Taming the traffic beast of Metro Manila

Rene S. Santiago

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Applying more knowledge is more effective, and inclusive, than throwing money against a perennial and acute problem

Every commuter knows and feels that traffic congestion in Metro Manila is turning from bad to worse. More so during the Christmas rush. It has become the “new normal,” an object of quiet desperations and frustrations. And perhaps because of our Catholic upbringing, many yearn for a redeemer, a Traffic Czar, as if that is the solution.

This writer believes otherwise. There are better and more effective ways.

Some caveats

At the outset, let me state a few caveats.

One, I claim no originality for these views. They are not novel. Nearly all the right remedies have been researched, tried and proven to work elsewhere, except in the Philippines where talk takes the place of action.

Two, there are no more painless (nor instant) solutions. We have virtually exhausted all the less painful solutions in the past, and deferred the more difficult ones. It will take decades of long-term commitment to lick the traffic beast. So far, our approach has been a dance of one-step- forward-two steps backward.

Three, building more roads will increase vehicular traffic, not bring “decongestion.” The completion of a new road may indeed produce reliefs, but that will be transitory. We cannot pave over the entire metropolis, even if we have the money (which we don’t have). Besides, the increase in the vehicle population exceeds our capacity to expand our road network. And if we consider road construction as the solution to solving traffic congestion, “it is like buying a bigger pair of pants to solve the problem of obesity.”

Four, no large cities ever solved their congestion problems by relying on private cars.  Urban mobility needs a good public transport system. More than 15 years ago, a traffic study counted 70% of daily trips being carried by public transport. That is probably at 60% now. That metric is 90% for Hongkong, 67% for Paris, 12% for Kuala Lumpur, 57% for Tokyo. Think how worse it would be, if the share of public transport in Metro Manila deteriorates further.

Five, gimmickry can entertain or make good copy, but not bring an iota of traffic relief. Exorcising demons from EDSA by invoking the gods, labeling streets as Christmas or Mabuhay lanes, or sticking OBR stickers unto buses provide diversions – but not from congestion. We’ve seen it all before.

Making the best use of road assets

Our road network is inadequate, and we should maximize its capacity. That is the primary objective of traffic management, and the daily chore of MMDA. Right now, we are misusing our available road space – estimated at about 5,000 kilometers. How to get more throughputs from our limited road space?

Rehabilitate, upgrade and expand the computerized signaling system that enables coordination of signal timing and patterns across the road network, from one intersection to the next.

After 20 years and 4 project phases, the system has expanded to cover about 435 intersections by year 2000. Instead of expanding the system, as what a modern metropolis do, Metro Manila moved backward and dismantled nearly 50% of the intersections in favor of the primitive and uncoordinated U-turn schemes.

With a reduced coverage, the effectiveness of the signalization was drastically reduced and with it the overall capacity of the network. Most, if not all, of what remains have outdated timing patterns.

Corollary to the first, many of the U-turn schemes left behind by previous MMDA cavemen have to be dismantled. Before, only the outermost lanes were slow moving due to road side frictions arising from loading and unloading, egress/ingress to properties, and uncontrolled parking.

With U-turns, road side frictions now afflict also the innermost lanes. The outcome: reduced network capacity.  Moreover, replacing one move with three moves (1 left turn with an elongated double left turns+ right turn, which is what a U-Turn scheme is) is inefficient and accident-prone.

Private roads of gated subdivisions are untapped assets. They probably account for 20% of roads in the metropolis – especially in areas outside C-4. Although many are meant to provide local access, one can delineate a few that can be “opened”, and thereby improve connectivity and network capacity.

A generalized opening of private roads would be opposed, but selective application can be acceptable. Imagine if Ayala Avenue (a private road) were closed to the public.  

Re-invent public transport

The unfortunate fact is that government has neglected our urban public transport system – except for the occasional building of bus stops and loading bays, and recurring plans to build provincial bus terminals and ban them from urban roads. It has focused on expensive urban rail lines – which are necessary but hardly sufficient, and takes very long implementation times.  Even the enforcement of yellow lanes – meant to improve bus travel times – is flawed.

The jeepneys have become untouchables too long. Replace all of them gradually with better versions – low emissions, energy efficient, designed for urban commuting and taller Filipinos, equipped with GPS and  wired into an Intelligent Transport System (ITS).

This form of paratransit is despised by car users, but they carry nearly 50% of daily commutes and provide employment to a quarter million of the urban populace. And culturally, it has become an icon of Filipino pride (and sadly, also emblematic of backwardness).

Modernize the jeepneys and the way they operate on our streets and you throw out a ‘heritage of smallness’, to borrow from Nick Joaquin, aside from reducing air pollution. The old style of atomized management, tolerable in rural and small towns, becomes dysfunctional in a metropolis.

Re-organize buses and reduce the number of operators – only 2 per corridor. More than 600 bus operators do not conduce to branding and service differentiation, a fertile ground for  ‘colorum operations’. Manage their deployment under a Central Operations Center of a metro wide ITS. Seoul in South Korea demonstrated how it can be done. 

One current official was given a tour in Seoul, gushed about it, and returned pushing for something Seoul dismantled – an elevated roadway into the heart of the city. Ordering bus operators to engage drivers on salary basis helps in taming unruly street behaviour, but will cause hardly a ripple in traffic relief. The more enduring solution is to restructure the industry, change its exploitative business model. Pool the revenues and pay-out bus operators (and jeepneys also) on the basis of contracted trips made on predefined routes and headways.  

Urban railway is at the top of the public transport hierarchy, but they cannot be everywhere. Less than 10% of daily trips are carried by the 4 rail lines. Expanding the system takes a few years, but our weak institutions stretch execution to decades. Line 1 extension to Cavite should have been completed in 2004; Line 2 extension to Masinag in 2009; and Line 3 upgraded 3 years ago.

These expensive assets are badly managed; maintenance is treated like a janitorial service. Bills to reform the rail sector have languished in Congress in the last 15 years. Everyone opted “to kick the can down the road” – including the necessity of adjusting fares.

While many countries – developed and developing – have already changed their business models, our railway entities are still locked in the archaic ways of the past.  The solution is to privatize all the three rail lines, including the PNR commuter service – akin to what was done on water supply.

If we want world-class rail transit, we have to professionalize their management. That will not happen under public sector management. Imagine your water faucets today, had the ‘pain’ of privatization not been done 15 years ago.

Instead of being rail-centric, BRT (bus rapid transit) lines in the major roads of Metro Manila will be the cost-effective solution to addressing urban mobility problems (as shown by many experiences in Latin America, Australia, and Asia).

It also offers a platform for the existing bus operators to work together. BRT systems have the potential to deliver passenger capacities comparable to railway systems, at a fraction of the cost of rail. Well-planned and designed BRT systems also put a high premium on customer service. 

After all, passengers are a public transport system’s customers, and they deserve nothing less. It is more appropriate in Commonwealth Avenue, rather than MRT-7.

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

Little things that mean a lot

Let subdivisions and exclusive villages organize car pools. They should be generous with limited public use of some of their roads. Companies or buildings with large employee should do the same. Instead of promoting car ownership with their generous car-plans, they should also craft their respective public transport programs. Big business has to pay attention to the Commons, and not leave everything to the government.

Large private schools and campuses must do likewise. Traffic on Ortigas Avenue in San Juan, for example, is very bad because of three universities whose students are dependent on private cars. When 4 persons carpool, it takes away 3 cars out of the road. Built more in-campus dormitories for students and teachers to reduce need to travel.

Walk, if the distance is less than a kilometer. It is good for your health. Wait for your ride on designated bus stops, shun buses/jeepneys that pick up passengers anywhere. Local government units must rebuild sidewalks systematically, and as part of the building permitting system. Rome was not build in a day.

Large property developers should not externalize their respective traffic impacts. Instead, they should deliberately plan and execute schemes to integrate public transport into their complexes. Stop building communities anchored on private cars, build them for walkability.

Do more telecommuting. Let the work move, rather than the worker. Corporations and offices have enough brilliant minds to find creative ways to do it. Imagine if 10% of the more than 1 million extra daytime populations that swells Makati were to work at home; that would be 100 thousand less trips per day or 50,000 fewer cars on the road. Government can do no less, by putting on-line many government transactions that are currently traffic magnets.  

Educate and re-educate traffic enforcers, bus drivers, and jeepney drivers, in that order of priority. This is a never-ending mission. Traffic is not just about roads, it is also about the human element. Good roads are made useless by bad drivers, but good and civil drivers make even bad roads function properly even without traffic enforcers. Perhaps, this is something the Automotive Association of the Philippines can embrace as a mission, in partnership with key government agencies.

Pricing, the forgotten lever

Pricing is the most efficient and effective solution to address a demand-supply gap. Motor vehicles have grown by more than 4% a year in the last 6 years, but supply of roads had barely moved. In 2003, the ratio of vehicle to road and rail supply was already low compared to Jakarta and other Asian cities; that has gone worse now.

To ration limited road space, MMDA has adopted a car-rationing scheme called number or color coding. Copied from Mexico, it should have been a short-term solution. Studies have shown that it engendered the “Cobra effect”, inducing households to buy an extra car and to use them more intensively. 

It is time to abolish it. If government is too timid about road pricing ala Singapore or London, it could go the way of Jakarta: cars must have a minimum of 3 passengers to enter the CBD without penalty. Car poolers can be incentivized with low or free parking.

Restore balance in the pricing of public transport system. By holding back fare increases on LRT, the government has induced trips away from buses and jeepneys, who end up fighting more aggressively on the streets fishing for passengers.

The government has fixed fares on LRTs for the last 9 years, thus, the spectacle of overloaded trains and under-used buses on EDSA. You can take out 1,500 buses on EDSA without crowding on the remaining units. Operators will earn more, even at reduced fares, because the current level includes payments for inefficiencies. Re-balance the prices among different transport modes, and the imbalances will disappear.

Sans pricing, we have traffic lights to mediate conflicting demand for the same road space – based on the more egalitarian rule of first-come-first-served. However, the U-turns replaced this rule into a game of chicken.

Root causes of congestion

Congestion will continue to worsen, unless we tame the main culprits: population and economic concentration within the NCR. It accounts for 35.7% of the country’s economic output, 18% of population and 28% of motor vehicles, on only 0.2% of land area.

The ultimate solution is to “de-imperialize Manila”. As a primate city, it breeds traffic jams on a mammoth scale. The flood of vehicles will continue to grow, and nothing can the hapless MMDA enforcers do to stop.

The question is how? Previous policies (e.g., growth pole strategies, ban on some activities within 50 km radius, decentralization, etc.) have failed – because they relied on institutions that are broken. Land use regulation is a big joke.

It should have been our first line of defence against congestion. We need a trigger that would unleash centrifugal forces to de-imperialize Manila.  My proposal is to relocate the centers of our 3 branches of government – one in Luzon, one in Visayas, and the third in Mindanao. Redistribute political power, economic power will follow, and traffic jam will ease.

Smart Cities

All of the above is a journey of a thousand miles towards smarter cities. Intensified use of telematics in public transport and traffic management will be the key to a more sustainable city. Google is on the verge of breakthrough on driverless cars. Our own LRT 2 is built to run without train drivers.

ICT has progressed to the point that the “impossible takes only a little time” – if every Filipino will do his share. Sooner or later, Metro Manila has to bite the bullet and adopt electronic road pricing. Towards that end, the current plan of DOTC to replace vehicle plates with a new series should embed RFID into the plates.  

Of course, many of the above can happen sooner, and in a more organized and systematic manner, if there is an orchestrator. Some would prefer to call that person a Traffic Czar, I prefer to call him a Traffic Champion or Conductor, not unlike an orchestra conductor. It would help if we have the likes of Enrique Peñalosa (of Bogota) or Myung-Bak Lee (of Seoul).

But our tragedy is that there is no such bold visionary among our current crop of officials.  All are sprinters, when the need is for a marathoner. If President Aquino truly believes that his primary focus as the nation’s leader is to “change the status quo so that it affects everybody,” the horrible traffic situation of Metro Manila beckons him to change the game.

What is the cost of inaction? There are various estimates on the cost of traffic congestion.

My own estimate is based on the Vehicle Operating Cost model. Using 40 kph as non-congested norm for cities compared to what we now regularly experienced (15kph on 6 out of 7 days a week), the cost is Php48 billion annually plus another Php380 billion for lost time.

At 40kph, a journey of 40 km takes 60 minutes; at 15kph, same journey takes 160 minutes. A small improvement of 5 kph chips 40 minutes out of that same journey – equivalent to Php20 billion savings in vehicle operating cost and Php150 billion in time savings per year.

So much wastage is not sustainable in the long run. Metro Manila must break out from its obsession with vehicle mobility and shift into people mobility.

Applying more knowledge is more effective, and inclusive, than throwing money against a perennial and acute problem. – Rappler.com

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