Our traffic hell, an exit strategy

Approaches by Manila and the MMDA to the traffic problem are wrong and will only lead to mutually assured destruction

These past two weeks, due to floods or bomb threats, many residents of Metro Manila were caught in monstrous traffic jams.

Based on social media and radio reports, it is clear that citizens are reaching a breaking point. The anger is palpable, the blame laid squarely on the government and especially the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA).

It is our sense that we have reached a new low in the transportation crisis in the city and that the people’s frustration is reaching a new peak. Unfortunately, this will not necessarily translate into rational and good decisions by government bodies, including local governments.

Take Manila’s ordinance regulating the entry of city and provincial buses — allowing only those with terminals in Manila, to enter the city. This ordinance has been controversial, with complaints from both bus operators and commuters accompanying perceived gains in traffic reduction.

Questions have also been raised about the consequences of locating bus terminal hubs in strategic places in the north and south outskirts of Metro Manila. This is now being implemented by the MMDA for buses coming from the south, and it has been terrible seeing the chaos in the terminal during its first weeks of operation. Commuters are not only suffering major inconveniences but their commuting budgets have also increased considerably.

Indeed, if Metro Manila were a human body, it would be suffering from a terrible disease. It is a disease that, as of 2011, is costing us P137.5 billion, according to a study made by the UP National Center for Transportation.

The challenge is how to treat this disease immediately since it can also spell the difference in the country’s inclusive growth. But can we really say the disease has been properly identified?

Assured destruction

In this piece, we argue that traffic is not the main problem. If this is the lens we use to frame what we are facing, we are likely to make matters worse. The better approach is to see the challenge as one of inclusive mobility – that what we need in Metro Manila is a public transportation system that is affordable and can move people efficiently from their homes to their work places, and to and from centers of commerce and community life.

We credit Manila and the MMDA for exerting efforts to solve the problem, but we contend that their approaches are wrong and will lead only to MAD-ness. By MAD, we mean the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, a concept popularized in the Cold War when nuclear war was deterred by the assurance of such destruction.

In the case of our transportation crisis, if this continues, other local governments will retaliate against Manila, and commuters will defy the rules, and worse, resort to even more colorum vehicles. Certainly by punishing the commuting public, those who take public transportation will now resort to private vehicles and just exacerbate traffic and chaos in our streets.

At the end of this think piece, we suggest options that could help us overcome the mobility challenge, a way out of MAD.

Statistics and the big picture

Available statistics cover mostly the number of buses but seldom the number of passengers during peak hours. Earlier, Rappler reported  that according to the MMDA, there are 13,067 buses running in Metro Manila each day and around 60% (7,368) are from the provinces. If we used this data and the average reported bus loading capacity of 40.5 passengers (vis-à-vis 60 for full capacity), this will mean that the current bus system carries 529,213.5 passengers a day.

Other reports also say that EDSA can accommodate only 1,600 bus units daily. If we used the current bus average loading capacity at 40.5 passengers, this number will conservatively carry only around 64,000 commuters. However the current reported statistics show that out of the estimated 300,000 vehicles using EDSA, only 1.2% (or 3,600) are city buses.

The data means that 24-km EDSA carries 145,800 commuters and 444,600 motorists (on average 1.5 occupancy level per private vehicle) daily.

The MRT is designed to carry around 350,000 passengers but according to estimates, as many as 540,000 passengers use the MRT daily. Metro Manila has a population of around 12 million (night time) and 14 million (day time). Given that 80% of this daytime population takes public transport, then obviously, the current number of buses and train coaches is inadequate. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is very difficult to weed out “colorum” buses. 

However, this is not to say that “colorum” buses are good. Anything illegal is always wrong. And anything that disrupts the smooth flow of traffic, especially those vehicles carrying the most number of individuals/commuters like buses, is bad.  

But we believe it is time to look beyond the obvious. It is time to look at the big picture and learn to understand what matters most — mobility or the lack of it. At the end of the day, every Metro Manilan would love to have the option to choose which would be the easiest route, the most environmentally-friendly, the most socially friendly, or the cheapest one.

Research and the implementation cycle

In the transport sector, one of the most important data to study is the travel survey data which contain the origin-destination (including transfer points), trip purpose, transport modes, and travel time used, among others.

In most developed countries like Japan and the US, this kind of survey is already institutionalized. In the US, it is even being done periodically and the goal is quite clear: to assist transportation planners and policy makers who need comprehensive data on travel.

In Guangzou, China — winner of the 2011 Sustainable Urban Transport — there were before- and-after studies (http://www.chinabestpractices.net/) for every project. They tracked down changes in physical aspects, movement, and how the public feels about them. This then becomes the basis for further improvement and for communicating information to the public.

In most cities of developed countries, a typical sustainable transport planning and mobility management cycle includes research (data collection); policy (if new ones or some revisions are needed); policy/project implementation; evaluation (research again); and improvement. More importantly, mayors, transport leaders and policy makers “walk the talk.” In other words, they also use the public transport system and have a feel of the city to guide policy formulation.

Manila is the classic case that uses the cycle of “policy-implementation-evaluation-improvement” without seriously looking at the number of commuters affected.

The same seems to be true for EDSA.

MMDA has tried so many schemes on EDSA but most of these are related to regulating bus traffic. In fact, various versions of dispatching schemes have been tried and so far, none have worked very well.

It is important to note that MMDA is also limited by its mandate where buses are concerned. There is also the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) which is tasked to address franchise violations and enforce rules in such a way that bus companies are encouraged to improve their services.

It would be interesting to know how many of these erring companies were sanctioned, but it’s also worth knowing how many commuters were directly affected.

On the other hand, the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC), the agency mandated to come up with solutions to our mobility needs, has been known to be working on a number of mass public transport projects.

In particular, it has been working on the acquisition of additional coaches to address the long overdue capacity expansion of the MRT Line 3. But the MRT Line 3 is considered a light rail transit that was built along EDSA despite the need for a higher capacity system. There could be new coaches, there might be improvement in the system, but the reality is, they will never be enough.

Transport hierarchy

The road-sharing concept supports the belief that the movement of people and things should follow the simple principle, “those who have less in wheels must have more in roads.” This is incorporated in the Philippine Environmentally Sustainable Transport Framework (DOTC 2011). According to the report, the system should favor non-motorized locomotion and collective transportation systems.  

As most transport scientists will attest, it is important to take note of this transport hierarchy: pedestrian, cyclist, mass public transport (trains like PNR or Philippine National Railways, MRT, LRTs, bus, and paratransit modes like PUJs, FXs), then private vehicles in that order.

Any roads built should prioritize pedestrians, cyclists, and mass public transport first. It is important to realize that only when we move the majority of people instead of vehicles can we effectively decongest our roads.

There is a need to also learn the lessons from abroad on how this concept is effectively applied using various innovations in improving bus systems or implementing bus rapid transit (BRT) systems. For instance, one can learn from the experience of Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority in the US, wherein officials secured partnerships with the community once the bus services improved.

They had partnerships with college campuses, shopping centers, apartment complexes, and then asked them to pay for the better service. With a number of school campuses and growing Central Business Districts (CBDs) in Metro Manila, such partnerships are certainly worth considering. 

There are instances that a city decides to enhance transit in a densely populated corridor or build an entirely new system for the metro region and more often than not BRTs and LRTs are considered. The two have many similarities, including (when done properly) exclusive lanes and attractive stations.

BRT proponents often highlight the price, while LRT proponents usually point to capacity and style as marketing points. BRT as a comprehensive transport choice is best seen in Curitiba, Brazil, Bogota, Columbia, Guangzhou, and the People’s Republic of China, among others.

What’s best

At the end of the day, it is best to consider what the commuters want, as well as to learn from past mistakes and from international models. The motorists may want speed, but for commuters it is the frequency of available modes of transportation.

Rather than debate on the technology, it is best to consider road geometry. Instead of focusing on direct service, there should be more seamless connections among the different public transport modes available, which, in turn, are connected to every community.

Jarret Walker summarizes it well in his book, “Human Transit,” which says that most efficient transit systems focus on frequency, duration, speed, reliability, and capacity.

The implementation of the bus ban and integrated bus terminal in Manila has created ripple effects on the rest of the metropolis. But rather than debate on its merits, we should get our act together and start having truly inclusive mobility. – Rappler.com

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