Tabi kayo riyan!

QWERTYMAN - Jose Dalisay - The Philippine Star

When the EDSA busway – a special lane just meant for public utility buses – was inaugurated in June 2020, I was among the many millions of Metro Manila motorists and commuters who breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Finally! Somebody’s come to their senses and did what had to be done.”

It wasn’t going to banish the traffic problem for good – that burden still lies with our woefully inadequate mass transit system – but it applied a logical solution to a particularly oppressive aspect of our urban existence, the infernal sludge that tossing private cars and public buses into the same slurry produces. The traffic’s still bad in many spots on busy days and hours, but at least you could see some order in disorder. For this driver in his car, I can even find some ironic humor in watching buses speed down their lane while I struggle like a jockey in the middle of the pack to keep a nose ahead of the big SUV sniffing at my flank.

We’ve seen these special bus lanes in use elsewhere – most notably in Jakarta and Bangkok – and they seem to work. (Bangkok’s bus lanes have been around since 1980; Chicago adopted the world’s first bus lane in 1940.) London has set aside about 80 kilometers for 24/7 bus lanes, but some other roads also have designated bus lanes during peak hours; the fines are stiff, going up to as much as P11,000 for an infraction.

Here in Manila, according to the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP), just 550 buses transported as many as 450,000 people a day along EDSA as of December 2022; in its 30 months, the busway accommodated 154 million passengers. That’s a lot of traffic and a lot of people, and the true social benefit of a bus lane isn’t that these buses and their passengers are being shunted aside for our cars to move a little faster, but that those passengers – most of them the workers and wage-earners to whom we owe our other comforts – get to work and get to come home to their families sooner. It’s tacit acknowledgment that their lives are hard enough, and every bit of relief counts. In a sense, it’s social justice in practice.

But now comes a proposal from the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) – already approved by the Department of Transportation (DOTr), we’re told – to grant exemptions to the President, the Vice President, the Senate President, the Speaker of the House and the Chief Justice, riding in five-car convoys, to use the bus lanes. Even more, senators and congressmen are also being considered for exemption (emergency vehicles and properly identified government vehicles are already exempted).

It might be argued, at least in theory (since the mischievous will ask for proof), that the big poohbahs have important national business to attend to, requiring their expeditious transport from Point A to Point B. (In Jakarta, only the President and the VP are exempt.)

The same cannot be said for senators and especially congressmen whose business it is to know the situation on the ground and to bring relief to their commonest complaints. Chief among those complaints for millions living in the metropolis is the horrendous traffic, a three-hour immersion which should be part of every politician’s initiation into public service.

As even Patricia Evangelista noted in her landmark book, Some People Need Killing, President Noynoy Aquino – for all of his virtues – lacked and almost disdained the common touch. But he understood the fundamental relationship between a leader and his people, and what he may have wanted in empathy, he compensated for in correctness. His proscription against the use of sirens and alarms to open a Moses-like path through traffic for government officials may seem trivial but sent absolutely the right message to citizens for whom “Daang Matuwid” might as well have been just another throwaway slogan.

Sadly, our “wang-wang” culture – which, as a STAR editorial noted just last week, involves “not just the actual use of sirens and blinkers by VIPs whether in government or in the private sector, but the mindset itself that it’s OK to jump the line and that public officials deserve such VIP entitlements” – has crept back after PNoy, with a vengeance.

The convoys of black, tinted SUVs with their sirens screaming “Tabi kayo riyan!” have become ubiquitous once again, flaunting the perks of power. The MAP deplored this by stating that “accommodating convoys of officials demonstrates inconsistency of public policy: favoring the privileged few over the overwhelming majority of the commuters and motorists who deserve an efficient EDSA busway.” I’m sure that you and I have shorter and less Latinate words to say every time one of those convoys brushes past us on EDSA and along that larger avenue we call Philippine society.

That society, for better or for worse, takes its cues from the top. When our presidents behave, we (or most of us, at least) try to walk the straight and narrow; when they steal, their minions feel emboldened if not empowered to fill their own pockets; when their mouths spew obscenities like sewers, rudeness and vulgarity become excusable, and even fashionable.

In the Tang dynasty, the Emperor Taizong was known to be a wise ruler, and even wrote The Zenghuan Executive Guide, a kind of management manual. Among his best practices was the employment of “remonstrants” – as many as 36 of them – whose job was to provide the Emperor with “remonstrances,” to tell him to his face what he was doing wrong. “I often sit quietly and reflect on myself. I am concerned that what I have done may … cause public discontent. I hope to get advice and remonstrance from honest men so that I am not out of touch with the outside world,” Taizong was quoted as saying.

There’s no record of whether the Emperor Taizong’s soldiers pushed other wagons and pedestrians aside on the road to make way for the imperial train, but I suspect not. I just wonder, who will be our Taizong, and who will be his remonstrants?

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Email me at [email protected] and visit my blog at www.penmanila.ph.

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