Solving the traffic problem

Sylvia Estrada Claudio
Solving the traffic problem
The grant of emergency powers to solve traffic is fraught with grave dangers for abuse

I have been bothered by the news that President Duterte is thinking of resorting to emergency powers to solve the traffic problems of Metro Manila and the subsequent filing by Senator Franklin Drilon of a bill to grant him those powers.

My experience as a human rights activist, particularly as someone who has gone through martial law, makes me wary of any suspension of the normal procedures of government and the checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution that effectively allows Congress and the Supreme Court to curb  the power of the President.

The framers of our Constitution think so too. Even a lay person would not mistake the tenor of its provisions which talk of emergency and war in the same breath. Thus in Section 23 (2), Article VI: 

SEC. 23. (1) The Congress, by a vote of two-thirds of both Houses in joint session assembled, voting separately, shall have the sole power to declare the existence of a state of war.

It goes on to limit the granted powers to a specific time frame and very limited powers set by Congress.

SEC. 23. (2) In times of war or other national emergency, the Congress may, by law, authorize the President, for a limited period and subject to such restrictions as it may prescribe, to exercise powers necessary and proper to carry out a declared national policy. Unless sooner withdrawn by resolution of the Congress, such powers shall cease upon the next adjournment thereof.

Personally, I understand the frustration of people with the bad traffic in Metro Manila and the economic, social and environmental costs of this situation.

Yet, because the grant of emergency powers is an unusual step and one fraught with grave dangers for abuse, I do not think it is something to be taken lightly.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to the proposition per se. My question is whether such a grant of powers would be effective in solving the problem. If this can be answered in the affirmative then, I would not necessarily oppose it.

NIGHTMARE. We all know Metro Manila's transport system is a nightmare but are we willing to do something about it? File photo by Romeo Gacad/Agence France-Presse

Traffic expert

Being an advocate of seeking evidence-based advice from experts, I sought out a friend and UP colleague, Dr. Aurora Corpuz Mendoza, whose dissertation for her PhD was on factors leading to traffic violations by public and private drivers. She has been working on issues related to traffic ever since.

My interpretation of her advice is that the practical steps that should be taken in the short-term, medium-term and long-term can be accomplished without emergency powers. In fact, these powers maybe irrelevant to these necessary steps.

In the short-term, Dr. Corpuz Mendoza notes that an immediate step that should be taken is what she calls “high levels of enforcement” of traffic rules. This, I believe, is easy to grasp as most of us complain of the many traffic infractions that cause traffic build up. We all have vented our ire at public utility vehicles that stop at corners despite a green light to pick up passengers, people who own cars but no garages and therefore park their vehicles on even national roads, business establishments that encroach on sidewalks, jaywalking, people playing basketball in the middle of the street, politicians and religious institutions closing down major roads for their celebrations and so on.

It is also good to remember the experiment taken last September when EDSA was taken over by traffic cops. This resulted in immediate and significant improvement in traffic, though it did reveal the need for next steps, such as the deployment of similarly trained and empowered cops in other thoroughfares.

While this is an immediate solution, it will still take months. Traffic enforcers with no police powers need to be replaced with traffic police. These police need to be fully trained specifically for the job of traffic management and the enforcement of traffic laws. More importantly, corruption in the police force that allows violations like prolonged and illegal parking or even the setting up of semi-permanent commercial stalls on sidewalks and side streets is necessary.

When I think about it, none of these measures actually can be helped and accomplished by emergency powers. The President needs no added measures to recruit and train traffic cops. And he has the power to get rid of abusive cops as it stands. The EDSA experiment shows that it can be done without emergency powers.

I asked Dr. Corpuz Mendoza of other proposed immediate solutions that will require emergency powers such as the opening up of private roads. She does not believe this will be helpful. First, many subdivision roads are not built for high volumes of traffic. These roads are often narrow and residents park cars on these roads. Thus opening these roads will merely move congestion into these subdivisions without significantly reducing traffic.

She also adds that the trade-off is too high in terms of increased vehicular accidents that often take the lives of children. Studies have shown that the majority of kids in traffic accidents live in homes where they are exposed to traffic. There is a reason, after all, why we have zoning laws in the country specifying residential areas.

She also discussed short term solutions, such as the purchasing of more carriages for the MRT and LRT, which would also be of help.

According to some, this can be fast-tracked if the President can skip the tedious processes of government purchasing. But I take previous experience on this matter as a warning that the regular processes, if properly conducted,  are a safer route to take. During his time, President Ramos was given emergency powers to solve a power shortage crisis. This allowed him to contract immediately with independent power producers who dictated questionable terms that made government pay them regardless of whether it actually bought electricity from these producers as a PCIJ report notes. These unfair contracts continue to haunt us today. There is indeed a reason for these tedious purchasing procedures. Nonetheless it is the abuse of these procedures rather than in its implementation, as Pres. Duterte’s own inaugural address implies, that problems arise.

Dr. Corpuz Mendoza says that proven effective medium-term solutions include putting bus drivers on professional salaries rather than on the boundary system. Bus drivers on the boundary system are forced to break traffic rules and cause congestion in an attempt to fill their buses at all times. A salary would allow them to drive in accordance to traffic rules. Additionally these will decrease their exploitation and lead to safer driving. As it stands, bus drivers are on the road 17 to18 hours a day and many become drug addicted to shabu (methamphetamines) in order to stay awake.

There is apparently already a DOLE order on this matter, something that has been strenuously opposed by bus operators. 

Other regulatory measures which will be opposed by bus operators will be a reform of the franchises issued by the LTFRB which has allowed three times more buses on EDSA than what traffic studies recommend. Trip generation studies will be needed to adequately determine franchises which is why this solution also needs time.

Dr. Corpuz Mendoza notes further that our roads are multi-use roads with a variety of vehicles from trucks, to buses, to jeeps, to tricycles and pedicabs on the road. Studies will be needed to determine the proper mix of vehicles, she notes. But she is convinced that in Metro Manila, tricycles and jeepneys will need to eventually be phased out.

Long term solutions for her include continuing traffic education for every citizen that can include modules included in the new K12 curriculum. She notes that current efforts at driver education are sorely inadequate and that it is not just drivers but everyone who needs to be educated on proper road use.

Being a proper academic, Dr. Corpuz Mendoza pointed out that other experts such as urban and rural planners will need to be consulted for yet other solutions.

Our discussion ended on the issue of how society must look at public transportation. Public transportation should be treated not just as a private enterprise but also as a public trust and this will require that this industry accept heavy regulation.

Which brings me back the issue of political will.

The current President came to power because it he has portrayed himself as a man of iron will in solving all the ills that have brought about the traffic problem: corruption, incompetence, monopolies for profit, poor police enforcement. He came to power proclaiming he is a socialist, which I interpret to mean he will treat public transportation as a public trust and will entertain policies for heavy regulation, if not outright nationalization. His ability to deliver on his promise to solve the traffic problem quickly and permanently, without resorting to emergency powers, will be a litmus test of the character of his leadership. –

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