FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

The Philippines topped two lists the past week. We are the world’s biggest rice importer. Metro Manila traffic is the worst in the world.

Neither recognition should make us happy. We already have the world’s worst airport. Meanwhile, our people spend the most time on social media – possibly the new opium of the people.

The lead vocalist of the visiting British band Coldplay summed it up over the weekend: “Traffic here is completely insane.”

Our traffic rating was reported out in the 2023 TomTom Traffic Index. This report is put out by a Netherlands-based multinational developer and creator of location technology as well as consumer electronics. It is based on a comparative study of 387 metro areas around the world.

MMDA Acting Chair Romando Artes said his agency will reach out to those behind this report to inquire about the methodologies employed for this study. That will probably be a futile effort. It will not matter if we are first, second or third in the world. Our economy bleeds billions because of the difficulty getting from one point in the city to the other. We all know the reality.

Besides, TomTom was not organized just to put us down. It is their business to compare traffic conditions across cities for the purpose of developing software to help harried commuters cope in congested environments. The company does not profit by ranking us worst.

Artes, in addition, reminds the public that the MMDA is doing all possible “interventions” to improve traffic flow. That is possibly all that this agency can say, given its seriously limited mandate.

To understand all that brought us to this “insane” traffic condition, we will have to look at many things: historical and geographical factors, institutions of governance, the general failure of strategic planning and the driving culture of our denizens.

This mad urban tangle we call Metro Manila is basically an unplanned metropolis growing in a semi-circle out of the port. It is composed of very old settlements with very narrow streets as well as new towns with inadequate provision for road space.

The wonder of it all is that this unified urban mess is not fully governed by a single political entity. Metro Manila is a confederation of independent cities, each governed by local governments jealous of their turf. Some subscribe to the U-turn policy, others do not. Some have windows to the number-coding policy, others do not. Policies on street parking vary across localities.

Barangay chairmen have absolute power over permitting tricycles to operate – leading to some localities having an oversupply of this mode of transport. Where I live, there is such an oversupply of tricycles they spend more than half their time lining up for passengers.

Once, I went to the MMDA to get help to clear our road of abandoned vehicles that eat up parking spaces and clog roads. I was told they could do nothing about it for fear of being charged with carnapping.

In its restricted role, the MMDA could not reconfigure mass transport routes to adjust to shifting commuter behavior. I was told the agency could not do that. At any rate, given our jeepney drivers’ propensity for mounting strikes, it was bound to be met with political opposition.

The large engineering projects required to help our traffic move is often met with bureaucratic resistance. The Skyway project, that finally links the northern half of the Metro with the south, was delayed by over a decade. Only Ramon Ang’s persistence saw this project come to life.

The much-touted subway is very costly and will probably require a generation to complete. It is an undertaking of the national government, with the MMDA limited to managing the traffic consequences of this large project.

MRT-3 is a commuter rail line that is supposed to displace the EDSA bus line. It is so inefficient a mode of transport that the bus route is not only conserved, it was given its own reserved lane known as the Edsa Carousel. This reduced the number of lanes available for all other vehicles.

Metro Manila is probably the only urban sprawl that does not have its own local government. Instead, the mayors of the constituent cities haggle in a council and veto anything that is not in their parochial interest to have.

The way Metro Manila is governed needs radical review. We need an elected governor for what is in reality really one large city. But tampering with the powers of the constituent local governments will likely be politically explosive.

Some key traffic policies need dramatic review. The volume reduction scheme based on plate numbers is an insane policy. It encouraged car owners to acquire second vehicles to evade the ban. These spare vehicles are now parked in the side streets, clogging traffic flow.

We may argue with the conclusion that we have the worst traffic flow in the world. But that is not the point. The insane traffic condition we confront daily needs a fundamental review of the way this metropolis is governed.

The MMDA is mandated to relieve the symptoms of a badly planned metro. But it is not empowered to undertake the engineering solutions to solve the actual problems. It is certainly not empowered to begin any meaningful urban planning for an urban center on the verge of choking.

The TomTom finding should be an occasion to debate the fundamentals of how our metropolis is governed.

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