THE current debate over whether or not President Rodrigo Duterte should be granted “emergency powers” to “do something” about the chronic traffic congestion in and around Metro Manila is not the first time the matter has landed on the public’s plate, and as long as there is heavy traffic in this cheery burg—which is likely to be forever, the nature of terrestrial cities being what it is—it is likely to be a subject that will be revisited from time to time.
“Emergency powers,” which are generally assumed to mean unilateral executive action, are, to put it politely, an abysmally stupid way to deal with a constant facet of urban life. One small, but very good example illustrating why that is the case occurred three years ago this month, which I discussed in my column at the time (August 1, 2013):
“This week has not been a shining example of smart management of basic infrastructure. Manila Mayor Joseph “Erap” Estrada’s ill-conceived Resolution Number 48 banning provincial buses from traversing the city has been modified every time either he or Vice Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso has issued a public comment about it, to the point that neither commuters nor the bus operators themselves are quite sure what the rules are.
“This does not bode well for the Administration initiative to develop transport terminals in Quezon City, Muntinlupa, and Parañaque, with the latter slated to open at the mostly-derelict Coastal Mall as early as August 6, because the transport terminal concept suffers from the same glaring lack of an overall plan as the City of Manila’s controversial decision. The result of that little oversight in Manila’s case has been chaos—sure, Taft Avenue has been surreally devoid of traffic, and it’s hard not to appreciate that—but it has put extra strain on the already overworked Light Rail Transit line, consigned commuters to the thoroughly unpleasant jeepney and tricycle fleet, and created traffic issues in new areas in Pasay and Quezon City.”
What happened at that time was that Estrada, acting more out of apparent frustration than anything else, issued an edict that buses traveling from areas outside Manila that did not have dedicated terminals within city limits would not be permitted to enter the city. While the order did have the effect of instantly reducing traffic in Manila, it did so by creating an instant logjam at various points on the city’s borders, most notably in Quezon City around the Welcome Rotonda, and in Pasay and Parañaque in an area stretching from the Taft Rotonda to the old Coastal Mall, where then-MMDA chairman, Francis Tolentino, was rushing to implement his awful “transport terminal” concept.
The earlier column went on to say, “Thinning the number of buses crossing Manila and forcing those that remain to adhere to rules regarding where they stop is basically a good idea, but not so good that it can stand alone, because the alternative—the inefficient and thoroughly offensive jeepney network—is a terrible idea.
“An actual plan would have worked from the inside out: Rationalize the coverage and routing of the local parts of the overall transport network first, meaning tricycles and jeepneys, then control the inward-bound buses feeding that network. But that’s not as dramatic or decisive-sounding as ‘Ban all the buses.’
“The same is true of the Aquino Administration’s much-publicized ‘transport terminal’ concept. On its own, it is a fairly good idea, but it will rely on jeepneys—the second-most significant cause of traffic-related woes in Metro Manila—to take up the slack. The most predictable result will be a gradual return to the status quo; it’s already started in Manila with the city government’s waffling over the bus ban.”
Estrada’s short-lived “bus ban” was only the first of a number of ill-conceived ideas to “do something” about traffic congestion. The ‘transport terminal’ was (and still is) another bad idea, as was Estrada’s 2014 brain fart, the infamous “truck ban,” and former president Aquino’s own dalliance with “emergency powers,” the deployment of the Highway Patrol Group to direct traffic on some major thoroughfares for a brief time last year. All of these moves, every one of which can be accurately defined as an exercise of “emergency powers,” led to unintended consequences and simply shifted the problem to a different area.
The fundamental problem that efforts to address traffic congestion should be trying to solve is the tremendous cost of congestion to the economy, which is P2 billion or more per day, according to reliable estimates. That being the case, ideas being floated to address the current “crisis”—which again, is less an emergency and more a fact of life that ought not come as a surprise to those who live, work, study, and entertain themselves in the sixth-largest metropolis on the planet—are completely wrong-headed, because they disregard the critical variable that determines the magnitude of the cost (or benefit) to the economy: People.
People purchase goods and services, provide services for others, or make goods for others to purchase. Vehicles do none of those things. Vehicles are dumb. Any plan that focuses on managing the flow of vehicles—which is to say, every plan that has been suggested in the past few weeks as either possible inclusions in or alternatives to “emergency powers”—are therefore dumb as well, certain to have unsatisfactory results as best, and at worst, are likely to exacerbate the situation as similar ideas have done in the recent past.
The only thing “emergency powers” are good for, as our own experience has already demonstrated numerous times, is creating different emergencies. Instead, what is needed is sustained, comprehensive policy management that prioritizes the efficient movement of people and goods, not the machines doing the moving.