Coding is not the cure to Metro Manila traffic
Metro Manila has been under various forms of the Unified Vehicle Volume Reduction Program, more commonly known by the names “number coding,” “color coding,” or simply “coding” since 1995.
In 20 years since coding’s rollout, however, Metro Manila is still plagued by what seems to be an ever-increasing traffic. There are suggestions that the solution is to expand number coding further, returning to the previously used “odd-even” scheme.
However, before we increase our dosage of coding, we must ask – is this remedy for traffic actually working? Or, as with bygone medical treatments like lead therapy and lobotomies, is our coding policy doing more harm than good?
Empirical data on the effects of Metro Manila number coding is not readily available, but research exists on Mexico City’s Hoy no Circula scheme, the Mexican version of number coding which is mechanically identical to UVVRP.
Researchers Gunnar Eskeland and Tarhan Feyzioglu of the World Bank found that Mexicans responded to Hoy no Circula by buying more cars for the convenience of driving when their primary cars would otherwise be banned. Eskeland and Feyzioglu likened Hoy no Circula to creating a special “permit system,” where wealthier Mexicans are able to purchase “permits” to drive during ban hours in the form of a car with opposing license plates.
Moreover, many Mexicans ended up purchasing older, second-hand vehicles to gain the permit, which tended to be more polluting and less safe due to their age.
Importantly, Eskeland and Feyzioglu found that by increasing the number of cars, number coding in Mexico City had the effect of actually increasing driving which was the opposite of what was intended!
To illustrate, let’s assume each household has one car. Without number coding, let’s assume each household effectively “produces” 5 days per week of driving. Put number coding in and each household’s production goes down to 4 days per week of driving – initially.
However, when a household purchases a second car, production does not return to 5 days per week of driving, because households typically have more than one driver! Families naturally want to make the most out of the secondary car and drive it on the other days it isn’t banned, instead of just the day the primary car is banned.
So a household with two cars can theoretically produce up to 8 days of driving instead of 5, and with more cars, driving can increase beyond that. Increase driving without increasing road space, and you are left with crippling congestion.
The effects of coding in Mexico City are also observable in Metro Manila. Motor vehicle sales in the Philippines grew from 132,444 units in 2009 to 234,747 units in 2014 – nearly doubling in a 5-year span. The same permit system is in effect and is being taken advantage of by wealthier Filipinos.
More cars and more driving have only led to more congestion, as well as other destructive consequences. Our air quality has suffered, space is being overrun by parking lots instead of parks, and where private parking lots have not been built, streets are being used as private parking space, further increasing congestion.
Our coding scheme, unlike Mexico City’s, is different in a significant and cruel way – it makes life much more miserable for the population who cannot afford the permit. The Philippines has the dubious distinction of being the only place in the world that applies coding to public transport vehicles. In fact, when the UVVRP was conceptualized in 1995, it was to apply only to public transport vehicles!
Applying number coding effectively reduces public transport supply by 20%, which means that those who cannot afford cars are forced to wait in even longer lines to get in PUVs and go home. At this point we haven’t even discussed the other negative externalities created by cars and driving.
To name a few, air quality suffers, public space becomes overtaken by parking lots, and where private parking lots have not been built, public streets are used as private parking space, further increasing congestion.
To continue with our version of coding – let alone expand it – would be disastrous and counterproductive. Rather, we should think about reforming it in order to achieve better transport outcomes. Below I outline two policy goals we should have in mind, and how we should reform our coding policy in order to achieve them:
Increase public transport supply
The first one is to increase public transport supply via immediate lifting of number coding on all PUVs.
This is essential for reasons already discussed in this article. There is simply not enough public transport supply – and notions to the contrary are easily dispelled by either a) actually taking public transport, or b) observing formal and informal transport terminals outside major shopping malls between 6 pm and 8 pm. Lifting number coding on PUVs will increase the supply of public transport up to 25% each day, which will be a boon to commuters.
To maximize the benefit of the increased supply, we must couple it with enforcement of dedicated lanes for PUVs – also known as the “yellow lane.” The yellow lane has been strictly enforced in the past and will allow for smoother travel of public transport along road corridors. However, yellow lane implementation does not just mean physical segregation of PUVs. Protocols on loading and unloading within yellow lanes must be in effect – loading and unloading must happen within prescribed zones and within a prescribed amount of time.
Reduce demand for cars and driving
The second goal is to reduce demand for cars and driving via the implementation of “smart” number coding.
Some countries have refined their coding schemes such that there is a reduced incentive to buy more cars. For instance, in Bogota, Colombia’s Pico y Placa scheme, the numbers banned from driving on a given day rotate on an annual basis. In addition, car buyers may not choose the ending digits of their car licenses. License ending digits are assigned on a per-household basis and all cars belonging to a particular household have the same number. This makes it more difficult to acquire more cars and “permits.”
In the grand scheme of things, even the “smart” incarnations of coding do little by themselves to reduce driving. To significantly change driving attitudes, a comprehensive package of demand management policies must be implemented.
These tools include economic measures such as parking and fuel taxes, which are tried-and-tested in reducing driving demand. The proceeds of such levies often directly fund public transport improvements, which are the most crucial efforts of all in maximizing mobility of people and reducing our dependence on cars.
At the very least, however, we have to reform our current number coding policy to make sure we are giving our cities medicine for traffic, not poison. – Rappler.com
Robert Anthony Siy is an incoming student of the MA Transport Economics program at the University of Leeds, and is one of the 2015 Chevening scholars for the Philippines.
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