‘Cars are the problem’ is not fake news, it’s reality

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MARLEN V. RONQUILLO

THE ambitious transport modernization plan that the Department of Transportation (DOTr) started a few months back was written in memo form and was quite legal and technical. But one can’t miss the reason why the DOTr came out with the memo. The problem is clear, it said. Private vehicles (cars) have overrun the urban roads and no amount of infrastructure build-up could catch up with the pace of car-buying and use.

Some 300,000 cars are acquired yearly, from the de lata bantam cars of the wage earners to the pricey SUVs of the powerful and the wealthy. Intended for the metropolis that last tasted a burst of infra building in the 1990s and is awfully lacking in public infrastructure. Mr. Duterte is right. Metro Manila is a dying city and its choked roads are the number one reason for the paralysis.

The solution, according to the DOTr memo: modernize public transport to curb the enthusiasm for cars, to lure people into taking the various modes of public transport: buses, mini-buses, AUV vans, jeepneys, whatever. If there was a phrase apt enough to summarize the DOTr memo it was this: Make people leave their cars in the garage and take public transport. In other words, incentivize people through a modern transport system that is efficient, affordable and – above all – a traffic buster.

That memo was probably the first official recognition by the DU30 administration that cars, not the PUVs, are at the root of the traffic jams in the country’s major metropolitan centers. Previous references to the problem of cars had been verbal and tongue-in-cheek.


The decision to resurrect the yellow lanes for buses along EDSA provides the optic that supports the “cars-are-the-problem“ take of the DOTr. Along EDSA, day in and day out, people can now view the stark reality—the yellow lanes move fast and the lanes outside are choked to kingdom come. That yellow-lane part of EDSA validates the DOTr memo that once there is a great shift to PUVs, the traffic gridlocks in the metropolitan roads will be history.

Even the self-serving study commissioned by the TNV operator Uber said that only 65 percent of the cars on the road are needed. The 35 percent are there because car use is unregulated and ours is a car-crazy nation. The study said that an urban resident spends more than 400 hours a year stuck in the hellish metropolitan roads.

So, why is there no action being taken to purge the 35 percent off the jammed metropolitan roads and regulate the use of the 65 percent? It is all too clear that cars are the problem. Our is a country that is used to passing, swiftly and with urgency, laws that regulate. During the 2016 campaign period, then candidate Duterte figuratively said that “ burning those cars” was the solution to the metropolitan traffic jams.

Why? Why indeed? Why is policy afraid to deal with the car problem and muster the political will to rein in their use?

First, this is a car-crazy country. This is a people that would rather live in a cheap rental but with cars parked along roads and public spaces than live in a paid-for dwelling but carless. That is, by any benchmark, a twisted priority but it is the vote most Filipinos make, if asked to pick between a paid-for-house without cars and the other option – living in a rental with cars. That the subscribers to this theory belong to the two most productive sectors of the economy – the OFWs and the BPOs – will make a leader think twice before imposing regulations to rein in car ownership.

Second, there is always a escape clause for people who would rather buy cars and help choke the crippled roads rather than taking the better option of taking the many modes of mass transport. Mass transport is unsafe, mass transport is unreliable, mass transport deprives one of the status symbol that comes with car ownership.

Our leaders are also car nuts. Remember the embarrassing episode in the middle of the term of Mr. Aquino. When he acquired a used Porsche. Our leaders in Congress—both chambers and with very few exceptions— are car nuts as well. One senator is part owner of a luxury car dealership.

Third, there is a subset of journalists that promotes cars. These journalists nurture the fantasy that owning a car is the best thing in life. And, in the process, blame the traffic on phantom causes, not the cars they love and promote.

We are perhaps the only the country in the world that has it backwards – cars over mass transport. Even Munich, I have written about this a thousand times, is moving dramatically to shed its image as the “Car Capital of the World“ into a city that restricts cars to promote walking, biking and mass transport. Troubled Barcelona is bitterly divided on the separation issue but not on banning cars from roads and other public spaces.

Singapore is host to the boldest experiment to restrict cars and promote mass transport. It is easier and cheaper, they say, to have a second wife in Singapore than own and maintain a used car.

To most Filipinos, “ Carmaggedon “ is fake news. The sad thing is, it is reality and unless steps are taken now to rein in car use, Metro Manila will be at a standstill, the first major metropolis in the world to die because of the senseless addiction to cars and the failure of policy to deal with the obvious.

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