BACK in 2013 and on one occasion last year, President BS Aquino 3rd briefly found himself buried under a heap of scorn for laughing off Metro Manila’s appalling traffic congestion as a sign of the country’s positive economic growth.
In what was perhaps a sign that he really does intend to try to be the Aquino clone the Liberal Party wants, outgoing DILG Secretary and presidential aspirant Mar Roxas repeated the dubious-sounding assertion last week as the guest speaker at a meeting of the Philippine Sugar Technologists Association in Cebu.
“This is a problem in a sense that arises from prosperity. Because there is money. Because there is economic activity,” Roxas said, according to news reports.
Roxas explained that during his tenure as Secretary of Trade and Industry (2000-2003), 60,000 vehicle sales in one year “was a big year;” in 2014, about 260,000 additional vehicles hit Philippine roads, with a further 300,000 projected for this year. Roxas went on to point out that congestion is not limited to the nation’s streets and highways. In 2014, 50 million domestic air tickets were sold, equivalent to about half of the population, and, as even Roxas had to admit, far beyond the capacity of the existing air transport infrastructure.
The idea that congestion is a positive economic sign is infuriatingly counterintuitive, because waiting in a blocks-long line to board a train or spending an hour or more to make a trip of four or five kilometers in no way feels like progress. The negative economic impact of traffic congestion has even been quantified; an estimate by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) last year estimated the daily loss in Metro Manila (including the neighboring provinces of Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna, and Cavite) at P2.4 billion, or about P876 billion per year.
Nevertheless, the assertion is technically correct: According to a report by INRIX, a data management company that specializes in road traffic data, there is an obvious correlation between the number of vehicles on the road and GDP growth. There are a few exceptions, and the degree of correlation varies, but in general an increase in traffic and faster economic growth go together in any country. Which one is the cause and which is the effect, the INRIX report does not speculate.
And therein lies the point that has always been missed by President Aquino, and has apparently eluded his would-be successor: Traffic congestion is not a key performance indicator, an accomplishment to take smug pride in while it perceptibly worsens, but rather an indicator of demand for infrastructure. For more than five years it has been treated as an afterthought rather than a forward-looking priority. If that were not the case, the Aquino Administration would not be trying to make up for lost ground all at once in an election year by allocating a huge amount – ostensibly almost P800 billion – to infrastructure-related projects in this year’s national budget.
Roxas’ comments last week, in which he highlighted the increase in the country’s capital spending over the past five years rather than offer any suggestions of how he would actually manage infrastructure development, were not encouraging. That was especially so since whatever was spent was clearly insufficient to keep up with traffic growth.
The problem of traffic congestion affects everyone, and it is one of the few areas in which even Aquino’s most loyal and forgiving supporters agree “more of the same” will not be enough from the next president. Mar Roxas – or any other candidate, for that matter – will greatly improve his or her election chances by keeping that in mind.