In astronomy, a “gravity well” is a concept that describes the attractive force of a body of mass; the larger the mass, the more gravity it has, and therefore, the “deeper” the well.
We have a gravity well right here in Metro Manila, one that is just about as deep as that of a black hole—the ultimate example, because no matter can escape from it—because the mass that lies at the bottom of it is made up of the pure stupidity of a vast swath of the country’s business and government sectors.
If you have had a reason to venture anywhere within about 20 kilometers or so of central Manila in the past couple of days, you will have undoubtedly noticed that the metropolis has virtually ground to a halt. Traffic has become gridlocked on many of the city’s major thoroughfares, and while Metro Manila has never been the easiest city to move around in, the conditions have become utterly ridiculous.
The immediate reason for this is the implementation yesterday (Monday) of the “last mile” truck routing scheme approved by the government at the end of last week in an attempt to clear a backlog of about 120,000 shipping containers, about a third of which are empty, clogging the Port of Manila’s two terminals. Under the new scheme trucks that are tagged with a special “last mile” permit issued by the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA)—or rather, a tag that says “LASMAYL,” as MMDA Chairman Francis “A Bus Can Carry About 150 People, Can’t It?” Tolentino displayed to the media last week, because nothing says “official” like the use of Pidgin English—will be allowed to travel certain routes through the city 24 hours a day for the next two weeks, by which time the number of stranded containers will hopefully be reduced to a manageable level.
This latest plan was made necessary because earlier modifications of the “truck ban” imposed by the cities of Manila, Navotas, and Caloocan failed to relieve the pressure at the port. Those modifications, in turn, were made necessary by the Philippine Ports Authority, the Bureau of Customs, and the two port operators completely failing to grasp that the restrictions on truck traffic would oblige them to adjust their operations until the problem became unmanageable. And of course, the original truck ban was made necessary by the appalling congestion constant port traffic created on the city’s surface streets, which ultimately was a consequence of the country’s failing to recognize that its major cargo port is located in an area where transportation access hasn’t been adequate since about the time Jose Rizal was murdered nearby.
So now the metropolis, and to some extent the entire country, is saddled with an enormous problem for which there is no solution: No matter what happens, everyone loses. The port cannot be allowed to be congested, because that delays the delivery of goods to businesses and consumers, slows or halts economic activity farther down the supply chain, and causes prices of things to increase. On the other hand, the port cannot be decongested, or even operated “normally” in the manner it was before the “truck ban” without creating nightmarish traffic . . . which in turn slows or halts economic activity in other areas.
For a political culture that is so fond of “task forces” and “cabinet clusters” and appointing “czars” to manage large-scale issues, institutions in this country seem to be completely incapable of working with each other. It would not have taken a genius to see that Manila’s original idea of a truck ban would eventually lead to what we have now—a situation wherein instead of a choice between intolerable traffic congestion or cargo not moving fast enough, we have both—if everyone involved did not coordinate their activities. Instead they have settled for trading blame, which does absolutely nothing to solve the problem.
The time which a working-class commuter spends trudging along a couple of kilometers of the shoulder of a gridlocked NLEX in order to make it to his or her job is not changed by a nanosecond depending on whose fault it is. Businesses that cannot operate normally because their employees are hours late for work due to apocalyptic traffic are not going to lose less revenue if this agency is to blame for it instead of that one.
All we can do at this point is hope the efforts being exerted now actually do bring some temporary relief, although that seems unlikely. Making full use of the ports in Subic and Batangas could relieve some strain as well, but only some of it; combined, the two have a yearly capacity that is only about one-fifth that of the Port of Manila. Even if all those measures are completely successful, eventually—probably sooner than anyone in a position to do anything about is even capable of anticipating—the situation will return to something like its present sorry state, with congestion at the port and the inadequate road network wreaking havoc on the economy and everyone’s peace of mind.
The only effective solution is a new port for Manila, whether that means an entirely new facility in a different location or radically altering the existing cityscape to accommodate a sensible transport infrastructure capable of handling not only the existing port’s traffic, but growth that could be expected in the next several decades. Unfortunately, either option will require sacrifice, something that modern society in general—not just this one—tries to avoid. That, however, is the price of progress; the sooner it’s paid, the less painful it will be.