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[OPINION] Part 1 | Solutions to Manila's carmageddon

I recently read The Effective Executive and in that book, management guru Peter Drucker emphasized the need to determine where an executive spends his time – a finite resource.

I followed his advice and did a quick calculation. From Monday to Friday last week, I spent almost 12 hours on the road (11 hours and 50 minutes to be exact). And in 3 of those 5 days, I had left the house at 5:15 am.

That is 12 hours of my life I could not get back. Twelve hours that could have been spent on writing, researching, or rehearsing. Twelve hours that used up costly fuel and worsened an already stressful daily nightmare for other commuters.

The ticking clock haunts me whenever I am stuck in traffic, when I feel like my life, not just my car, is in a standstill. I am pretty sure a lot of you can relate, whether you reside in Metro Manila or not. Because whether you are a CEO or a clerk, a senator, or a servant, if you must travel through this urban jungle at any time of the day, you are not spared from hell. Traffic has become our nation’s great equalizer, but in our journey to move backward rather than forward.

I have endured this, and much worse, for many years. And unfortunately, things are not likely to get any better soon. Drucker was on point about the value of time. When it is lost, it is lost forever, whereas money, when lost, can always be earned back.  

So the problem is Manila traffic, the great man-made disaster of our time. How did we get here?

1. People

The easy answer is the lack of wider access to contraceptives because there is no budget to support it. (Note: Metro Manila, sans vehicles, has a whopping 12.8 million people residing in 620 square kilometers of land, whereas New York City, which is home to 8.6 million people, sits on 11,640 square kilometers of land).

There is also a higher concentration of people in cities, perceived by those in the provinces who move there to have better opportunities. In 2010, 41.9 million Filipinos of the total population of 92.3 million lived in urban areas and approximately 1.3 million changed cities. In Metro Manila, the growth in digital technologies and business process outsourcing companies tends to attract more intangible investments such as talent, software and systems. There is a need for schools, engineers and innovation hubs where these companies are, so they tend to cluster together to create ecosystems where ideas thrive. This underestimates the potential of other parts of the country that have little to no access to good schools, and overwhelms the nation’s capital already gridlocked by an antiquated road infrastructure.

2. Roads

Metro Manila’s current road network was designed in the 1970s and follows a radial-circumferential system, where all roads seem to lead to the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue or EDSA (Circumferential Road 4, or C-4). So when a car is stuck, or parts of EDSA are under construction, there is no immediate parallel option. This is when I start praying that the Jetsons were real.

The good news is, there exists a Roadmap for Transport Infrastructure Development for Metro Manila and Its Surrounding Areas  (Region III and Region IV-A) dubbed “Metro Manila Dream Plan,” a study conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) that was approved by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) in June 2014. It aims to improve mobility within Metro Manila by focusing on the interlinked problems in transportation, land use and the environment. Picture this: the creation of new growth areas in Central Luzon, heavier port activity in Batangas, moving the current NAIA to Clark, and establishing a North-South Commuter Rail from Clark-Calamba. Seems like the ground work has been laid, and which hopefully, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) will just continue to “build, build, build” on.

3. Automobiles, motorcycles, and buses

In 2017, the average daily traffic in Metro Manila was recorded at 2.7 million vehicles. Of this number, 367,728 vehicles traversed EDSA, 66% of which were cars and 19% were motorcycles.

In June 2018, new vehicles sold reached 192,052 units. That is an increase of almost 50% in vehicle density assuming all those cars and motorcycles in the previous year are still running, which is likely. It is a good indicator of purchasing power, especially when owning a vehicle in the absence of reliable public transportation has become a necessity. But our national road capacity does not expand with our upward mobility, so even with new cars, we remain stuck.

The gridlock is not helped at all by empty provincial buses on EDSA, which, to its credit, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) has acted upon. These buses have been banned from picking up and dropping off passengers along EDSA but have been designated loading and unloading zones in Sta Rosa Laguna and Valenzuela. As expected, it is facing opposition from several concerned groups.

COMMUTERS' WOES. A rainy daw in Quezon City on August 2, 2019.

Photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

In our gradual descent to perdition, how has Manila traffic affected our lives?

Sleep. I live in Quezon City, so I have been quite used to leaving the house at the sound of the rooster’s crowing. I do this to take advantage of the near-empty roads and then just sleep in my parked car once I have reached my destination. Twice in my professional career I found myself working in Pasay City, a two-hour drive from home. That meant another 2 or sometimes even 3 hours from work at the end of the day (I usually leave at 9 pm to let the traffic congestion subside), for a total of 5 hours on the road every day. The second time around, I was forced to quit my job, and only then was I able to get back more than 5 hours of sleep.

In case you are wondering, moving to Pasay City was not an option for me given some obligations to my family. I imagine this as a common reality for many people.

Stress. I cannot think of anything more stressful than being late because of something beyond my control. Leaving early is already a given, but sometimes, someone’s car breaks down in the middle of East Avenue. Worse, you discover that they ran out of gas. Much as you wish they had more foresight, you still have a commitment to fulfill, and it is really pointless to stay angry the rest of the day. But the damage is done, your blood pressure has shot up, and you can only hope the road clears soon.   

Physical health. I drive a stick, so that in itself should give you some idea of the strain prolonged hours in traffic can do to my left leg, and my sanity.

Financial costs. Driving in Metro Manila is so costly when you consider the amount of gas wasted, not to mention the logistics and man hours lost when you are running a company. To prevent emergencies and additional costs, vehicles must undergo regular check-ups. And do not forget the car tires – they bear the brunt of our unpaved streets. The end goal of the upkeep would be less expensive to us overall, but entails an added expense nevertheless. 

Environmental costs. With all these car engines running but not moving, it is not unusual to find ourselves in a smoke-belching vortex, at 33 degrees Celsius, in the middle of the day. And the greener parks are nowhere near it. If things do not change, not soon at least, we – especially those with kids – may have to keep a mask in the glove compartment. 

The bright side?

I would like to hypothesize that these days, maybe a handful of us are showing up more promptly. Whether you reside in the north, south or somewhere in between, traffic is so horrifying that it pays to leave an hour or two earlier rather than risk being stuck on the road, in scorching heat even with the AC on, being absolutely useless, motionless and helpless. Getting stuck truly has the makings of a worst-case scenario, so to prevent that nightmare in broad daylight, we adjust.

So what can we do to cope? (Read Part 2 here) – Rappler.com

Mai Mislang is a non-profit consultant and musician. She writes on Medium and Thrive Global on productivity, social issues, travel, and music.