Half-Baked Plans

Rush hour traffic in Metro Manila.

“When the group settled in among the throngs in the city of Manila–the most densely populated city on earth-Sienna could only gape in horror. She had never seen poverty on this scale. Six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution, and a horrifying sex trade, whose workers consisted primarily of young children…’I’ve run through the gates of hell’, she said.”

The excerpt is from Dan Brown’s novel ‘Inferno’, which although is a work of fiction has drawn reactions from Filipinos over its portrayal of the country’s capital city. Yet there also some who would argue that the description may not be that far from the truth. Actress Claire Danes shared a similar sentiment while in the country shooting for a movie: “There’s no sewage system in Manila, and people have nothing there. People with, like, no arms, no legs, no eyes, no teeth…. Rats were everywhere.”

While Danes’ version was more exaggerated and less constructive, it still paints a similar picture of the city of Manila: one that is unpleasant and unattractive. Indeed, anyone who has been to the historic city have bore witness to the chaotic traffic, asphyxiating air pollution and the looming threat of pickpockets and muggers. A tragic decline from its’ glory days when it was once dubbed the ‘Paris of Asia’.

Begging reform, the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) introduced a solution: a terminal for buses catering passengers from the nearby provinces to the Metro thereby restricting them access of the main thoroughfares. On paper, it seemed ideal since it would rid the capital of an estimated 8,200 provincial buses. But take note, this is the same agency that implemented a dysfunctional bike lane and a futile sea wall that costed taxpayers millions but yielded no positive returns. On the inaugural day of the provincial bus terminal, commuters witnessed the same story as the bike lane and sea wall: there was a lack of planning regarding the outcome and effects of the project.

Francis Tolentino and the MMDA proudly opened the Metro Manila bike lane with a lot of fanfare.
Francis Tolentino and the MMDA proudly opened the Metro Manila bike lane with a lot of fanfare.

Commuters complained they were not aware of the changes while some did not know where to catch a connecting ride that would take them to their destinations since the provincial buses previously did that for them. Thousands of commuters became stranded in the terminal, while the majority were left fuming at the lack of prior notice and planning on the part of the MMDA. The extra trip also costed them financially, since a previous Php40 single bus ride to their workplaces was converted to more trips. Then there was the inconvenience of added waiting time and long walks towards specific loading areas to catch their connecting rides, which burdened persons with disabilities, pregnant women and children.

While that was already bad, then came Manila banning buses in their city as well. Mayor Estrada set an ordinance prohibiting any buses without terminals in the city from entering. Again, the plan seemed laudable, as the city government claimed it would rid the city of colorum or illegal buses, but once implemented the problems started to arise. The incoming buses were only allowed until the boundary between Manila and neighboring cities before they needed to make a U-turn; but in the process, creating a traffic jam. This also meant an added ride for commuters since not only are provincial buses banned but connecting metro buses are prohibited from entering Manila too, where most of the travelling provincianos are employed. We can tell from this scenario that there was a lack of coordination between the local government of Manila and the MMDA.

Siege of Manila. Mayor Joseph Estrada of Manila prepares to confront defiant bus operators.
Siege of Manila. Mayor Joseph Estrada of Manila prepares to confront defiant bus operators.

The so-called ‘solution’ was hailed by vice-mayor Isko Moreno to be a problem solver, but it actually caused another dilemma. The demand for public transport outmatched public transport capacity; most commuters who disembarked the buses took connecting jeepney rides, but a single bus carries the load equivalent to five jeepneys. The MRT and LRT lines are already crammed to begin with, leaving the stranded commuters with very few options. To address this demand problem, the MMDA vowed to increase the number of jeepneys in the Metro; but isn’t this depleting the purpose of their efforts? Jeepneys can cause traffic too, and an increase will certainly congest the streets. The plan is seemingly half-baked.

The bus segregation scheme certainly contained several gaffes, but one would ask how such a problem occurred in the first place. City planners interviewed by the media divulged that the EDSA highway, the Metro’s main thoroughfare, was designed to accommodate only 1,500 buses at a time; yet, the LTO has peculiarly issued over 3,700 franchises for buses to operate in the Metro. These buses not only take up space but cause traffic jams when they stop incognito to maximize passenger count. While there are terminals specifically built to contain these buses, they choose to park around churches, malls and public parks aiming to boost revenue.

MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino.
MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino.

While the proposed segregation scheme is helpful, it is wrong to pinpoint the traffic chaos on buses alone: there are far too many jeepneys as well and a majority of these are colorum. The problem of colorum itself is detrimental, not only does it add to traffic but also robs the government of revenue. Where is the government response here? Of course, one cannot discount the fact that there are too many private vehicles as well, with a typical upper-class family owning 3-4 vehicles. Yet, there is no effort to address this. Singapore shamed everyone when it introduced the first traffic estimation scheme in the world, applying exorbitant fees on vehicle registration as well as a hefty road-use tax. This in effect limited vehicle use to the very wealthy, but even some upper-class Singaporeans would choose to avail of efficient public transport instead. There are few vehicles in Singapore and a lot of order.

Make no mistake about it, any effort the government is doing to curb the traffic congestion is a help but for a country with a limited budget and a growing list of problems, it cannot afford to waste resources. Any solution being implemented must be well thought and planned. The bus segregation scheme of the MMDA does have its positive effects, but there are a lot of blunders in its initial implementation. The agency now has to deal with the shortage of PUVs and the added transport costs of commuters before the other two provincial bus terminals they plan to inaugurate by next year opens.

Certainly planning plays a crucial role in the growth of any city, especially a  major metropolis like Metro Manila. Take Auckland or Amsterdam for example, they are regarded as among the most livable in the world thanks to urban planning. What Manila needs to tackle road congestion is a proper estimation of vehicle usage and planning a new, more organized road system. Although as Dan Brown narrated in his novel, there is also the air pollution, the sex trade and crimes that plague Manila and which also requires government intervention; but solving the traffic problem is a good start.

There are a lot of things that need to be done, and some require drastic actions, but everything starts with planning. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “failure to plan is like planning to fail”. Recently, the MMDA have made adjustments to their bus segregation policy and incidents are happening less frequently, yet the chaos that marred its’ opening day would have been prevented had they learned to foresee what could go wrong and make contingency plans. It’s about time our country stops the culture of just being used to disruptions and start requiring better from their leaders, the taxpayer deserves the best value for their contributions after all. It all starts with planning.

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