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End Metro Manila traffic, fund sustainable transport

Monday, August 4, was a day of hair-pulling anguish and frustrated tears for many Metro Manila residents.  

Hours of traffic jams, domino-effect vehicular accidents, students late for school, employees late for work, and even deaths.

We've had days like this before, and we're likely to have plenty more. How many more nightmares like this before we finally wake up? 

We know Metro Manila traffic infrastructure is crap. It's easy to realize this when you've heard the same song on the radio 10 times and your car hasn't moved an inch in a mile-long traffic rut. 

It dawns on you when you arrive home at 11 pm when you left the office at 5 pm, robbed of a chance to eat dinner with your kids.

But it's time we realize something beyond this: that the situation is untenable and we have to change things drastically. 

Single car accidents and a few hours of rain leave entire cities crippled. The problem of traffic has become extreme. The solution must be equally extreme.

Nothing short of a revolution in our transport system will work. We need a radical shift in gears by calling on the government to make significant investments in sustainable mass transport.

'Carmaggedon'

Metro Manila simply has too many cars. The solution of the government has been to make more roads. (READ: Taming the traffic beast of Metro Manila)

There is nothing wrong with roads. Roads improve accessibility to places once considered remote. They help farmers bring their products to the market. They bring development.

But I argue that roads will only be effective – and be worth the billions of pesos we spend on them – if mass transport systems are given equal priority.  

A clogged road is only slightly better than no road. For roads to be optimized, the number of vehicles plying them should also be at an optimum level.

To do that, you need to make sure there are never too many cars on the road. For this to happen, you need to find a way to take cars that don't have to be there out of the road.

Do all the 330,000 cars that pass through EDSA daily have to be on EDSA? 

I'm willing to bet my MRT stored value ticket that some of the drivers in those cars wouldn't mind taking the train if the train was comfortable, the lines weren't so long, and they wouldn't need to contort their body into weird shapes to get from one station to another.

But we don't see the government spending as much on mass transport systems as it does on road projects.

Funds for sustainable transport

In his last State of the Nation Address, President Benigno Aquino III boasted of the more than 12,000 kilometers of roads laid out and repaired by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

But sustainable mass transport only merited a footnote. He mentioned the Cebu bus rapid transit and rehabilitating and adding more carriages for train stations. 

In the 2015 National Budget, P174.5 billion ($4 billion) will go to roads and bridges. Meanwhile, only P16.9 billion ($386 million) is allocated for railways. 

It will take more than a few more train lines and repairs to convince a sizable number of private car drivers to patronize Metro Manila railways.

For this to happen, I believe the mega city's train system should fulfill the following criteria:

It would be even better if the payment scheme for trains can be used for other mass transport systems like bus rapid transit, thereby integrating the commuter experience.

Significant government investment is the amount of investment that will make sustainable mass transport so convenient, you'd be considered impractical not to commute.

Anti-pedestrian Metro Manila 

There are other creative and cost-effective solutions government should be seriously consider – things like safe bike lanes for in-city travel or clearly delineated pedestrian lanes. 

Metro Manila's roads are easily identifiable for their being as anti-pedestrian as possible. Tiny "sidewalks" are crammed beside 6-lane roads where buses, trucks, and cars roar past in a cloud of smog.  

"Bike lanes" become parking lots for cars who know they can get away with it.

If government prioritized bike lanes and pedestrian lanes as much as it did roads, these human-friendly lanes would be clearly demarcated by low walls to protect pedestrians from vehicles and would be properly paved instead of rutted. 

If government went the extra mile, these lanes would even be lined by shrubs or small trees instead of by cruel-looking metal wire fences. 

But government refuses to invest significantly in these alternatives even if they've been proven to work in such model cities as Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Paris. 

Perhaps this is because bikers and people willing to walk to the local grocery store are still seen as a "niche" sector.  

We may see two or 3 bikers on the road on our way to work, but where are the legions who I claim will make use of these bike lanes?

To which I argue: these legions do not yet exist because they have not been given a chance to. 

Only the brave and stoic would be willing to bike into the Metro Manila air pollution and quagmire of cars.

As environmental lawyer Antonio Oposa Jr pointed out, the Philippines' love affair with cars most likely began with the Hollywood glamorization of cars. If you didn't own a car, you were considered worthy of pity, someone rungs below the social ladder. 

But many countries have seen through this illusion. In the Netherlands, lawmakers bike to work. In Hong Kong, people who can afford branded high heels take the train. 

The most sustainable cities are where the rich would rather commute. 

It shouldn't be the burden of citizens to prove to government what transport solutions they want. Government should take the initiative in finding out the best transport solution for its citizens. 

Why doesn't the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) or the national government commission a survey of Metro Manila residents to see how many would be willing to bike or walk to their destination if the right infrastructure was in place?

The answer might surprise them. 

Smooth-sailing

With less private cars on the road, trucks, buses, taxis, or private cars that really do need to travel great distances would be able to take full advantage of the road. 

In other words, less cars mean better roads.  

Less cars means less accidents. Less accidents mean less traffic jams. Trucks delivering goods, buses transporting commuters would not waste time in stand-still, saving billions of pesos and allowing the economy to run a little bit smoother.

Traffic is costing us more than P2.4 billion ($55 million) a day, according to the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA).  

This would be more than enough to improve existing train lines, add new ones, put up bus rapid transit in strategic locations, and build better bike and pedestrian lanes. 

Of course, there are many other possible solutions to traffic like cracking down on colorum buses or enforcing traffic rules more strictly. 

But I think the cross-cutting solution would be to simply take as many cars as possible off the roads. You can ban as many buses as you like, have the most disciplined drivers, but if cars continue to pile up in our roads, the situation will reach breaking point.

It's a good strategy to develop more urban centers to attract more people to live away from Metro Manila. But if mass transport systems are not developed in those new urban centers, you may just be creating another car-clogged city. 

There are already great initiatives in support of creative transport solutions. Senators Pia Cayetano and Cynthia Villar have filed a sustainable transport bill. Ramon Magsaysay awardee and environmental champion Antonio Oposa Jr has his Share the Road Movement

Filipinos need to rally around these efforts so that government is forced to pay attention.  

Call it crazy. Call it out of this world. Call it impossible to see more bikers on the road than cars, or more people preferring to take the train. But massive support for revolutionary solutions inspires revolutionary leadership. Our leaders in government won't listen if they are convinced the "crazy ones" stand alone.

I confess, Metro Manila traffic has driven me crazy. I think they've made all of us just a little bit crazy. Maybe this craziness can be used for good. We can't stay in the traffic jam of our own inertia forever. We need to get out of the car and find another way out of this rut. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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