Dear President-elect Duterte: On solving the traffic crisis
Dear Mr. President,
I've been writing on the Metro Manila traffic problem for more than 15 years now, through 3 presidents and more MMDA chairmen than I can count. During that time we've watched traffic managers try everything they could think of – including a few good ideas and a lot of harebrained schemes – with absolutely no improvement.
We all know the numbers. It takes hours to go anywhere in Metro Manila. Loss of productivity, huge amounts of fuel wasted by vehicles stuck in traffic, and health problems caused by vehicle-generated pollution, all combine to cost the country more than P200 billion every single day. On top of the monetary cost, it may not even be possible to measure the strain on individual citizens as they spend countless hours on the road every day.
In short, Metro Manila exists in a state of near-permanent gridlock, with people and goods trapped by the very transportation system that is supposed to move them quickly and efficiently. A fortune has been spent over the years, all kinds of schemes have been tried, and infrastructure has been built, but the congestion remains. In fact, it seems that the problem just gets worse from one year to the next, and from one administration to the next.
Solving the traffic
The reason is simple. Metro Manila roads are congested, chaotic, and unsafe because we ALLOW them to be congested, chaotic, and unsafe. Despite the existence of numerous agencies, and an army of enforcers, we simply do not manage roads, vehicles, and traffic properly.
Traffic enforcers in the national level agencies and in LGUs are poorly trained and supervised. Corruption in all traffic and transportation-related agencies is rampant. Driver discipline is all but non-existent because proper enforcement is all but non-existent.
Traffic control systems (lights, signage, and road markings) are in terrible condition and are often employed improperly and haphazardly. When road markings are so faded that they can't be seen, or when signs and markings simply don't make sense, it is impossible to expect drivers to comply with them.
Yes, we do need more roads. And yes, we do need more trains and train lines. But more capacity is only part of the problem. And those projects will take years, and a fortune, to complete.
What we need, more than anything else, is effective management. I know it doesn't sound as sexy as "subway", "Bus Rapid Transit", or "skyway", but it's the truth. Solving the Metro Manila traffic problem is easy if the guy at the top is willing to do what is necessary. It's low-hanging fruit. And it would cost much, much less than infrastructure projects that take years to build and may or may not have any real effect in the end.
The first thing we need to do is clean up the roads. There are international standards for road signs and road markings, but we don't follow them. Clear (and clearly visible) road signs and markings tell drivers what they are supposed to do, and provide the basis for efficient traffic flow.
Cleaning up the roads also means eliminating obstructions. This includes parked vehicles (both legally and illegally parked), crowds waiting in the roadway at bus stops, and poorly managed road repair projects. We need to prioritize the free movement of traffic over everything else on the road.
Second, we need to control public buses. I'm not talking about the number of buses; I'm talking about their behavior. The aggressive, competitive, illegal ways buses operate is one of the major causes of congestion in Metro Manila, and bus companies seem to have an amazing ability to resist enforcement.
Government needs to prioritize the quality of bus service over the ability of bus companies to make money. We need to make the Metro Manila bus system something that everybody wants to ride, not just those who have no choice.
Third, we need to professionalize the entire enforcement system. The behavior of individual vehicles always affects the smooth flow of traffic across the metro. When vehicles move in accordance with rules and procedures, the entire traffic network flows more efficiently. But asking drivers to be self-disciplined without first enforcing discipline will never work.
There are some good traffic enforcers out there, but most are poorly trained and poorly managed. Corruption within the enforcer ranks is a big part of this problem, but there are simple solutions.
Professionalizing the enforcement system also includes overhauling the vehicle registration, vehicle inspection, and driver licensing agencies, which have become so corrupt and inefficient that they simply serve no useful purpose.
In many cases, the anti-corruption measures they have instituted only provide the illusion of effectiveness. As they currently operate, the value these agencies provide to society is outweighed by the cost of their own existence.
Mr President, you recently declared traffic to be a crisis, and you said you plan to go to war against the problem. To be honest, this is an easy war to win, but only if you're willing to do something different. Infrastructure and big money have been tried for decades, and have not solved the problem.
As I said at the beginning, Metro Manila roads are congested, chaotic, and unsafe because we allow them to be. But it doesn't have to be this way. Metro Manila could easily have a highly efficient, world class transportation system, and doesn't need to spend a fortune to create it.
The solutions are easier than most people think. With proper management, I guarantee you can dramatically improve the flow of traffic, reduce the accident rate, and even cut air pollution, within a few months. Not to mention saving a big chunk of that P200 billion the country loses every day.
It's not a matter of searching for a solution. It's a matter of acting.
I'd be happy to help. – Rappler.com
Michael Brown is a retired member of the US Air Force, and has lived over 16 years in the Philippines. He writes on English, traffic management, law enforcement, and government. Follow him on Twitter at @M_i_c_h_a_e_l. Or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org