Grinding to a halt: Unclogging Metro Manila

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Metro Manila comprises 17 cities and municipalities. According to official statistics, the city of Manila is the most densely populated urban area in the world, with twice the population density of Dhaka in Bangladesh.

And I do say that although official statistics record Manila as having a population of 1.65 million, it is, no doubt, a lot more than that if you take into account the inaccuracies involved in census-taking and the fact that the homeless are not counted in. Of the 39 most densely populated urban areas in the world, eight are parts of Metro Manila.

Unsurprisingly, the infrastructure is not up to first world standards, which makes it difficult to get around the metropolis. The place is fast coming to a total standstill. For my part, I just wouldn’t want to travel around; it’s such a frustrating waste of time (and money).

Trying to estimate journey times is an exercise in impossibility as the paper-thin fragility of the infrastructure makes for massive delays in Alabang, Bicutan, Sucat and surrounding areas if, for example, a jeepney breaks down on the South Luzon Expressway. It is no surprise that Manila has the worst traffic in the world.


As if the seething nature of the place and the sheer challenge of getting from one part of the conurbation to another isn’t enough to totally defeat any prospect of economic progress, there is the additional problem of the lack of a competent postal service (post deliverers are known to just throw mail away if they don’t feel like delivering it)—people hire messengers to deliver and collect mail, adding to the mayhem on the roads.

Above all of this is the endemic mistrust of fellow citizens and the hypocritical pretence of some form of direct democracy, which begets the nightmarish bureaucratic requirements.

An example: It is necessary to have a sales tariff, already agreed between the contracting parties following extensive negotiations, or even one of those wonderful competitive selection procedures so beloved of the Philippines, approved by a regulator. The regulator is a quasi-judicial body.

The application must be published in full in a national newspaper and an affidavit of publication made. Copies of the application must be served on the municipalities affected by the proposal, and affidavits of service obtained. Judicial affidavits regarding the progeny of the application must be made.

Board resolutions must be included in the application, sets of accounts, by-laws and articles of association, simulations of the effect of the contract on the status quo, calculations to show profitability to be fixed to give a rate of return of about 15 percent, maximum. In all, about 200 printed pages and 100 signatures. And the regulator still retains the ability to amend a tariff arrived at through a competitive bid.

The preparation, shuffling about and taking all these papers hither and thither has to be done in a metropolis which is jammed to a standstill with traffic, lacking a competent postal service and other wholly inadequate infrastructure. To prepare, compete and deliver such a document is an undertaking of elephantine proportions, and then when all is done, it is still possible for one of the bureaucrats to just refuse to accept it for filing—go back and start again!! Aarggh.

It is no surprise that the economic development of the Philippines is virtually at a standstill. And you can add to the above that the banks don’t lend money for new business, as well as the endemic corruption and the ruthless protectionism of the oligarchs and their political pals.

It’s actually a minor miracle that any new business at all gets established and manages to prosper. It’s not just the traffic but the whole system, which is fast coming to a standstill and still some people seem to thrive on coming up with reasons why things cannot be done because of some obscure regulation or other.

Just getting around this overcrowded seething metropolis is enough to weaken the strongest will, but add to that the other challenges to actually achieving and delivering something, and let’s face it, most ventures would require some form of approval or involve some activity in Metro Manila no matter where they are located in the Philippines, then only the most determined or desperate need apply!

It must be worth a thought to consider moving some central government functions and departments out of Metro Manila to somewhere else. The idea of shifting flights from NAIA to Clark, for example, is often floated. Why not just relocate, say, the DENR, or GSIS or DOLE or DILG to Cavite, or Batangas or even Clark? It happens in other countries; Malaysia putting government out of Kuala Lumpur at Putrajaya, Australia at Canberra, Brazil at Brasilia. Even in the UK, there has been movement of the BBC from London to Manchester. These types of relocation are frequently done in aid of efficiency, but nowhere is there such a need as in Metro Manila; the place needs unclogging and if government departments are relocated, then parts of the private sector will also relocate.

The idea in the province that the streets on Manila are “paved with gold” through the wealth of opportunity available may, indeed, have some vestige of reality to it, but that idea needs to change and one way of addressing it is to relocate the jobs rather than having the people relocate themselves. Or a residence permit system could be introduced . . . although that would not be well received!

Mike can be contacted at mawootton@gmail.com.

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