Urban congestion and traffic

- Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

Being stuck in traffic is the daily bane of our existence. Our government goes through the motions of seeming to address the problem, but in reality is so afraid to make the tough decisions that will begin to make conditions better. So much for political will… even of Duterte or his minions!

We, the public, are not much better. We complain incessantly about the problem, but thumb down any solution that demands the least bit of sacrifice on our part.

At the rate we are going, we will continue to suffer for a long time the consequences of our inability to face the problem. We need to accept solutions that seem logical, but inconvenient. In the meantime, we adopt solutions that make the situation worse. Example: buying more cars to go around the coding scheme.

Here is the latest news from the world of industry: Car sales rise 8.6 percent in October. Data from the Chamber of Automotive Manufacturers of the Philippines Inc. (CAMPI) and Truck Manufacturers Association (TMA) showed car sales grew 8.6 percent YoY to 31,132 units in Oct. Passenger car sales rose 2.3 percent to 11,499 units while commercial vehicles grew 8.6 percent to 19,633 units. From Jan to Oct, auto sales tallied 292,502 units, up 24.5 percent YoY.

Guess what? The road space available for the ever increasing number of cars and trucks remains the same. I would guess our road network didn’t grow significantly over the last 30 or even 50 years… at least not in Metro Manila where the number of vehicles has grown exponentially.

The road congestion is just a manifestation of the overall congestion in Metro Manila. Thirty years ago, what we now call Bonifacio Global City was pretty much a sleepy military camp. Today, even with so called modern urban planning by the developer, the traffic mess is horrible and getting worse every day.

BGC is managed by Ayala, a private sector icon of a company that boasts about being its own government in their developments. But they are as incompetent in traffic management as any local government unit or the MMDA.

In an era where smart streets are standard in many world capitals, the Ayala BGC management can’t even synchronize traffic lights so that you can drive straight from Market Market to St Luke’s without having to stop at each corner, and there are many, thanks to their design of BGC. This had been my frustration with them, conveyed incessantly, for the past five years or so.

I doubt if any of the solutions the Transportation department has listed down will really result in any marked improvement of our situation soon. We must first face the basics: we are just too damn concentrated in Metro Manila. We have to bring the idea of decongesting the metropolis beyond mere after dinner conversation into immediately implementable executive orders.

Sure… a good mass transport system works wonders in many crowded mega urban areas abroad. But these take time to do right. Our sporadic attempts to put up LRTs and the MRT are too little, too late and too badly executed to meet our needs.

If we had a reliable MRT like the one in Singapore, people can live in bedroom communities in Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and extreme Northern Metro Manila and have no real problems. Workers can still conveniently go to their places of work.

Compounding our problems is runaway property prices so that only the extremely rich can afford to live near the business districts. The poor and the middle class have to live far from where they can make a living. That’s why squatters refuse to leave their squatter communities to move to relocation centers outside Metro Manila.

And for middle class workers who live in Fairview at the northern end of Commonwealth Avenue and work in Makati or at the MOA area, the daily commute is sheer agony. One mother I was talking to said she spends about three hours one way and six hours daily on good days. She gets home in time to kiss her children good night, if she is lucky.

A friend of mine who runs a call center in Makati complains about having his workers constantly stuck in traffic or waiting in a long line to ride the MRT. Even if their prime working hours are at night, there is gridlock up to way past midnight. This will seriously affect our BPO operations more than any Duterte rant.

I was thinking… if this is such a serious problem, why is the PEZA still giving incentives for call centers and other BPO companies to locate in Metro Manila? Moving the BPOs out of Metro Manila will be a big contribution to volume reduction even as that will also spur regional development. New BPOs or even existing ones should be told to locate outside Metro Manila or get no incentives.

We need out-of-the-box solutions. Reduce the pressure from congestion of people and vehicles. Nothing will work unless we do serious volume reduction. That goes for cars and people.

Because it is the largest employer, the government through the Civil Service Commission should match office locations with the residences of clerks and junior staff across the bureaucracy. Clerical jobs should be more or less interchangeable across the bureaucracy.

With sophisticated computer programs now available, it should be possible to match job locations with where employees actually live. Letting lower level government employees work closer to home leaves them with more take home pay too.

I remember someone who works in the Supreme Court in Padre Faura who managed to get transferred to the Sandiganbayan which was practically her neighbor along Commonwealth.

Or government can change office hours. Government offices can start work at noon and end eight hours later in early evening. That removes so many people from crowding the rush hour commute time in the morning. Knocking off work later also gives working people time to transact with government after work.

Of course these are palliatives, but we need palliatives to ease immediate pain because the real solutions, like building mass transport, take time. These may seem inconvenient because it changes our usual patterns, but the alternative is continuing the suffering.

Volume reduction also means there is no getting away from instituting congestion pricing on vehicles using main highways and entering business districts. I know this is not going to be popular but it is a bitter medicine our unbearable traffic problem needs.

Singapore, London and many other major cities in the world are using congestion pricing effectively to make their traffic flow more smoothly on rush hours. Of course, they have reliable mass transport as an alternative. In our case, this is just one desperate palliative.

Then there is sense in imposing higher registration fees for vehicles and even higher taxes and duties. We need a vehicle reduction scheme that people cannot skirt to make solutions like number coding useless.

We need to remove large trucks from our streets by letting a rail system move cargo from the piers to cargo consolidation centers outside of Metro Manila. Or transfer containers to barges for shipping via Manila Bay to Cavite where trucks can pick these up.

Some people will complain of double handling but they can always use ports outside of Manila like Batangas and Subic.

Reduce. Reduce. Reduce.

Until we are ready to take tough action that entails sacrifices, we shouldn’t even be entitled to complain. Almost everything the Transportation department can do will take three to six years or more to complete or up to or even beyond the end of the Duterte term.

If Mar Roxas and Jun Abaya didn’t waste six years doing nothing, maybe we would have some infrastructure by now. But even then, no matter what we do by way of new infra, growth will just eat up the incremental benefits new infra will bring unless we manage Metro Manila’s runaway growth.

We simply need to reduce the volume of people and cars in the metro region. If that means relocating offices and factories outside Metro Manila, we ought to do it right away.

Reduce. Reduce. Reduce. The alternative is continuing pain, pain and more pain.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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