Fifty years ago, the ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote “The Tragedy of the Commons” to describe how individual self-interested actions lead to a community’s collective peril. Every day, rational individual choices undermine the common good. Overfishing of a bay. Deforestation. Waste disposal. Climate change. A similar tragedy is the worsening traffic, linked to ever-increasing numbers of private vehicles on limited road space.
The low quality and inadequacy of public transport have driven most Filipinos to list car ownership as an aspiration (check Ambisyon 2040). This signals that traffic today, already dire, can still get much, much worse. The economy grows at over 6 percent per year and incomes are rising. With less than 10 percent of families owning a motor vehicle, the pent-up demand for more private vehicles is huge.
Vehicle ownership per se is not the issue. Car or motorcycle ownership does not translate directly into more traffic. Many countries with much less congestion also have high levels of car ownership (vehicles per capita: Germany 0.57, United Kingdom 0.52, Japan 0.59). Their car owners use public transport, walking or cycling for daily journeys, saving car use for weekends, special trips and emergencies.
Some argue that Manilans will never prefer walking because of the heat and humidity. Yet cities that are popular for walking all year round — Tokyo, New York and Singapore — can get as hot and humid in the summer. As these cities have demonstrated, the key to addressing congestion is to make walking, bicycle use and public transport a superior alternative to using a private vehicle.
Filipinos value a car because they can use it whenever they need to travel. But if public transport, walking or biking were a better alternative—as they are in many cities abroad—Filipinos would leave their cars and motorcycles at home. The key to solving traffic is to improve the quality and reliability of travel options so that the rational choice of the individual is consistent with the common good.
Clarifying objectives is the first step: “Promote mobility of people, not cars.” This philosophy is already explicit in the Philippine National Transport Policy (NTP), approved by the NEDA Board on 27 June 2017, which directed that “public mass transportation in urban areas shall be given priority over private transport” and that attention should be given to “transit-oriented development, prioritization of pedestrians, provision of support facilities that mainstream gender considerations, and inclusion of greenways network, i.e., elevated walkways, covered walkways, sidewalks and bike lanes”.
To give full meaning to these statements, local and national government agencies need to ask themselves, “Do our projects and policies favor car use or do they make public transport, walking and cycling more attractive?”
Because of decades of car-oriented development by agencies at all levels, many existing plans, projects and performance indicators unconsciously prioritize private vehicle mobility, leading to more traffic congestion. Here are some specific questions to ask:
Do you measure the success of your project or program by how much faster vehicles can travel or by how many more people are served by public transport, walking or biking?
Are you restricting the availability or access of public transport vehicles so that private cars have more road space (e.g., prohibiting certain types of public transport on particular roads; preventing public transport vehicles from using certain lanes, underpasses or flyovers; subjecting public transport vehicles to number-coding; etc.)?
Are you reducing the width of the sidewalk so that additional lanes for vehicles can be introduced?
Are you building elevated crosswalks because pedestrians crossing the road at ground level interfere with the smooth flow of private motor vehicles?
When you plan how a road or bridge will be used, do you prioritize private motor vehicles rather than public transport, pedestrians and bicycles?
For each of these questions, there is an answer that helps to reduce traffic (by improving walking, cycling and public transport) and an answer that creates more traffic (by making car use more attractive).
Tragic endings, according to Hardin, can be avoided. Community assets require sound management, rules, cooperation and leadership to be sustainable—and this is the same prescription for urban roads, mobility and traffic. Successful examples give the Philippines cause for optimism.
Mexico City was once plagued with one of the world’s most polluted environments and a chaotic public transport system dominated by jeepney-like vehicles called peseros. Seoul, less than 20 years ago, had traffic congestion far worse than Metro Manila’s. These two cities, with extensive mass transit lines and dedicated infrastructure for pedestrians and bicycles, provide best-practice models of what can be achieved with political will and a vision of high quality mobility for all.
It is not yet too late for Filipinos, working together, to write a happy ending to the traffic story. But we need to act now.
Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner, and public transport advocate. Email email@example.com