ko na” (“It is my main mode of income now,” he says. “After I lost my permanent job in the sales industry during the pandemic, I decided to carpool in the meantime. But it was a lucrative side hustle so I decided to continue.”)

Sir Mac usually makes two trips per day, one going to Pampanga and then his last trip back to his home in Marikina. He usually earns around Php 6,000 per day, with a little over Php 3,000 take home minus his gas and toll expenses. That is not bad, considering this is above the mean daily income of most Filipinos in the metro, and Sir Mac usually drives from Monday-Sunday, meaning he can earn even more.

It was fascinating how Sir Mac described an unofficial “system” in place regarding bookings. He mentioned, for instance, that he will create his itinerary at least a few days before the trip to account for cancelations. In addition, he is part of a network of other carpool drivers so they can refer passengers to each other as needed, usually as a result of a change/cancelation or perhaps a better route for the drivers to take for the day.

While carpooling is overall financially rewarding, it is not without its share of risks. As Sir Mac put it, “Alam ko na may risks and aware din naman yung passengers ko na ang agreement is sundo at hatid ko sila pero if ever may aksidente siyempre hindi naman kami insured.” (“I know there are risks and my clients are aware as well. Our agreement is I will pick them up and drive them to their destination, but if there are accidents, of course, there is no insurance.”) It is also important to note that carpooling presents additional risks for COVID infection. Still, as with TNVS like Grab, carpoolers like Sir Mac counteract this by regularly disinfecting their vehicles every trip and doing informal health screening checks on their passengers.

Aside from the ever-present threat of accidents and infection, carpooling is also affected by the constantly changing lockdown restrictions mandated by IATF. Sir Mac shared that he and his fellow carpool drivers could not drive and earn anything at all during the last ECQ because of interzonal travel restrictions, requiring all passenger vehicles to provide proof of residence and travel passes. Random spot checks as well are a constant source of anxiety for drivers and passengers alike. Sir Mac shared one story in particular about a time when he was caught speeding with a carpool passenger:

“Pinatigil kami nung enforcer; muntik na kunin yung lisensiya ko kasi nga speeding daw. Buti kamo prepared kami nung pasahero ko. Pinahawak ko sa kanya yung inhaler niya, sabi namin nagmamadali kami kasi inatake siya ng hika kaya tinakbo ko sa ospital. Awa ng Diyos warning lang binigay.” (“The traffic enforcer stopped us. He almost took my license because we were speeding. Thankfully, we came prepared. My passenger took out her inhaler and I told the enforcer that she had an asthma attack and it was urgent that I take her to the hospital. We were able to get away with a warning.”).

The Future of Carpooling

It is easy to judge carpool drivers as condoning this technically illegal activity because it benefited them. However, Sir Mac was quite transparent that he was doing it because it is one of the ways he could earn money during this pandemic. He would be happy to find a corporate job once COVID boils down, but he also surmised that he could start a taxi business as well. He would be more than willing to comply with franchise requirements given by LTFRB if they weren’t so stringent and require significant capital. “Kung pwede sana na tatlong kotse lang per fleet, kaya ko naman, pero hindi ko kaya yung fees.” (“If only I can register a minimum of 3 cars per fleet, but I cannot afford more than that.”). As of 2019, a franchise can register a bare minimum of 50 cars, which is well above the financial capacity of most middle-income Filipinos.

The entire pandemic carpooling dilemma is a vicious cycle of cause and effect: people who lost their jobs turn to other means of making a living, but with fewer available corporate jobs to be employed in, most of these people turn into creative, albeit unregulated forms of livelihood. Carpooling is just one: the pandemic has created a slew of black and grey market industries like online selling, food businesses, vlogging, and other virtual services that the likes of BIR are already starting to track.

While the government is ideally within its mandate to try and regulate these emerging microeconomies to protect its general populace, it is also important to note that these “pandemic workers” are also part of that very same population. If the state cannot help them by providing safe and gainful employment, the best thing they can do is dialogue and compromise. It is important to carve a happy middle ground that can help both the government and its workers. In carpoolers, perhaps the government can help with regulation by registering them as independent contractors.

There will be more minor concerns with safety and possible crime, and it can also help in possible COVID contact tracing efforts. Making carpooling legal is the first and the only best way to go. Until then, however, the likes of Sir Mac and his buddies will continue to provide a much-needed service to a hidden underbelly of travelers needing transport during these difficult times. As always, if the government cannot do its job, the people will find a way to help themselves time and time again.


Jay-ar G. Paloma

Jay-ar G. Paloma is an HR executive by day and a frustrated artist by night. Jay-ar likes to read and write fiction and opinion pieces relating to LGBTQ, social media, and culture. When not engrossed in a book, he is probably playing a tune on his guitar or keyboard. Leave your love notes to Jay-ar here: jr@voxpopuliph.com.

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