The color of traffic
CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - September 4, 2004 - 12:00am
Floods generate traffic. Last week, torrential rains made the metropolis a traffic nightmare with gridlocked roads that followed clogged esteros. This led to accidents, most publicized of which was an actor’s car falling into a large construction pit that the DPWH is wont to leave dangerously un-barricaded, rain or shine.

When the sun shone again last Saturday, I took the opportunity to venture out in what I thought would be a day of light traffic. I was wrong. Shaw Boulevard, EDSA, Ortigas, Aurora and Araneta Avenues were all bumper to bumper. It was like a week day and I guess everyone wanted to get outdoors after being cooped up in bad weather.

That’s why I hate commuting on our so-called highways and avenues. Of the thousands of kilometers of ill-maintained roads EDSA is considered our premier thoroughfare and by that term the flow of vehicles should be smooth and unimpeded. This is never the case on EDSA or any of our major arteries mainly because of the lack of one basic thing – transit stops.

It does not take a PhD in traffic engineering to notice that the traffic build-ups, say, on EDSA, are at those points where mass transit has to let the riding public off. Ayala, Guadalupe, Shaw/Crossing, Ortigas, Santolan, Cubao, Kamuning, Quezon Avenue and North Avenue are all stops along EDSA that clog up all day. Inadequate or non-existent bus stops are to blame.

Government has not been able to purchase enough land to provide what in other countries would be the basic facilities of a strong transit system. Buses, taxis and jeepneys (or in other countries jitney services) all need lay-bys, sheds, multi-lane boarding facilities, transit shelters and grade-separated pedestrian links.

All the stops mentioned above have no more than one lane to service thousands of vehicles and hundreds of thousands of passengers an hour. Save for some deteriorating Imelda-era sheds and awfully-designed pink and blue Bayani-type structures no shelter is provided commuters who, because of sidewalk vendors or lack of sidewalks themselves, have to walk on the highway and add another layer to the whole sordid mess we call our streets.

This problem is as perennial as typhoons and was officially acknowledged as far back as the 1930s. I wrote a previous article, which quotes a speech the late Don Sergio Osmeña gave at the opening of Manila’s then new City Hall. He made mention of the steps that Manila had to take to improve itself physically and provide better services to its citizens. A key issue he raised was the traffic and the need to provide lay-bys or loading and unloading lanes that would shunt auto-buses (the precursor of present day jeepneys) and regular buses away from the general flow of traffic.

War came and rebuilding of damaged roads afterward did make allowances in their rights of way to provide for these lay-bys but the exponential growth of traffic erased all service roads and these stops never got built or had too little space. Public works has filled the whole widths of all of our major arteries with concrete to be able to carry as much traffic as they can hold. And that’s what we get today – just traffic.

In the Fifties the problem got even worse. To glean what solutions were discussed then we look at excerpts from a Sunday Times article published in 1958. The article stated that "The kind of traffic that Manilans continually complain about is the result of several old practices… among them are trucks and truck-trailers allowed in all streets, on-street parking…, loading and un-loading by buses, jeepneys and taxis are done at any point in the streets, (and) few sidewalks drive pedestrians to using substandard portions of the roadways."

Today we have a truck ban, which helps, but these trucks and container vans have grown in number so Manila’s streets are still clogged. The better solution would be to revive freight train service to our ports as was the case in the pre-war days. Freight transfer terminals could be built north and south of Metro Manila to accept manufactured goods from the factories in the economic zones there. Of course we cannot revive this system because of the millions of "home-along-the-riles" folk that live on the PNR’s right of way.

On-street parking is now a thing of the past for major arterial and circumferential roads but it crops up everywhere else. Loading and un-loading is still done anywhere and everywhere a driver of a public utility vehicle hears "Para, mama!" Jeepneys, taxis and even buses stop at their convenience – often in the middle of a busy street just to take on or offload one passenger.

Sidewalks are being cleared but that is a Sisyphean task that only the likes of Bayani Fernando can seem to tackle. (See, I do not disagree with everything he does though the solution should also look at the reasons for the use of the sidewalks for vending in the first place, that is, not enough markets are being built or they charge too high a rent.)

In the 1960s mass transit via a revitalized tranvia system or a futuristic monorail was proposed for Manila. It would take more than a decade for the first LRT to be built and another 20 years hence for the system to expand.

Today we have what appears to be a potentially great system that, however, fails at the ground level. Light rail transit stations are never located properly in relation to almost non-existent bus stops below. There jeepney terminals are here and there but almost all these are ad hoc creations that do not provide even the smallest commuter comfort, protection from the elements and direct interconnection with other modes of transit.

Of course the culprit, design wise, is lack of planning and the absence of urban design standards. Pedestrians wading in flood waters, victims of hold-uppers, risking life and limb walking on the road are the victims of a cruel city. Traffic and floods are not the ultimate problem but are only symptoms of a larger metropolitan malaise.

We fail to manage metropolitan growth, plan where our commercial, residential and recreational spaces and districts are and fail to link all these districts in a rational, energy-efficient, ecologically sustainable way. We are inundated with the problems that stem from the shortsightedness of both public officials and private developers – the lack of provisions for infrastructure amenities like bus stops, sidewalks and terminals, the stupidity of granting zoning changes without considering the effect of large developments on water, power and lighting requirements as well as impacts on traffic and access.

So there it is. The real culprit is our illogical approach to city growth. It is our refusal to accept long-range coordinated physical planning as a strategy for coping with a runaway urban population. What is being recklessly trafficked is the idea that a contiguous and ever-expanding metropolis can conquer all its problems by dividing it up into 17 towns and cities with individual programs and no common vision. As if traffic, floodwaters, pollution and crime recognize political boundaries.

Both the RDC (regional development council) for the National Capitol Region and the MMDA seem like moribund agencies that pay only lip service to the supposed goal of building a strong central metropolis for an even stronger republic. Yet even these are in danger of being snubbed to oblivion or neutered completely except as a builder of piss stations in pink.

But pink is not the color of floods, pollution or stationary transport. Until we understand that only long-term planning and rational urban growth management are the keys to urban salvation then all we will see is the brown of murky waters, foul air and ineffective governance. And we will be stuck in traffic till kingdom come.
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