Traffic justice and Manila’s traffic mess

Herbert Docena
To ensure that the common Filipino is not dispossessed of road space, the monopolization of it by the few has to be countered

For many city officials, urban planners, and car owners, solving Manila’s chronic traffic problem is simply a question of speed or efficiency: How do we get cars moving on the road?  

But as the consequences of the authorities’ latest traffic schemes show, there is another largely-ignored question in current debates about how to address the traffic mess: the question of justice.

To many, this was the question posed by that photo published last week: on one side, thousands of working-class commuters, stranded in the rain on Roxas Boulevard after buses were banned from entering the city; on the other side, air-conditioned SUVs, sedans, and taxi cabs speeding by and enjoying the more spacious, because suddenly bus-free, roads.

READ: In fatigues, Estrada blocks buses from entering Manila

Why should buses — each carrying as many as 60-80 passengers — be forced out of the city just so private cars, carrying usually just one or two passengers each, could have more of the road to themselves? If only one in five Metro Manila residents owns a car, why should they be entitled to four out of five of EDSA’s lanes?

This question of fairness was also raised by last week’s picture of hundreds of commuters marching down the tracks in the middle of EDSA because yet another MRT coach had broken down. 

Why is it that government seems to have less qualms about allocating billions of pesos for roads and infrastructure that go to the villages or businesses of the rich but becomes stingy on essential infrastructure that caters to the millions who are poor? Why is it that it’s the urban working class who gets castigated by the President for supposedly taking away resources from the rural poor because they enjoy MRT subsidies? And why is it that they, rather than the rich, have to give up those subsidies for the sake of the rural poor?

This question of justice is raised in general by urban development. The city, after all, generates tremendous wealth, much of it from the toil of the millions who spend hours commuting to the city, packed like sardines in often dehumanizing buses and trains to work and generate profit for capitalists. Urban wealth also produces congestion and pollution, much of it caused by the upper and middle classes who claim more and more of the “urban commons,” such as the roads, and who relatively emit more pollution-causing greenhouse gases and other wastes.

So why is it that the poor, despite the contributions they make, have to be asked to ease urban congestion by being forced out of the city when it is the rich who contribute relatively more to the problem? Is it fair that the poor are effectively being expelled out of the cities because they couldn’t afford to buy cars or pay toll fees? Why should the rich get to claim even more of these commons when they already seem to have more of everything else?

Anarchy of the market

One answer to all these questions is of course the commonly held view that the rich should have more access to the roads because they work harder, pay more taxes, and therefore deserve to enjoy the roads more.  

Or, in more sophisticated versions, because they supposedly generate the country’s wealth and only by leaving them to do with it as they please can it “trickle down” to the poor. As for the poor, their time is supposedly worth less anyway because they make less money per hour. Thus, between them and the rich, it should be the rich who should be given the express lanes. 

The premises behind these claims are debatable — and I personally question them — but whether or not they are valid, I doubt many of us would ultimately want to live in a society in which access to the roads goes simply to the highest bidder.

And yet this seems to be precisely the society we are becoming: a society in which the rich can accelerate to over 100 kph on the smooth lanes of NLEX while the poorest are forced to crawl at a snail’s pace along crowded Macarthur Highway. A society in which the rich can get up as late as they would like and come home earlier if they want to because their office — if they work at all — is just close by and the roads are now being increasingly cleared of those masa buses, while the poor have no choice but to wake up at 4 am because they live in Cavite or San Jose del Monte and have to spend more hours walking, waiting and sweating it out in buses and jeeps.

The disparities that result from these could not be captured by the usual inequality statistics, but they are perhaps no less acute for that reason.

If we are to move away from this class-based traffic segregation, then questions of justice must not be sidelined in favor of questions of speed, and the allocation of access to the commons cannot be left to the anarchy of the market or the laws of the urban jungle. 

Conscious and democratic collective regulation is required, one that’s guided by principles of justice, or what I propose to call “traffic justice:” that everyone has equal dignity and equal rights to the urban commons in general and to the means of mobility in particular, and that this dignity and these rights should be protected at all times. 

Using this principle, we can propose, evaluate, and debate numerous concrete policies to address the traffic problem.

Restricting car ownership

To begin with, traffic justice means we should not be pushing buses that cater to the majority just to give way to the private cars of the minority. It means that more resources should be allocated to expanding mass transport systems.

To ensure that the common Filipino is not dispossessed of road space, the monopolization of it by the few has to be countered. 

This entails pursuing what is likely to be an extremely unpopular measure: restricting car ownership. 

Such a goal can be achieved through a variety of measures, including higher taxes on vehicle purchases and/or through restrictions on the number of cars each family can buy. This, however, has to be supplemented with greater incentives to take public transport by keeping fares low and by making them more convenient through increased subsidies (financed in part by higher car taxes) or to use bikes by subsidizing bike purchases or even by mass-producing them through local industries. 

Anything that restricts car use will surely generate virulent opposition, in part because cars have come to serve symbolic and political purposes. People buy them not only for physical mobility but also to signify their social mobility. And the fact that more people can afford them has served to reinforce a useful belief: that we do actually live in a society in which everyone can “go places” if only they work hard enough—not a society in which people are largely stranded in their social positions regardless of how hard they work.

Our roads (and our atmosphere), however, do not have enough room for this ideology, and it is hard not to see that it is private cars — not the buses of the masa ­— that are taking up a disproportionate share of our commons. 

Apart from democratizing the roads, guaranteeing equal rights to mobility also requires that collective welfare should at all times be prioritized over the pursuit of profits. In practice, this calls for something that will also be fiercely resisted: the socialization of the city’s bus and jeepney systems. 

Surely, it has become obvious by now that one of the reasons it has remained extremely difficult to discipline buses on EDSA and elsewhere is their overriding motivation to maximize profits. This is not because they are innately greedy people. But if transport is run as a business instead of as public service, operators and drivers have no choice but to compete for passengers to stay in business — even if that means stopping in the wrong places or violating traffic rules.

Drivers as public servants

Only by taking away the profit motive and putting public transport in public hands could the government have more ability to schedule trips and plan routes rationally, enforce the use of designated bus stops, and so on. Only then will bus drivers — henceforth to be considered civil servants with fixed salaries — have no more reason to ignore traffic rules in order to meet their quotas.

This proposal to socialize public transport is not as radical as dogmatic free-marketeers will no doubt proclaim. Even in the US, the primary proponent of neoliberalism, and much of the rest of the developed world for that matter, most if not all city bus systems are run by city or municipal governments. In some places, those who supervise their city’s systems are even directly elected by the people. 

Doctrinaire technocrats and pundits will no doubt insist that this will be even more “inefficient” than the current privatized system, but if there is one thing our —and the rest of the world’s — experience with privatization teaches us, it’s that the private sector is by no means inherently better than the public sector. 

Indeed, anyone still in awe of the “self-regulating” market should observe EDSA daily and see how the privatized transport market works.  

To be sure, public-sector performance, especially in the Philippines, does not inspire confidence, and socializing the bus system will come with its own set of problems. But with public vigilance and democratic participation, it can at least be held accountable and be reformed in more direct ways than a sector which ultimately obeys the dictates of the market.

Aside from socializing the bus system, prioritizing the common welfare over profits also means subordinating the interests of real estate developers and speculators to the interest of commuters. Nowhere is the capture of government policy by real-estate moguls more clearly in display than in the MRT-LRT transfer stations where, instead of building the shortest connections between lines possible, government decided to leave commuters with little choice but to walk through SM, Trinoma, or Gateway. The convenience of commuters should always come before the bottom-lines of the country’s richest.

Deeper roots

Beyond these direct transport-related measures, however, achieving traffic justice behooves us to go beyond the symptoms of our urban woes and to identify and address their deeper roots. 

If the traffic mess has to do with urban congestion, which many blame on the continuing growth of the urban population, then what accounts for that growth?

Why is it that millions of Filipinos move to Manila from the provinces year after year despite the squalor of the city? Could it be because many have been left with few other choices after being evicted off their lands and dispossessed of access to their means of subsistence by large-scale plantations, mining companies, and other capitalist ventures siphoning off resources from the countryside to the city? 

Why is it that, for all the wealth that goes to the city, urban infrastructure and services remain woefully inadequate? Might it not be because, left to themselves, the individual capitalists who benefit from the city’s growth, in order to survive competition, are driven to minimize their costs, and therefore have little incentive to look after and nourish the urban commons?

I cannot adequately explore these questions here, but I end with them if only to suggest that achieving traffic justice requires us to also confront these deeper questions about the direction of the development we are taking. For instead of obsessing about speed, what we probably need to do first is to examine where we’re going. –

Herbert Docena is a PhD student in sociology, studying the politics of development and the environment.

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