In Cebu City, citizens reclaim the streets in road-sharing experiments
CEBU CITY, Philippines – The queen city of the south is known for many things: its rich culture and heritage, the lively Sinulog festival, and its world-famous lechon. Cebu City is marching steadily toward progress with a boom in business and industry, but as in many urbanized areas, it comes with a price: heavy traffic, comparable to the chaotic mess plaguing the Philippines' capital, Manila.
Cebu City is the second most populated urban area in the country, next only to Metro Manila. It has also seen a growth in the number of vehicles plying its roads – one of the major causes of traffic, according to former Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña.
Osmeña, who is now eyeing a return to city hall, lamented that people have become so used to going around by private vehicles, hiring drivers to take them around the city.
With little parking space available, drivers are forced to circle around the city at a crawling pace, trying to look for parking and adding to the slow movement of traffic.
"As long as people here have cars, we have to deal with this.... People don't even know that owners of the cars themselves are one of the major causes of traffic," he said.
But in recent years, citizens’ groups and environmentalists have banded together to stop Cebu from degenerating into the same traffic-plagued metro that is the National Capital Region. These advocates are pushing for a livable Cebu, a city which prioritizes pedestrians and bikers, one in which cars don’t rule the roads.
The principle behind road-sharing is simple: to devote half the roads exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists, while the other half is set aside for motorized vehicles.
It's an idea meant to provide equity on the use of the roads, where cars are still king.
"Less than 2% of the Filipino population own cars, yet we devote more space for them," said environmental lawyer Antonio Oposa Jr.
Advocates of the road-sharing movement believe that sustainable urban growth has to be complemented with a workable transportation and mobility plan that would not be reliant on motorized vehicles.
The goal, they said, was to move more people instead of moving more cars, and prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists would also mean providing a green, environmentally-friendly solution to the traffic problem.
In 2011, Oposa introduced the road-sharing experiment, successfully convincing Cebu City Hall to close Osmeña Boulevard – the city's longest street – to vehicles on a holiday, June 12.
But the "road revolution" drew flak from jeepney drivers and private motorists when the activity was conducted on a weekday, after road closures triggered massive traffic jams.
The backlash, however, didn't deter the citizen-led campaigns. In September 2014, the Movement for a Livable Cebu also led a one-day road-sharing experiment as part of its calls for sustainable urban growth in the major Visayas hub.
The activity is part of a greater campaign, called the Cebu Green Loop Plan, which advocates sustainable urban growth in the city. It also pushes for more green spaces, public parks, and a focus on the city's heritage and tourism spots to truly make Cebu a city for the people, instead of for vehicles.
The road sharing experiments drew mixed reactions. While the road closures and keeping vehicles off half the road certainly affected traffic flow, city officials said the activities can be evaluated in two perspectives: the traffic management side and a city management perspective.
While the activities may not look good when it comes to traffic flow – it actually worsened time spent in traffic – city officials and advocates believe that in the long run, the road sharing activities can help change people’s mindsets, and make them more participative in plans for a sustainable urban development.
Key to this is sustaining information dissemination drives. Several motorists who endured hours in traffic had complained that they were not informed ahead of time about the road sharing activities.
But to effectively get public support, observers said that the city's roads should be widened to efficiently accommodate both motorized vehicles and human-powered transport. Before the road sharing concept can become a much more successful reality, mass transport options need to be improved.
Cebu City will be the first in the country to see such a system – the bus rapid transit (BRT) system, similar to the ones currently operating in Colombia, Brazil, China, and South Korea. The Cebu BRT system, partly funded by the World Bank, is expected to be operational by 2018.
With around 176 buses, the BRT system will run through dedicated bus ways from Bulacao to Talamban, Cebu, with a link to Cebu’s South Road Property. It will also pass through Cebu’s residential areas, tourist sites, and business districts.
The BRT system will have 33 stations along the corridor, with buses arriving every 2 to 5 minutes. It's expected to serve an estimated 330,000 passengers per day.
The mass transit system hopes to provide passengers with a more dignified means to travel, limiting the number of transfers needed to traverse the city. Jeepneys will continue to ply city roads, acting as feeder vehicles to bring commuters to BRT stations.
Aside from this, Cebu City is also aiming to build enough infrastructure to accommodate non-motorized mobility options and allow pedestrians and cyclists to go around the city safely.
Cyclists face dangers when they're out on city roads – they're more vulnerable to getting run over by cars as they try to make do with the little road space available to them. Pedestrians, too, are neglected in city planning; they have to make do with narrow or even non-existent sidewalks, putting them too close for comfort with speeding vehicles.
Other countries, most notably the Netherlands, have successfully made cycling part of their culture by providing designated bike lanes that allow cyclists to go around the city safely.
Cebu City is adopting a similar tack, passing an ordinance in 2014 that provides for bike lanes in designated roads.
The "Tindak Sugbo Lanes Ordinance" aims to provide priority lanes to cyclists, with shared-lane markings to be installed on the rightmost side of the road. These serve as markers and indicators to motorists that the street is a shared bike route.
The Sugbo Bike Lanes Board is also tasked to review the city's transportation plan and identify the streets where the bike lanes will be established. So far, the board has identified the first 3 roads in Cebu that will have its designated bike lanes: the road going to Busay, an area in Banawa, and from F Llamas Street going to Katipunan in Labangon.
These bike lanes, however, won’t just serve a practical purpose for commuters. The bike lanes board will also be identifying "recreational" and "tourist" routes for cyclists who want to bike around the city for leisure.
These efforts, complemented by improved plans for road-sharing activities, might just be the key to helping make Cebu City a model city for alternative mobility.
But environmental advocates know that changes in people’s mindsets won’t happen overnight. In similar cities, this has also been the case.
The famous bike infrastructure of the Netherlands, for instance, was slowly built up after the government started with a car-free day, which eventually expanded into a car-free week, and then entire car-free zones. Putting up bike lanes also helped get the public on board with the idea.
Oposa also believes that continued action to promote walking and cycling – and building the complementary infrastructure for it – are steps in the right direction.
"The time for talk is over. It's time for action. If people find this successful, they themselves would want to keep it going," Oposa said. – Rappler.com
The research for this case study was supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.