Carmageddon as usual

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

"Build Build Build” is underway in Metro Manila, with most of the new infrastructure expected to improve traffic flow.

Before traffic is eased by the flyovers and even a subway, however, there’s a lot of pain ahead for the public. Especially starting today, the opening of classes. 

In preparation for the school opening, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, which has the unenviable task of managing traffic in the National Capital Region, has been conducting clearing operations, tearing down illegal structures that obstruct the free flow of traffic and towing vehicles that are regularly parked in no-parking zones. But the MMDA isn’t raising false hopes: the agency’s spokesperson Celine Pialago tells the public to expect the usual heavy traffic as the school year starts.

 Pialago, a former Miss Earth contestant, was our guest last Friday on The Chiefs, on Cignal TV’s One News channel, together with the dean of Mapua University’s School of Civil, Environmental and Geological Engineering, Francis Aldrine Uy, and Norie Maniego, chair of the Department of Economics at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. 

 The two universities are located in two of the most traffic-choked districts of the city of Manila. The concentration of colleges and universities in the National Capital Region, especially in the city of Manila where most of the Spanish-era learning institutions are located, is one of the top causes of overcrowding in the NCR.  

 In some other countries, there are university towns outside the capital. In the Philippines, Metro Manila is the university town, with the greatest concentration of higher learning institutions in Manila’s University Belt and several more of the largest scattered around Quezon City.

In the US and some other countries, the largest shopping complexes are also located outside the city center. In the Philippines, shopping malls serve as the city center, with several now hosting even certain government satellite offices.

 Some countries have developed government centers away from university towns and large shopping outlets. In our case, ever since the Philippines became a country, Manila has always been the seat of government, commerce, culture and education – with all the jobs and livelihood opportunities that they engender. 

 The colleges and universities have been operating in Manila long before an entity called Metro Manila and its predecessor, Greater Manila, were created. Several of the major learning institutions have set up branches in other parts of the country, but the main campuses remain in the NCR, drawing a continually growing number of students from all over the archipelago.

 *     *     *

 Listening to our guests on The Chiefs reaffirms the observation that even for the medium term, there are only stopgap solutions to a traffic mess caused by an ever-growing population conducting all the major human activities within an area that isn’t expanding commensurately. 

 Metro Manila is not the only mega city in the world characterized by unplanned and unsustainable development, with residents enduring urban blight. Asia has many of these cities; I think Indonesian capital Jakarta has the worst traffic jams in Southeast Asia.

 Some countries with the resources, space and political will have moved their government centers away from their principal cities. Brazil has Brasilia; Myanmar created a new capital, Naypyidaw. Foreigners who have done business there describe it as a “ghost city” in the middle of nowhere, but it’s now the seat of the Myanmar government, so it won’t be “nowhere” for long.

In the case of Metro Manila, for all our carping about the overcrowding, pollution and traffic, I’ll bet there will be strong resistance to the relocation of the main government offices – and main school campuses and shopping malls, for that matter – outside the mega city. We like everything to be within our reach, just one jeepney or tricycle ride away.

Deep down we see the logic of decongesting the city by relocating to nearby provinces the main offices of national government agencies, large malls or school campuses, or making them set up many branches outside Metro Manila.  

But the thought that this might entail changing residences or prolonging one’s daily commute to the office or school is enough to keep decongestion proposals on ice.

An efficient mass transportation system could boost public support for such proposals, but this could take a generation to materialize.

 In the meantime, we’re all stuck with each other in overcrowded Metro Manila, hoping that authorities can manage traffic even as Build Build Build makes everything worse before it gets better. 

*     *     *

Our guests on the show cited three major problems in traffic management, apart from the obvious one of too many vehicles on limited road space. One is the lack of political will to prevent illegal parking and construction of illegal structures that obstruct traffic. Mayors don’t want to touch vote-rich squatter settlements, and many violators of parking and obstruction rules are barangay personnel or their friends.

 Another problem is the lack of driver discipline, which is related to the inadequacy of enforcing traffic rules, and which in turn is partly due to the lack of enforcers. CCTV monitoring is making up for this lack, but the system’s coverage is still limited. 

I told Pialago that late at night even on Sundays, traffic crawls along the southbound lane of Roxas Boulevard starting from the approach to the EDSA flyover. 

 The reason? At the other end of the flyover, buses and jeepneys occupy nearly the entire road, turning that stretch across the Redemptorist Church in Baclaran into their terminal, waiting as long as they can to fill their vehicles to capacity. 

There should be traffic managers posted there, but MMDA personnel are on duty only up to 9 p.m. Pialago explained that this is mainly because there are only 1,800 MMDA traffic aides manning major thoroughfares in the entire NCR. She said the MMDA needs at least 7,000 more traffic managers. Police can help, but they also need more personnel, and they have their hands full with crime-fighting. 

The MMDA operates the Pasig River ferry. I asked Pialago if there are plans to expand the service, which I found to be surprisingly enjoyable. She said the service has only 20 ferries, with four currently unserviceable. 

Trains would help, but the tracks should not obstruct ground traffic, according to Francis Uy. He said Mapua is teaming up with other universities to set up a school specializing in railways. At least we’ll have a train school. Who knows, trains that don’t keep breaking down might come later.

 Pialago says the MMDA isn’t going to sugarcoat the traffic situation as schools open: brace yourselves for the usual traffic jams. EDSA? It will be Carmageddon as usual.

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