SECRETARY Rene Almendras’ Captain Obvious-like statement on Wednesday that ‘high car sales’ were the cause of Metro Manila’s worsening traffic crisis was met with the derision it deserved among the public, with many pointing out that the pronouncement was exactly the sort of useless observation we would expect to hear after a non-practicing lawyer with no discernible expertise in anything is tasked with overseeing what is fundamentally a complex engineering problem.
To make it clear, the problem of gridlock is not caused by “too many cars.” The percentage of households in the Philippines who own a vehicle – according to an AC Nielsen survey last year – is the fifth-lowest in the world at about 53 percent. Indeed, auto sales have been robust over the past two years, and demand among first-time buyers is relatively high, but that is not enough to add that many cars to the road network fast enough to create the nightmare that we are contending with now.
The breadth of the traffic problem cannot be summed up with one glib statement, or relieved to any extent by throwing fast and cheap non-solutions at it, such as adding a hundred or so extra traffic officers and telling people to be patient. The road infrastructure is a mess that requires a long-term plan – one that will inevitably be fairly complicated – to solve, and the same can be said of the rail infrastructure; until those things are addressed the way they should be, traffic gridlock will never be entirely relieved. If the best the government can do at this point, however, is to try to come up with some short-term fixes to reduce the problem to mere “congestion” from “total paralysis,” then it ought to at least look in the right place: The existing road-based public transportation network.
Writing for the Get Real Philippines website on Thursday, author and all-around observer of the human condition Paul Farol spelled out a number of general characteristics a public transport system should have, pointing out that these are not his ideas, but ones that have been aired over and over again through successive administrations without having made much of an impression on government planners:
Different modes of public transport should be complementary and not compete with each other. Farol suggests that major thoroughfares like Edsa or Commonwealth should only allow buses, with jeepneys limited to routes on secondary roads and tricycles eliminated completely, except perhaps where they can serve as short-range shuttles within subdivisions.
Public transportation routes should not overlap, but should connect to one another. For example, the primary route from my own home area in Cavite (which accesses the city via Aguinaldo Highway and the Cavitex) is plied by buses and jeepneys traveling from points south (Dasmariñas, Tagaytay, or other locations in Cavite and Batangas) with destinations at the Coastal Mall in Parañaque, Baclaran, central Manila, Makati, Cubao, and even Fairview in the far reaches of Quezon City.
Public transportation (and public transportation passengers) should be compelled to use fixed stops, which, of course, should be properly constructed to provide adequate shelter for waiting passengers and allow vehicles to stop without impeding the flow of traffic.
All modes of public transportation should operate on fixed schedules that are consonant with actual demand on the system.
This, of course, will only be possible once the “boundary system” – which pays bus drivers and conductors only after a certain fixed amount in fares is collected in a shift, encouraging recklessness and overloading – is firmly and finally abolished, and transport operators compelled to pay their works regular wages.
Public transportation services should be provided only by a few capable and financially-sound business entities, rather than thousands of operators whose intense competition with each other means many of them have to cut corners just to survive, putting everyone’s safety at risk.
Indeed, these are familiar suggestions, but no Administration so far has had the political will to follow through with any of them, for a variety of reasons. Setting up a sensible public transportation system would, for one thing, put thousands of small-time operators out of work, which is obviously politically unpalatable.
Putting thousands of small-time transport operators out of work would also eliminate a huge source of easy money for government agencies and local government units, which is also politically unpalatable, since government administration is considered a for-profit business here.
The Philippine automotive sector is one bright spot in the economy that the government should continue to support; it is slowly increasing the country’s manufacturing base, something which the Philippines desperately needs, and it soaks up consumer consumption in a way that has a greater impact than retail or leisure spending.
More cars do contribute to more traffic, as Captain Obvious Almendras noted, but the reasons that traffic is unmanageable lie elsewhere; picking on the automotive sector will do far more harm than good in the long run.
Applying a little common sense to the public transport sector, however, will have some immediate effect, if only a government who was not afraid of what a population of sleazy operators who provide substandard services and borderline criminal employment conditions thinks of it would do so.