Metro Manila traffic

Metro Manila’s traffic problem explained

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Why is it so difficult to get to where we need to be in Metro Manila? Research shows the problem lies in the inefficient use of roads, the lack of urban planning, and systemic issues with numerous transport authorities.

Editor’s Note: This report contains highlights of a Rappler research paper entitled, “Untangling Metro Manila’s Traffic Mess” sent to Rappler+ members on Tuesday, October 13. The research was undertaken by Aika Rey, Michelle Abad, and Glenda Marie Castro. You can obtain the full report by being a Rappler+ member.

When lockdowns were imposed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Filipinos saw possibly one of the most bizarre things that could happen in Metro Manila: decongested roads cleared, no unending lines of vehicles, cleaner air and no sound pollution echoing through virtually every corner of the metropolis.

Overflowing jeepneys and crowded buses were nowhere to be seen – only private cars roamed the streets, with their drivers ready to explain they were out to do essential tasks.

As the government began to ease lockdowns to stimulate the economy, the roads slowly reverted to pre-pandemic times. More and more modes of public transport were allowed again beginning June 1, but with health protocols in place.

Even with lessened volume, the quarantine-era roads still become reminiscent of pre-pandemic times. Vehicles would still pile up in lines that got people to where they needed to be later rather than sooner.

In 2019, Manila was dubbed the most congested city by both the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the TomTom Traffic Index. The traffic problem is unquestionable, as economic costs are pegged at P3.5 billion (roughly US$72.17 million*) daily, according to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

If nothing is done to improve the situation, this figure could rise to P5.4 billion ($111.35 million) a day by 2035.

Why is the public commute bad, and what should authorities do to address this ages-old problem? There is not one simple answer.

A team of Rappler researchers looked at data from government agencies and recent studies, and obtained insights from experts and analysts to try and dissect why traffic is such a bane for residents and workers of the capital region. These are some of the research’s key findings.

Traffic volume exceeds road capacity

According to the ADB, congestion happens when the capacity of the transportation network cannot meet the travel demand at a particular time. In Metro Manila, there are 5 circumferential roads and 10 radial roads that serve as major thoroughfares. You may know them as the C and R roads (e.g. C5, R1).

JICA said that each major road is operating at – or more than – its carrying capacity to respond to traffic demand. Simply put, there are more vehicles on the roads than the roads can handle to meet demand, affecting the people’s need to get to their destinations.

The transport system also makes operators compete for passengers. Since public utility jeeps (PUJs) and buses (PUBs) are paid on a commission basis, this leads to erratic behavior on the roads and the inefficient use of road space, the World Bank said way back in 2014.

Route rationalization

To understand and rationalize traffic demand, agencies also need to look at data pertaining to where people board and alight. 

In 2017, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) and the University of the Philippines made a short-term route rationalization report. One of the significant findings of that study was that the areas where passengers boarded and alighted the most were near MRT and LRT stations, such as Cubao and Monumento.

But rationalization plans met setbacks even as studies were done. And we continue to bear the brunt of the non-implementation of these plans today.

Bias for cars

The transport system is also car-centric, not mass-oriented. Decision-making for transport and mobility should be anchored on getting people where they need to be.

When a coding system or a bus ban lessens the number of vehicles on the road, is there less traffic? Perhaps. But do people get to their destinations faster? Not necessarily.

In 2017, 84% of Filipinos said they were planning to purchase their own car in the next 5 years. Available data from 2011 to 2018 from the Chamber of Automobile Manufacturers of the Philippines Incorporated (CAMPI) showed that car sales shot up by 28.9% in 2015 from 90,287 sold units in 2014.

You can imagine what follows when the roads are already over capacity at the moment, and more people, whose transport demands are not met, want to buy more cars.

Given this situation, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) should complete the route rationalization plan for Metro Manila at the soonest time possible. Traffic and transport agencies must fast-track the implementation of mass transit projects with the intention to lower the need to use private cars.

Lack of urban and transport planning

For decades, the Philippine government’s solution to traffic congestion was to build more bypass roads or tollways that would shorten travel time. An example of this is President Rodrigo Duterte’s “legacy” project, Build, Build, Build

But infrastructure interventions merely scratched the surface. Transport planners around the world have long argued that building roads only creates demand – more people would still want to drive on it. Traffic congestion is not just an issue of road space, but also of efficient use.

Neighboring mega cities – such as Seoul, Singapore, and Tokyo – have successfully reduced traffic congestion by integrating transport planning and land use planning. In Metro Manila, both urban and transport planning are an afterthought. 

As of June 2019, 6 of 17 local governments in the capital region had outdated comprehensive land use plans (CLUPs). The capital city Manila didn’t even have one yet.

Although route rationalization plans experienced setbacks in recent years, the government saw the pandemic as an opportunity to begin reducing routes and enforce the PUV modernization program. More than a hundred routes and thousands of PUV units were shaved off from the metro.

Experts welcomed the government’s push for modernization, but questioned whether mass transportation would be enough to serve the current commuting public of about 3 million people.

Clearly, Metro Manila local governments need to develop CLUPs and transport plans that would complement the LTFRB’s route rationalization program. These local plans should identify transport hubs that consider residential and commercial areas, and ensure seamless transfers among PUV modes. 

Transport agencies tend to overlap, lack technical competence, and pursue vested interests

Which government agency comes to mind when asked who deals with traffic? You may think of several – the DOTr, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), the LTFRB, or the Land Transportation Office (LTO).

In September 2019, two weeks before dropping a years-long bid for emergency powers to address the traffic problem, the DOTr said in a statement, “Una po sa lahat, nais po naming klaruhin na ang traffic management ay hindi bahagi ng mandato ng DOTr.” (First of all, we want to clarify that traffic management is not part of the DOTr’s mandate.)

There is no central authority on top of metropolitan-wide issues, which include traffic. The closest is the MMDA, but it has shown to focus more on removing road obstructions, and going after errant drivers.

In 2017, the government relaunched the Inter-agency Council for Traffic (I-ACT), which included the abovementioned agencies, the interior department, and law enforcement. But what has it done so far? In the past years, I-ACT mostly went after illegally parked vehicles and apprehended ambulant vendors for encroaching on sidewalks.

A former DOTr official, who requested anonymity, told Rappler there is an institutional weakness in the department which can be attributed to the lack of highly technical staff. This leads the DOTr to depend on outside consultants who come and go. Meanwhile, transport expert Robert Siy Jr said political appointees almost always contribute to the discontinuity of historical projects.

These are coupled with vested interests that ultimately outweigh public service. Reports of corruption at the LTFRB have been prevalent, as well as the fixing business at the Land Transportation Office.

Given these problems, traffic and transport agencies should ensure that there are permanent positions for highly technical staff. They should also improve consultation among stakeholders, particularly the inclusion of commuters and mobility groups, in designing policies. The LTFRB, meanwhile, should review the franchising process and address corrupt practices, perhaps through technological tools which would reduce human intervention.

Traffic will remain an evergreen problem in the Philippines’ capital region if these problems are not urgently addressed. The Duterte administration has less than two years left before momentum could be lost again in addressing the traffic conundrum.

With the pandemic tempering down transport, there is no better time to rethink policies and improve strategies to meet demands – so that when all Filipinos are back on the road, the government will be ready. –

*$1 = P48.495

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