Big dreams, little action for Manila’s traffic nightmare


Web designer Maria Zurbano kisses her three-year-old daughter goodbye and sets out in the pre-dawn darkness for a torturous commute through the Philippine capital.

Her ordeal, a return trip of up to six hours every weekday, is expected to get even worse as the number of cars explodes in the chaotic Asian mega-city of more than 12 million people.

Dubbed “carmaggedon” by locals, business leaders are warning Manila could come to a total standstill despite grand government plans to tackle its traffic.

“Physically, during these trips, I feel ill. My back is always hurting. It affects my health to have to sit down for so long,” said Zurbano, 36, as she waited for a bus outside her home at 5 a.m.

After finally ending a cramped mini-bus trip of just 17 kilometers to the financial district of Makati City, Zurbano despaired of being trapped in a traffic hell.

“Traffic just gets worse and worse. I just get more stressed and stressed but it doesn’t look like anything will change. I will just have to learn to bear with it,” she said.

Huge traffic costs
Traffic in the capital and its surroundings is already costing the country about P3 billion a day, or about 0.8 percent of gross domestic product, according to government figures.

And it is steadily worsening as an emerging middle class fuels an auto boom — car sales rose 23 percent last year with nearly 300,000 new vehicles hitting the roads.

Compounding the problem, decades of infrastructure neglect has left Manila with just a few major roads across the city and their gridlock “peak hours” often last for three or four hours.

Commuters have few other options with Manila’s dilapidated rail network tiny in comparison with neighboring Southeast Asian capitals such as Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

A chaotic private bus and mini-bus network with drivers who regularly flout traffic laws by, for instance, stopping in the middle of roads to pick up passengers, is widely perceived as adding to the problem.

“This is going to be the most critical problem the next administration faces,” John Forbes, a senior adviser at the American Chamber of Commerce in Manila, told Agence France-Presse.

Forbes warned Manila risked becoming “uninhabitable” in the next three to five years — meaning people would simply be unable to get around the city — if urgent action was not taken to build roads and rail lines.

Elections for a successor to President Benigno Aquino 3rd, who is required by the Constitution to stand down after a single six-year term, will be held in May.

Aquino has proved a generally popular President but he has been the target of fierce public criticism for a perceived lack of urgency in updating the nation’s creaking infrastructure.

He earned widespread condemnation mid-way through his term with comments that worsening traffic was merely a sign of a growing economy.

Dreams of urban bliss
His aides have since sought to project a sense of empathy and urgency, pointing to new expressways and an extension of a train line as planned projects that will ease the congestion.

They have also emphasized the adoption in 2014 of a “Dream Plan” to fix the urban chaos, which outlines $65 billion of infrastructure spending by 2030.

The plan envisages a wide range of massive and unprecedented projects for the Philippines, such as a subway, satellite cities linked to Manila by high-speed rail, relocating air and sea ports, as well as many new roads.

Finance Undersecretary Gil Beltran, an economist who has studied the traffic problem, said the plan’s huge price tag is within the government’s reach.

“Financing should not be a problem because the funders are ready,” Beltran said, pointing to the nation’s improved credit rating that will allow cheaper loans, as well as expected help from the Japanese government and multilateral lenders.



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  1. The problem is the president himself..They dont know nothing. Infrastructure must be planned 10 years ahead or 5 years before it will be excuted. All Presidents After EDSA 1 revolution dont know NOTHING, except marcos who has a vision of 5 years plan ahead. This is what we need for the government officials.. Hindi iyong bukas agad… Puro kasi gunggong ang mga taong gobyerno…puro pagnanakaw kasi ang nasa utak nila at hindi ang pagpapaunlad ng bansa thru inftrastructure.. Dito sa middle EAst, esp. KSA may project na silang nakaplano o blue print for the next 10 years…up to 2020..

  2. The traffic congestion problem in Manila is not only 10 years ago, nor 20 years ago, nor 30 years ago, nor 40 years, ago, nor 50 years ago but more than 5 decades ago. I was in college in Manila from 1959 to 1965 and the traffic at that time was already very serious. I was commuting daily from my place about 35 road kilometers (about 20 miles) miles to school and it takes 2 hours to reach Manila (10 miles per hour traffic movement). I was on the the road 4 hours daily ( 2 hours to and 2 hours back ). Worst is that the bus was always crowded. I was always tired of the trip standing in the bus clinging to the bar. So tired that I even learned how to sleep while standing with my grip locked to the bar.

    For those previous 5 decades. Look at the previous presidents and their administrations during their terms on what effort did they do to solve this traffic congestion problem. The only thing I can recall is when highway 54 (EDSA) was widened during the Garcia and then Macapagal years. The EDSA widening project was even criticized by critics and distractors that called it a “white elephant” project.

    The current President has been doing every effort to alleviate this project. He is not a Superman but with no biased to all the other past administrations, the current Presidency should be credited in at least engaging, tackling, and pursuing the solution to this monumental problem.