MANILA, Philippines – Can you imagine your city with cars occupying only half of the roads, while all-weather bike lanes and sidewalks, bus rapid transit, and public trains have the other half?
This is what the world-renowned environmental lawyer Antonio Oposa Jr and a group of young lawyers and concerned citizens are hoping to realize when they file a petition on Monday, February 17, to compel government officials to implement road sharing in the Philippines.
Starting 6:30 am on Monday, the petitioners and their supporters will walk from Rizal Park to the Supreme Court, where they will file a petition for a writ of kalikasan and mandamus for the government to divide the roads in half: half for cars and half for collective transport systems, like all-weather bike lanes and sidewalks, bus rapid transit (which the country doesn’t have in place yet), and public trains.
A Writ of Kalikasan is a special legal remedy given to ordinary people when there is threat of environmental damage that affects two or more cities or provinces. This kind of petition is filed directly with the Supreme Court. Once the writ is granted, the court requires responsible government institutions to respond immediately to the concern.
A mandamus, meanwhile, is an act by the Supreme Court to compel government bodies to implement an act that they are obliged by the law to do.
It turns out, the road-sharing principle is enshrined in our laws. Executive Order 774 requires the government to create a system that “shall favor non-motorized locomotion and collective transportation systems (walking, bicycling, and the man-powered mini-train).”
The EO specifically names the departments of transportation and communication, public works and highways, and the interior and local government as the agencies that must “transform the road system to favor persons who have no motor vehicles.”
Social justice and air pollution
“Only 1% of Filipinos own cars. But look, all of the roads are given to them,” said Oposa in a press briefing on Thursday. (READ: Taming the traffic beast of Metro Manila)
The 99% have to make do with the sliver of sidewalk and bike lanes made available to them. And even these are often used as parking spaces by car owners.
The preference for cars is a mindset cultivated by the “Hollywood” depiction of privilege, said Oposa.
When we ride a car, we feel we are well-off. When we are commuting, we feel “kawawa” (pitiful), he said.
This mindset has spawned poor public transport systems. Buses are old, ill-maintained, and dangerous. Public trains are cramped and not dependable. Those who decide to walk or take a bike suffer from air pollution and the dominion of cars on the road.
All the motor vehicles on the road – more than 7 million nationwide in 2011 – cause 80% of our air pollution. (READ: Outdoor air pollution a leading cause of cancer – WHO)
By the end of 2013, the level of total suspended particulates (an air quality standard) in Metro Manila was 114 ug/ncm. The internationally recognized safe level is 90 ug/ncm.
Air pollution in the megacity is why 10 out of 11 cases of respiratory diseases in the country are in Metro Manila, according to Environment Secretary Ramon Paje. (READ: Air pollution boosts lung, heart risks)
The solution to air pollution and poor public transport? Limit the road space given to cars.
“It’s called road diet. It means we will limit the number of vehicles in the road by limiting the road. If you have less road, then people will seek to improve collective transport systems. We’re changing the mindset. We don’t have to have cars to move from one point to another,” said Oposa.
And how about car owners who won’t appreciate the cramping of their space?
“This is not against car owners. Many car owners would rather take public transport if they could. They would save money on fuel. This gives them an option,” he said.
If there are still people who want to drive their cars, no one will stop them. The only difference is they will have to share the road with the other modes of transport now available.
Oposa is convinced that once collective transport systems are improved, more people will opt to use them.
Sidewalks and bike lanes will be covered by roofs and lined with trees. Buses and trains will be made more efficient.
He acknowledges that the idea will take an awesome leap of faith but it can be done gradually, in scale.
“Let’s try one city or two barangays (villages) on a Sunday. If it works then let’s do it Saturday, Sunday. If it works, then people will clamor that it be done the whole week. If it works in one city then everybody else will do it,” Oposa said.
In fact, many cities have already begun to pave the way.
Cities like Pasig, Cebu, Manila, and Baguio have closed off major roads on certain days to give way to bikers, pedestrians, and joggers. The University of the Philippines Diliman campus is another example of an area where joggers and bikers can enjoy special lanes, alongside a one-way road for cars.
The private sector and some LGUs like Puerto Princesa in Palawan are developing the use of “green” public transport systems like e-shuttles and e-tricycles that have zero harmful emissions. (READ: Welcome E-shuttle, bye-bye PH jeepney)
Oposa and his group have already consulted various government heads about the plan. Among those who are supportive are Metropolitan Manila Development Authority chief Francis Tolentino, Department of Public Works and Highways Secretary Rogelio Singson, and Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Paje.
In fact, these very officials are respondents in the petition. But this collaborative aspect is vital to the campaign.
“This is not a fight. I’ve been fighting all my life. Now it’s time to work together.” – Rappler.com