[OPINION] Dear Duterte Legacy, more roads will not decongest EDSA

Jayson Edward San Juan
[OPINION] Dear Duterte Legacy, more roads will not decongest EDSA
'Almost all urban planning literature debunks the idea that expanding road space for vehicles eases up congestion'


For the past several weeks, several government officials have been harping on the supposed achievements of President Rodrigo Duterte. Bannered as the “Duterte Legacy,” the media blitz names policies and programs allegedly spearheaded and accomplished by the incumbent administration since taking office in 2016. Included in this contested list are several infrastructure projects under the government’s “Build Build Build” (BBB) program. (READ: Making sense of the ‘Duterte Legacy’ infographic)

In their media visits and various releases, Public Works and Highways Secretary Mark Villar and BBB Executive Director Anna Mae Lamentillo claim that the 23 projects under the BBB program costing around P383 billion will decongest EDSA, 6 of which will be completed this year: NLEX-Harbor Link Segment 10, NLEX-Harbor Link R-10 exit ramp, Mindanao Avenue Extension Segment 2C, Metro Manila Skyway Stage 3, Fort Bonifacio-Nichols Road (Lawton Avenue) Widening, and the Bonifacio Global City-Ortigas Center Link Road Project. 

The claim of EDSA decongestion through these new roads – the “EDSA Decongestion Plan” – is a populist claim. It strikes a raw nerve among commuters who suffer two to 3 hours of heavy congestion daily along the capital region’s main road. 

Induced demand 

Writing in 1955, American urban planner and philosopher Lewis Mumford ushered in a concept which, in a nutshell, goes, “Building more roads to prevent congestion is like a fat man loosening his belt to prevent obesity.” 

Almost all urban planning literature debunks the idea that expanding road space for vehicles eases up congestion. And yet, it remains a popular but flawed reasoning used by government to sell the idea of building more roads. At first blush, the idea that more roads mean lesser congestion seems logical: more lanes create more capacity for cars to pass through faster. But this logic assumes that the supply of vehicles remains constant, never growing. 

The fat man’s loosened belt, an image as used by Mumford, demonstrates the concept of “induced demand,” or the idea that increasing road capacity for vehicles encourages more people to drive, thus increasing road congestion. The general logic behind this is that the provision of new road space, virtually free of charge, creates an incentive or stimulus for people to drive more and fill up the new space. 

Complicating the matter are the Filipinos’ deep-seated longing for more mobility through car ownership – as articulated in the country’s long-term vision paper Ambisyon Natin 2040 – and the falling prices of automobiles, which will combine to raise latent demand, portending a flood of new vehicles once new roads open, congesting these new spaces again quickly. (READ: [ANALYSIS] What Duterte doesn’t get about Metro Manila traffic)

At first, new and wider roads will create an impression of faster travel times. But latent and induced demand may encourage a change in behaviour among road users: buying more cars and switching from trains and buses to private cars for greater personal comfort. These choices will increase the number of vehicles using the new and wider roads, bringing the new roads back to their self-limiting equilibrium, and back to congestion. 

Aside from this, road constructions and expansion will induce the creation of new settlements and mixed-use areas, or the further densification of existing ones, along these new roads. As urbanization responds to available infrastructure, road capacity expansion will attract more road users, specifically private vehicles. 

This induced demand, with vehicular traffic acting as gas that expands to fill up all available spaces, rather than as liquid that flows through a certain volume of space, is undesirable. It is a concealed ingredient to the government’s recipe for disaster. 

Designing transportation for accessibility, not speed 

Many of us are obsessed with the idea of speed and faster mobility, manifested by our penchant to “decongest” our roads. We look at EDSA and we demand to “decongest” it by banning provincial buses, and “disciplining” city buses. We demand faster movement for our automobiles by closing down intersections and building more pedestrian overpasses, and by destroying sidewalks to expand the carriageway. 

This national obsession to “decongest” traffic flow illustrates our autocentric culture where the private automobile is king, while pedestrians and commuters are second-class road users. It manifests our own socio-economic order: the more affluent members of society must be able to move faster and more efficiently, while the rest of us are stuck in “traffic.” 

Primarily catering to privately owned automobiles, these BBB projects packaged as the “EDSA Decongestion Plan” are bound to fail because they are designed for speed, not accessibility. They are either elevated and tolled, or located in fast-moving highways – both of which excludes the provision for pedestrian sidewalks and protected bicycle lanes. Without the latter two amenities serving as alternative transportation modes, induced demand will catch up and re-congest these roads at some point. 

A true decongestion plan does not seek the elimination of barriers to speed (i.e., wide sidewalks, protected bicycle lanes, loading zones, and traffic-calming devices) to accommodate automobiles; it promotes accessibility for all users, regardless of whether one walks, bikes, drives, or rides the bus. – Rappler.com

Jayson Edward San Juan is a licensed urban planner and an advocate of people-centered urban design, with a 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.