[OPINION] How do you solve a problem like EDSA?

Jayson Edward San Juan
[OPINION] How do you solve a problem like EDSA?
Traffic congestion reveals a deeper malady: lack of a well-defined land use plan for the National Capital Region

 The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) appeals for discipline and patience from the public as the EDSA traffic problem worsens. State authorities could only resort to experiments and rebukes as commuters increasingly become agitated. Short of granting the President emergency powers, how do you solve a problem like EDSA? 

A patchwork quilt 

EDSA is the backbone that connects different growth hubs. When these hubs were limited to Cubao in Quezon City and the Makati Business District some decades back, EDSA served its purpose. 

With new growth hubs like Ortigas Center in Pasig and Bonifacio Global City in Taguig, the proliferation of malls and condominium buildings along the highway, as well as the rapid urbanization and unregulated development in other parts of Metro Manila, the strain on EDSA – whose upgrade has been few and far between – has gone well beyond alarming. 

In its Physical Development Framework Plan for 1996-2016, the MMDA recognized that incompatible land use among cities has exacerbated vehicular congestion. Unfortunately, little has been done to address this issue, and government is playing catch-up after decades of neglect.

Beyond ‘disiplina’

How can buses avoid the unauthorized loading/unloading of passengers, if their drivers’ take-home pay is contingent on racing against time and competing with other public utility vehicles? In the present “boundary and quota system,” obedience to policy is defeated by the anxiety of being unable to provide for the family. 

Commuters are disincentivized from using loading/unloading bays because their physical design is not conducive for human and humane use: the narrow strips of concrete provide little protection against the elements. These are also corralled by mesh wire, as if passengers are sheep being herded for slaughter. 

The combination of policy, infrastructure, and people provides the foundation for effective and lasting solutions. 

Traffic demand management as short-term solutions 

Traffic congestion is not the problem; it is a manifestation of root causes allowed to persist across time. These root causes are uncoordinated development of several growth hubs along EDSA, and the unmitigated proliferation of motorized vehicles. 

Tackling the root causes involves an overhaul of the metropolis, an undertaking that will take decades to achieve. In the meantime, traffic demand management (TDM) strategies that will ensure all road users – pedestrians, bikers, bus commuters, private car drivers – enjoy equal space along EDSA must be pursued: 

1. Pedestrian-oriented design elements, such as secured sidewalks, vegetation, and a covered walk area. 

2. Dedicated bicycle lane along EDSA, including bicycle-friendly facilities and secured bike storage areas. 

3. Increase in the number of dedicated bus lanes in parity with lanes for private vehicles.

4. Bus ridership surveys to determine demand scientifically. The assumption that “there are just too many buses” does not hold water; most buses are packed to the brim during rush hours. But there are times within the day that demand is variable. The MMDA should enforce a strict dispatch system based on hourly demand. 

5. PUV drivers’ compensation should be totally divorced from ridership and revenue. But while Department of Transportation Order No. 2017-011 de-links compensation to ridership, National Wages Productivity Commission Guidelines No. 1, s. 2019 contradicts the objective of fixed wages by introducing an innocuous fine print that allows for ridership-based and revenue-based incentives. This anomaly should be fixed. 

Roads are shared public spaces. While road capacities remain insufficient, there is limited opportunity to build new lanes. Thus, our policymakers should focus on policy and people, simultaneously redesigning the infrastructure with caution and vision. The end-goal at all times should be that all road users benefit equally. If this will entail cutting back privileges of private cars, and reclaiming part of carriageways for pedestrians and non-motorized vehicles, then let it be so. 

TDM, however, is only a short-term solution. The government should be able to provide long-term solutions to transportation problems. (READ: [ANALYSIS] What Duterte doesn’t get about Metro Manila traffic)

Long view 

Although the MMDA’s police power is limited, it can significantly affect policy by taking a more proactive role in the Interagency Council for Traffic (I-ACT). It may be able to provide the necessary policy responses to regulate private vehicles and eliminate the “boundary and quota” system since the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board similarly belongs to the I-ACT. 

Further, the MMDA has significant powers as Metro Manila’s Regional Development Council (RDC), the region’s coordinative body that sets the direction of all regional development efforts. Traffic congestion reveals a deeper malady: lack of a well-defined land use plan. Metropolitan Manila’s physical framework plan for 1996-2016 has provided a vision on the direction of growth of the capital region. 

According to Executive Order No. 325, s.1996, the RDC is tasked to prepare, implement, monitor, and evaluate short- and long-term regional development plans and investment programs, regional physical framework plans, and special development plans, including the formulation of policy recommendations. It is also mandated to integrate development plans of local governments, line agencies, state universities and colleges, government-owned and controlled corporations, and special development authorities into the regional development plan. 

The MMDA can start with a detailed review of the measures prescribed in that important planning document. It should open up the process of formulating the next physical framework plan (2017-2037) to a wider public. However, more than crafting an updated regional framework plan, the shift of leadership from autocratic to strategic and facilitative is necessary. There is little merit in an urban plan imposed from the top. For any major policy to work, it is important that the MMDA obtain the buy-in of all stakeholders. – Rappler.com 

Jayson Edward San Juan is a licensed urban planner and an advocate of people-centered urban design, with focus on inclusive mobility and the role of institutions in transportation. He took his MA in Urban and Regional Planning in the University of the Philippines. Any opinion stated in this piece is his, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the organizations to which he is affiliated.